As we continue our Eat Pray BUGS tour, we set our GPS for the tiny Austrian town of Thomatal, located in Austria’s Biosphere Reserve region called Lungau.
South of Salzburg, deep in the Austrian Alps, Lungau is one of the original sustainable living cultures and recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) “World Heritage Site.” This puts this remote region in the same company as the Everglades, parts of the Amazon, and other regions that practice forms of sustainable living and low impact farming. Since the Middle Ages, locals live off their raw cheeses, organic farming and livestock. Still so connected to nature and off the grid, many of the farming chores are still coordinated with the cycles of the moon. With only the name of a town to guide us, we set out to find local raw cheese maker, Erwin Bauer. To get to Thomatal, we drove a precarious five miles on an undersized one-lane road after a few hours driving on some extremely hairy undersized two-lane mountain passes—very remote indeed. Just before reaching Thomatal, we saw a very small sign for a kaserei, or cheese shop, in an even tinier town called Gruben, not Thomatal. Lost, we gingerly entered the long drive to the kaserei—which looked more like a family farm than a cheese shop—hoping it might be the Bauer farm. Indeed, out of a building walked a man that just happened to be Erwin—we felt like we found a needle in a haystack! He greeted our unannounced visit with a kindness and hospitality that will be hard to forget.
Learning to Taste the Seasons
After a tour of Erwin’s farm, we drink raw milk fresh after milking, and in broken English he delivers an amazing step-by-step tutorial of how he makes his raw mountain cheese. With each cheese named after one of his 12 cows (who need to be milked twice a day), Erwin waxes poetic about the grasses they eat.
He points out that the cheese he makes changes dramatically from season to season. In the spring, the cows’ milk is flavored by spring flowers and early spring greens that deliver a marked change in flavor from the aroma created by the explosion of flowers that litters the pastures all summer. During the cold winters, the cows are fed mostly hay, again changing the flavor. As I write this, I realize that it seems quite natural for milk and cheese to take on the flavor of the season—but have you ever been able to taste or smell the seasonal differences from your organic milk and cheese bought at Whole Foods? While his raw mountain cheese naturally takes on distinct seasonal flavors, Erwin takes some of the flavor profiles of his cheeses into his own hands by adding chopped flowers in the summer, peppers in the winter, and even pine needles to bring out the local and seasonal flavors.
Each variety of pasture grass, every flower and variety of ground cover will pull different minerals and nutrients out of the soil, behaving as nature’s multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplements. This process has its own rhythm, ebbing and flowing gracefully with each region, season, and the type of soil. Perhaps more importantly, each of these pasture plants attract distinct microbes that feed on these unique seasonal nutrients. As a result, the species of microbes that naturally occur on the plants varies dramatically from season to season as well. This same seasonal shift in microbes naturally takes place inside the gut and on the skin of all mammals if seasonal foods are eaten. (2) Erwin also talked about how the aromas of the cheese fluctuate with each season. Researchers have now discovered that the unique scents that distinguish a Swiss cheese from a Gouda, for example, are determined by the native microbes unique to that cheese.
Microbes found on cheese feed on the fats and proteins in the milk, and generate an acid waste product that gives off a certain scent—the production of body odor, for example, is a similar process. (1)
What is puzzling to scientists is that the unique scent of a certain microbe is not always predictable. While there is some predictability that matches certain microbes with certain scents, there are certain situations in which a fairly predictable microbe will smell different. (1) While scientists do not quite understand this yet, Ayurveda and Erwin Bauer might have the answer.
It’s All About The Love
When I tell Erwin about the abundant cutting-edge science on raw cheese, the global fascination with natural probiotic foods and that soon he will be flooded with more business than he can handle, he quickly and uncomfortably says that he would never go for that. He says, “It’s all about the love. If I got bigger, I could not put the same love into my cheese.” The way he loves his cows, the way he loves making cheese, the way he loves the land, his farm, and his very amazing but simple life, he believes all of these are very much a part of making cheese. We have good science that links stress to good microbes disappearing and bad microbes increasing. (4) We have good science that shows that when you express love to another by simply writing a love letter, cholesterol levels and blood pressure normalize. (3) We have good science suggesting we process stress and emotions through neurotransmitters in the gut made by the microbes that reside there. (5) In a previous blog, I wrote about Sister Noella, a microbiologist who wanted to test the immune properties of her cheese. She added E. coli to two batches of cheese – the first batch was her raw cheese made with love and prayer and stirred in a wooden barrel with a non-sterilized wooden spoon, and with the second batch followed the recommended sterile process. While the raw cheese neutralized the E. coli, the sterile process did not. (6) Was it the love, the raw milk, or both? While we do not have the science to prove the microbe-love connection yet, science is getting very close. To make an even a stronger case, new research has demonstrated that a whopping 60% of the bacteria in cheese actually come from the cheese makers’ hands, not the cheese. (1) So when Erwin is washing his cheese by hand—which he does every day for months—are his microbes of love transferred to the cheese? And then when you eat that cheese, are the microbes of love being ingested? While this is a new field in science, in Ayurveda, it is an accepted basic premise.
Choose Your Cheese with Care
Do the microbes on cheese made with raw milk, healthy microbes and love smell better, taste better and affect our digestion, mind, mood, and emotions more agreeably than the microbes on cheese made in an industrial cheese factory? While we wait for the science to confirm this theory, it is reasonable to assume this might be so. Ayurveda has been telling us so for thousands of years. I remember on many occasions that my Ayurvedic teachers in India would push food away and tell me that they felt that the cook was not happy, and how important it is for the food to be cooked with love—this quality is called sattva in Ayurveda. The emotions of the farmer who grew the crop, the person who harvested it, the one who carried it to the market and the one who cooked it, are all transferred into the food. According to Ayurveda, these emotions charge our digestive process and are carried into the cells of the body – they become you. These positive or negative molecules of emotion, or mental ama as it is called in Ayurveda, trigger good or bad microbes that then continue the cycle of charging the cells and psychology with these good or bad emotions. From this lens, quite literally, you are what you eat! While we have enough on our plates dealing with our own personal emotions, the last thing we need is to be ingesting microbes that carry a negative emotional charge from the cook, or the stress from someone that came before us on the proverbial food chain.
To empower yourself around the microbes and molecules of emotion you are ingesting, do your best to become more involved with the foods you eat. Whenever possible, buy from small farms, farmers’ markets and local food producers. Avoid big producers of foods the best you can, as their product is typically highly processed and often just too big to pass the love forward to us—the consumer.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Images: courtesy of the author