In little more than a century, industrial practices have altered every aspect of the cheesemaking process, from the bodies of the animals that provide the milk to the microbial strains that ferment it. Reinventing the Wheel explores what has been lost as raw-milk, single-farm cheeses have given way to the juggernaut of factory production. In the process, distinctiveness and healthy rural landscapes have been exchanged for higher yields and monoculture. However, Bronwen and Francis Percival find reason for optimism. Around the world—not just in France, but also in the United States, England, and Australia—enterprising cheesemakers are exploring the techniques of their great-grandparents. At the same time, using sophisticated molecular methods, scientists are upending conventional wisdom about the role of microbes in every part of the world. Their research reveals the resilience and complexity of the indigenous microbial communities that contribute to the flavor and safety of cheese. One experiment at a time, these dynamic scientists, cheesemakers, and dairy farmers are reinventing the wheel.
Bronwen Percival is the cheese buyer at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. She initiated the biennial Science of Artisan Cheese Conference and is cofounder of the website microbialfoods.org. In addition to serving on the editorial board of the Oxford Companion to Cheese, she recently edited an English translation of the leading French textbook on raw-milk microbiology for cheesemakers.
Francis Percival writes on food and wine for The World of Fine Wine and was named Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year in 2013 and Pio Cesare Wine and Food Writer of the Year 2015. His work has also appeared in Culture, Decanter, Saveur, and the Financial Times. Together with Bronwen, he cofounded the London Gastronomy Seminars.
“Reinventing the Wheel is a cheese love story that’s so well told you won’t be able to put it down. If you are even half as fascinated by cheese, culinary history, and good stories as I am, this will be the most compelling book you read this year.”—Ari Weinzweig, cofounder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses
“A heroic study of cheesemaking that is at once scholarly and sensory. Bronwen and Francis Percival dissect the relationships—micro and macro—that give shape to great flavor.”—Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and author of The Third Plate
“A rich and eye-opening insider’s account of the modern cheese world: the anonymous uniformity underlying the apparent bounty of the cheese counter, the near extinction of truly exceptional cheeses, and the new scientific appreciation of prescientific cheesemaking, with its canny reliance on biodiversity in pastures and cattle and the dairy, which may help bring more distinctive and flavorful cheeses to tomorrow’s table.”—Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
“The Percivals take a deep, serious dive into the culinary history, sociology, politics, terroir, microbiology, and how-to of the making and eating of cheeses, raw and pasteurized. Both kinds, when done right, can be delicious and safe. This book should convince anyone that the making of wondrous cheeses is a science as well as an art. ”—Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
“Reinventing the Wheel is a gift, a careful exploration of our shared history and the tension between progress, modernity, and tradition. The plumbing of emerging science and the articulation of the polemic of artisan food in an age of industrial agriculture is masterfully unpacked in this beautifully written book. Fundamentally, it is a book full of hope and the most exciting food writing I have experienced in years.”—Mateo Kehler, cofounder of Jasper Hill Farm and the Cellars at Jasper Hill
“We need to reclaim cheese in all its natural diversity and strengthen the artisanal producers in their battle against the big players and their lobby. Real cheese—and real life, for that matter —is all about microbial diversity, not sterility. Bronwen and Francis Percival state this in all its urgency. They offer a wealth of information in a very accessible and convincing way, without any academic jargon. A much-needed book which should be required reading for everybody, way beyond the experts—we all start with milk.”—Ursula Heinzelmann, author of Beyond Bratwurst, Co-curator of Cheese Berlin, and Director of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery
“Like almost everyone I know, I consider myself a lover of cheese, but this book sparked a deeper passion for raw-milk cheese. Stunningly rich and detailed, funny, fascinating, political, but not for a moment dull or overwhelming. Essential reading for anyone who enjoys cheese but has perhaps never considered its value, its meaning, or its potential.”—James Hoffmann, author of The World Atlas of Coffee
“This beautifully written and inspiring book is calling for nothing short of a revolution of cheesemaking and cheese culture. Bronwen and Francis Percival movingly remind us that real cheese is a living embodiment of the landscapes, soils, bacteria, grasses, native-breed cows, and cultural traditions that form its backstory. We should read this book mindful of the real risk that unless we rage against the headlong rush into industrialization, commodification, and sterilization that characterizes most modern cheesemaking, a priceless part of our cultural heritage will be lost forever.”—Patrick Holden, Chief Executive, Sustainable Food Trust
