Robots Take a Turn
Mighty mechanical helpers have become part of the artisn cheese movement.
Nothing seems more antithetical to the world of artisan cheese than robots. They might build cars and microchips, but cheese is the product of a bucolic natural world, all happy dairy herds and rugged farmers. There is something mystical about turning milk into cheese, harnessing bacteria, molds, and enzymes invisible to the naked eye. Indeed, in my imagination cheesemakers are the Jedis of the gastronomic world, communing with the Force to intuit their interventions. Of course, in reality, control of the process relies on sophisticated technical skill, and increasingly, many of the world’s very finest hard cheeses come to us by way of the hard work of those aforementioned robots. After all, even Luke Skywalker needed R2D2.
Robots in the dairy world are an Alpine innovation. In France and Switzerland the huge wheels of Comté and Gruyère must be regularly turned and washed with brine. It is backbreaking work in the dark, confined space of a humid cheese cave, an environment that reeks of ammonia. What is more, the immense cheeses (each wheel of Comté weighs in at 75 pounds) must be handled as delicately as possible; even one knock can cause a fissure through which unwanted mold can start to grow.
The Swiss firm of Sugnaux Electroméchanique in Romont, near Lausanne, is a leading player in the field of cheese-turning robots. Founded by Michel Sugnaux in 1962, the firm originally concentrated on relatively mundane applications of electrical engineering, manufacturing components for the motor industry. Although Michel was an inveterate inventor and tinkerer, it was only when a large curing cellar for Raclette cheese opened nearby in 1965 that he was asked to develop a machine to turn the cheese. His prototype was accepted, and over time the company found that more and more of its business was coming from the cheese industry; by 1984 this was the company’s exclusive focus.
When Alain Sugnaux, Michel’s son, joined the company in 1990, he arrived in an industry already transformed: “[Between] 1982 and 1990 all of the big affineurs of Gruyère cheese [in Switzerland] and Comté in France acquired at least one robot; the first cheese dairies were equipped in 1993.” With Swiss-style cheeses the robots have spread. Roth Käse of Monroe, Wisconsin, imported the first cheese-turning robot into the United States in 2005 to help age the company’s Gruyère. CEO Fermo Jaeckle explains, “Turning the cheeses is a tough job, and we would regularly burn out employees before we had the machines.” Jaeckle is reluctant to call them robots: “We prefer automatic smearing machines. Robotic artisan cheesemaking is an oxymoron!” The machines are further anthropomorphized with names. “We call them Sam and Heidi and hope that they procreate; those things are expensive.”
But the robots do not just do the jobs that humans refuse to do; they do them much better. This is the central attraction for English makers of clothbound Cheddar. Cheese mites are found on most aged cheese, sometimes to its advantage but more often to its detriment. Although only perceptible to the human eye as a vaguely mobile dust, mites can form colonies on the cheese, pitting and damaging the surface. European Union regulation has recently prohibited fumigating with methyl bromide to control mites, so Jamie Montgomery, together with the Calver family of Westcombe Dairy, has started working with Sugnaux to customize a machine for Cheddar care. In place of the equipment for washing the cheese, the Cheddar will instead be vigorously brushed and vacuumed free of mites as it is turned. For Montgomery this offers the opportunity to improve dramatically the degree of cheese care. “The robot can [turn and brush] 960 cheeses overnight on one press of the button; it will allow us to slow things down and do everything with greater delicacy.” The same adaptations have caught the interest of the Kehler brothers at the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont, to aid in the care of their Cabot Clothbound. Andy Kehler is explicit in his interest: “It is a lot of damn work to look after the cheese, and it is dangerous if you have people just doing the grunt work; the robot will let us become more engaged with the cheese itself.”
There’s no denying that using robots to turn wheels of cheese as they age improves the quality of the cheese. It is a smart use of technology and the opposite of the approach of Anglo-Saxon industrial dairies, who forced their cheeses into shapes that could fit more readily into an existing logistical system. Vacuum-packed blocks are easy to mature—they can be turned with a simple forklift truck—but already you have compromised the character of the cheese. In that case the machines dictate to the cheesemaker. In contrast, whenever he installs a new machine, Alain Sugnaux makes the same point to his customer: “The skill for the man is to control what the robot is doing.” A robot never rushes and never becomes distracted. It glides along the shelves of the cheese store with serene mechanical grace, exactly repeating the same gentle handling for each cheese. With cheese good robots enable good artisans.
Francis Percival is a London-based writer specializing in food and cookery.