Curdle bug: Will a missing mould kill the Camembert? - Hindustan Times
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Curdle bug: Will a missing mould kill the Camembert?

ByAnesha George
May 25, 2024 01:48 PM IST

A race for the whitest wheel caused makers to lean on a single strain – a mutant, albino spore that is now dying out. How will the cheese survive? What’s next?

When Spanish artist Salvador Dalí painted his famous surrealist work, The Persistence of Memory (1931; the one with the melting clocks), many thought they represented Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The creamy, complex cheese is known for its mushroomy notes, rich lactic flavours, and slight whiff of a flavour like sweet roasted cauliflower. (Adobe Stock) PREMIUM
The creamy, complex cheese is known for its mushroomy notes, rich lactic flavours, and slight whiff of a flavour like sweet roasted cauliflower. (Adobe Stock)

The inspiration for the limp watches came, in fact, from a wheel of melting overripe French cheese, “the extravagant and solitary Camembert of time and space”, Dali wrote, in a 1935 essay.

This creamy, complex cheese, which can sometimes smell like sweaty feet, is an icon of French culture, appearing in everyday meals in that country and on cheese boards around the world. But it faces a dire threat, warn experts from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Camembert (named after this region in Normandy, France) is “already on the verge of extinction”, according to a statement issued by the body in January.

Their statement was based on a study conducted by a team of evolutionary geneticists, who found that the specific fungal spores used to inoculate Camembert is essentially under grave threat.

The reason is interesting and dates to the 1950s, when makers of this cheese in France began a race to produce the whitest block. They excluded the natural moulds that usually help determine texture, aroma and flavour in a fine cheese, because most of these moulds also add a tinge to the wheel.

Instead, they settled on a white mutant strain called Penicillium camemberti. First used in this manner in 1902, it is not found in the wild. It is incapable of sexual reproduction, but does produce asexual spores. A century on, however, it is now losing its ability to produce asexual spores too.

Meanwhile, being artificially reproduced in a lab for so long has caused the strain to lose genetic diversity, making it harder to clone. And making it more susceptible to natural threats such as pathogens.

This, essentially, has put the silky white rind and buttery flavour of Camembert at risk.

Before this chase for perfection, cheeses were aged in cool, humid caves where naturally occurring microbes lent a grey, green or orange to their rinds. Then came the desire for uniformity, says Emily Monaco, a food writer based in Paris. “Consumer pressure led many cheesemakers to seek the same pristine, white rind, and thus to source their mould spores from the same industrial producers.”

There’s a reason Camembert is so loved, she adds. “It has a rare complexity of flavour. A true raw-milk Camembert is known by its mushroomy notes, rich lactic flavours, and slight whiff of a flavour like sweet roasted cauliflower. It is not a subtle cheese – if you’ve got one in your fridge, you’ll be reminded of it every time you open the door.”

The cheese is so integral to French culture that it was famously part of soldiers’ rations during World War 1.

The good news is that small-scale, artisanal fromagiers in Normandy who continue to make the real thing, slowly, using raw milk (not pasteurised), in small batches, will likely be less affected. They have not relied on lab-grown spores alone, so their rinds, often with a reddish hue, will find it easier to survive, Monaco says.

Can the disappearing spore be saved by genome editing in the lab? This would not solve the problem, geneticists say. “Genome editing is another form of selection. What we need today is the diversity provided by sexual reproduction between individuals with different genomes,” geneticist Tatiana Giraud said, in a statement about the recent study.

Large-scale producers will find new ways too, and consumers will need to adjust to the cheese being more varied in flavour and colour. Monaco says she takes heart in the idea that this won’t be the end of Camembert, just the end of Camembert “as we know it”.

“I think we all need to get used to the fact that some products are going to become less available, more expensive, and less uniform than before,” she adds. “Climate change and the socio-economic issues plaguing France’s farmers are the real concerns.”

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