“Though the cheese producers profiled by the Percivals are geographically distant from the regions where coffee grows, many of the challenges these producers face are remarkably similar to those of tropical smallholder farmers. These shared global struggles—to prioritize unique flavor attributes over low prices, for example, and to communicate the merits of sustainable agricultural and husbandry practices—are a reminder of the fragility of the foods we treasure and the choices we face daily about what we value.”—Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability Officer, Specialty Coffee Association
“All the reasons why cheese is more important than you thought it was.”—Andrew Jefford, author of The New France and Peat Smoke and Spirit
“The Percivals pull back the curtain on the fascinating world of artisanal cheese production, exploring and explaining the microbiology involved in clear and accessible language. While this book should be read immediately by anyone who professes to take cheese seriously, it’s also an instant classic for readers interested in history, science, cuisine, and combinations of all of the above. This is exactly the kind of book that needed to be written on cheese, striking a balance between connoisseurship, critical analysis, technical knowledge, and true love of cheese and cheese culture. I hope scholars of other areas of food take notice and follow suit.”—Arielle Johnson, MIT Media Lab
“This is a book about cheese ecology that delves deep into the importance of context and explores each of the myriad factors that determine different outcomes in cheese. Be ready for a broad education in the history and science of breeding, feeding, and handling milking herds, along with the evolution of cheesemaking processes, approaches to microbe management, and much more. Milk and cheese are demystified and explained, with far-ranging discussions of great interest to anyone with an insatiable curiosity about cheese, or food production more broadly.”—Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation
“This is a cheese book like no other. Blending science and storytelling, the Percivals build a compelling and passionate case for why, in the face of overwhelming industrialization, traditional practices result in not only higher quality and more authentic character but also increased safety and sustainability. Above all, they demonstrate why we should be talking about cheese farming, not cheese making, illustrating how great cheese, like great wine, is an expression of its raw materials. It’s an engaging and eye-opening read, and it explores the cheese industry in unprecedented detail and complexity, inspiring me to entirely reevaluate what I had previously thought was a familiar food.”—Peter Liem, author of Champagne and ChampagneGuide.net
“Reinventing the Wheel is a masterful cheese treatise—timely and prescient, poignant yet hopeful, and impassioned throughout.”—Max McCalman, author of Mastering Cheese
“This book hits the sweet spot for culinary lovers like me who find something universal in the story of cheese. The authors’ lively account of art and science working in tandem will appeal to aficionados of all things fermented. It was such a good read, I could not bear to finish it.”—Odessa Piper, founder of L’Etoile Restaurant, Madison, Wisconsin, and author of The Market Kitchen
“Reinventing the Wheel takes a tough, smart look at the global cheesemaking industry and offers up sage and sane ideas to take farmhouse cheese back to the future. The Percivals manage to dissect nearly every aspect of cheesemaking—from microbes to grass to animal breeds to the cheese house to the market forces that shape the cheesemaking industry—with a wit and intelligence that will tickle the intellectual appetite of cheese professionals the world over. Josiah Twamley would be proud.”—Anne Saxelby, founder of Saxelby Cheesemongers, New York
“Bronwen and Francis Percival’s fascinating book will help readers understand what makes great cheese special and provides cheesemakers with a road map for making cheese of distinction. We come away musing that like in wine, cheese is a craft that has its roots in nature, culture, and the vast world of microbes. This book celebrates the infinite details involved, encourages us to care about this dying art, and makes us hungry for a piece of delicious, authentic farmhouse cheese.”—Diana and Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac, Burgundy
“We now have validation of those tried and true cheesemaking skills that we have all so passionately defended. This is a must-have resource for cheesemakers—and cheese lovers!”—Peggy Smith, cofounder of Cowgirl Creamery, San Francisco
“Vigorous, precise writing and admirable clarity of thought allied to a vision seemingly as wide and deep as all of nature make this a must-read, and not only for cheeseheads!”—Terry Theise, author of Reading between the Wines
“I have admired Francis’s and Bronwen’s work since before meeting them. Reinventing the Wheel enhances my admiration. This much-needed addition to cheese literature explores the history, science, and current issues of cheesemaking with engaging portraits of the people, places, and processes behind a most-beloved staple. Part treatise, part primer, and wholly readable, this monumental work will enlighten the amateur and professional alike.”—James Tidwell, MS, cofounder of TEXSOM