While cultural anthropology is one of my favorite topics this blog is not about the impact of globalization on religions or the wealth of ecological knowledge stored in the oral traditions of Native Americans. Today I would like to share with you another of my great fascinations: the culture of bacteria and fungi in food! True to my French roots I am a great lover of cheese, the more stinky the better! In 2010 and 2011 I spent a total of 9 months working on a small organic goat cheese farm in rural Southern France where my parents live. While working there one of my favorite things to do was add the mysterious culture that would turn the milk we had just collected from our 30 goats into delicious cheeses in a matter of a day or two. Another favorite was setting aside a few cheeses in a screened box to age, which simply meant letting a nice crust of fungus to grow on the surface. Why do I love cheese so much? Around that same time I read a book that answered part of that question. The book is called “Proust was a Neuroscientist” by Jonah Lehrer (one of my favorite books). Lehrer describes a Japanese scientist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda trying to find out why he loved miso soup so much. After much research he discovers that the responsible chemical is L-Glutamate and the receptors on our tongues he calls our Umami receptors. Umami simply means yumminess! Furthermore Ikeda discovered that many of the top “yummy” foods were many of our favorite bacteria and fungus ridden foods: parmesan, blue cheese, soy sauce and fish sauce.
If you are really not into Roquefort blue cheese like I am fear not: I am sure I can find a food, or beverage, you love that has been made O so delicious by a culture of my tiny friends. Do you like bread? chocolate? Coffee? Yogurt? Beer and wine? Salami? Anything pickled? Sauerkraut or Kimchi? tempeh? These are all products that involve a fermentation of the original plant product to render it less bitter, more flavorful, longer lasting, fizzy or alcoholic.
Of course I am not saying that we should eat all moldy food. There can actually be dangerous repercussions to eating molds. Common Penicillium molds which can grow on breads, fruit and vegetables can produce a type of poison called mycotoxins. Other molds like Aspergillus varieties can cause kidney diseases or be carcinogenic. The tricky and fascinating thing is that the fungus responsible for yummy Roquefort cheese is none other than Penicillium roqueforti and soy sauce is made with Aspergillus orzae. So one can’t help but wonder how did the first chunk of blue cheese ever get discovered to be delicious and not deadly? And how did that lucky person then discover how to make sure that only Penicillium roqueforti grew on their fermenting milk and not any other strains of Penicillium? Or we could look at chocolate. A whole host of yeasts, fungi and bacteria are needed to turn the bitter seeds into a useable base for North America’s favorite flavor. According to “The Microbiology of Chocolate” by Christine L Case this amazing culture is generally infused into the pulp and seeds by contact with the machete, the workers’ hands, the carrying baskets and the fermentation boxes.
All in all, I think you would agree that this is quite a fascinating facet of the food we eat as well as the human cultures that have discovered, developed and passed on these delicious foods to our modern diets. The culture of cultures is a wonderful example of humans working together with other organisms in a mutually beneficial partnership. I hope that this blog will give you new perspective on your favorite foods and beverages. In the mean time I would strongly encourage you to sign up for this month’s nature workshop conveniently also titled The Culture of Cultures so that you can help your children discover the joy of fermented foods. We will also be going into a bit more detail and have time for Q&A in case I have left you with a healthy colony of questions brewing.
Blog Entry by:
Louise Leborgne, Nature Specialist, has been with Kidspace Children's Museum since 2012. She is in charge of caring for all of our live animals as well as managing the Nature Exchange, developing curriculum for daily educational programs, and large events like Bug Fair and the Grand Butterfly Release.