LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
In England, where cheese and pickles are a lunchtime staple, cheese making is an ancient art. But recently, English cheese has been getting a lot of attention from scientists who want to study the microbes in the cheese. Reporter Keri Smith recently attended a conference where scientists and farmers chewed over the finer points of cheese making.
KERI SMITH, BYLINE: The county of Somerset in Southwest England is known for its rolling green fields, cider apples and cheese. Cheddar was invented here and for cheese-maker Dennis D'Amico, that makes Somerset a cheesy paradise.
DENNIS D'AMICO: Look where we are (laughter) it's hard to not be absolutely amazed by the beauty of this area so...
SMITH: Well, we're blessed with the weather, but, I mean, for listeners you won't be able to see where we are. We have a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys. No evidence of cows, peculiar.
D'AMICO: Oh, I think they're that way.
D'AMICO: We can find - they're not hard to find.
SMITH: D'Amico isn't just a cheese maker. He's also a scientist who studies cheese. He's recently moved to the University of Connecticut.
D'AMICO: One of the selling points was that they had a fully licensed creamery.
SMITH: D'Amico and other scientists have come to this farm because of the way they make cheese here. Jamie Montgomery owns the place.
JAMIE MONTGOMERY: We have been making cheddar here in Somerset for three generations. My grandfather bought the estate, including the house here, in 1911.
SMITH: Cheese is just milk that's been fermented by microbes. Most cheese you buy at the supermarket follows a careful formula. First, the milk is pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria and then a few microbes are added back in to ferment the cheese. But the way Montgomery makes cheese is different. The milk is never pasteurized - all those microbes usually killed off by the process are still in there. It's a microbial festival and that gives it variety and richness that pasteurized cheeses just can't fake.
MONTGOMERY: That's where the artisan cheese maker is always going to have an edge because they're already in our milk. It's so complex.
SMITH: Raw milk can contain up to 400 species of bacteria and fungi and it's that complex community that intrigues the scientists gathered at this country farm. Scientists here have studied everything from tangy stilton to creamy brie. Different types of cheeses have different microbial tenants- less to do with geography and more to do with cheese-making methods. Whatever type you favor, cheese could be affecting the microbes in your own body. Our guts are teeming with bacteria that help us digest food and the microbes found in cheese could be giving our resident bugs a helping hand. Cheese enthusiast, and microbiologist, Dennis D'Amico again.
D'AMICO: There's a very good chance, much like our other, you know, sort of pro-biotic foods or our microbe rich few foods, that consumption of them will influence the gut microbiome and could in turn have some positive benefits.
SMITH: Those gains could include boosting metabolism or stopping bad bugs from taking hold. But this is a cheese lover's speculation. The microbes in our guts and in our foods are so complex that it's hard to work out how they affect each other. Farm owner Jamie Montgomery is delighted to find that his cheese is so scientifically complex.
MONTGOMERY: The scientists appear to be in agreement. They're all saying that in cheese they're probably scratching the surface. And I love that.
SMITH: It looks like Montgomery's cheese will be safe from copycats for a while. For NPR News, I'm Keri Smith in Somerset.
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