Ask the Cheesemonger
Q: What are cheese mites? Can I eat them?
A: Mites are a common visitor to many a cool, damp cheese cave. Although the creatures themselves are barely visible to the naked eye, evidence of their presence is hard to miss, from the pitted and pock-marked surface of the cheese they inhabit to the thick tan dust and musky scent they leave behind on cellar surfaces. Mites are generally considered a nuisance for cheesemakers, because they will destroy natural-rind cheeses if left unchecked—especially drier and older cheeses, which seem to be their favorites. Although many cheesemakers daily brush and wash their wheels to prevent damage from mites, there are many affineurs who believe mites can improve a cheese. In France there’s even a tradition to celebrate the evidence of cheese mites in a new aging cave because it signals that the environment is right for maturing cheese. And there are a couple of cheeses, Mimolette being the most famous, in which the activities of these little buggers are actually encouraged for both aesthetics and flavor. Although I am no fan of eating cheese mites or the dust they leave behind, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in it. In fact, according to Wisconsin cheesemaker Mary Falk, there used to be a special spoon made many years ago that was specifically designed for scooping up a pile of mites and eating them “raw”!
Q: I’ve just been advised by my allergist to go gluten-free. Does that mean I have to give up cheese?
A: Unless your doctor has given you specific advice to the contrary, cheese is not only safe to eat in a gluten-free diet, it can be a great addition given its high nutritional value. There are, however, a couple of varieties of cheese—namely processed cheeses and blue cheese—that warrant special consideration. First, while many blue cheeses use molds that are lab grown, certain other varieties of blue-veined cheese use molds that have been harvested from bread, most notably French Roquefort. Such cheeses have been said to contain trace amounts of gluten. In an effort to evaluate this claim, the Canadian Celiac Association has conducted scientific tests on Roquefort cheese (and others) as well as directly on bread-harvested Penicillium roqueforti mold. They determined that the end products are, in fact, gluten-free. The Gluten Intolerance Group of America similarly lists blue cheese alongside other cheese as being safe in a gluten-free diet. So, my advice would be to go ahead and go for the blues. Processed cheese, on the other hand, may contain any number of flavor or texture additives that can be gluten-based. While some may be fine, I suggest checking the label closely for any additives, or avoiding processed cheese altogether.
Richard Sutton quit the world of banking in 2001 and, armed with a lifelong love of cheese, moved to London and managed Paxton & Whitfield, a 200-year-old cheese shop on Jermyn Street. In 2006 he and his wife, Danielle, returned to the U.S.. and opened the St. James Cheese Company, a grand retail shop in uptown New Orleans filled with Richard’s selection of artisanal cheeses from around the world.
Photo by Kristy May