I like the idea of happy accidents in food. Take wine, for example. Some Greek peasant harvests some grapes, forgets it somewhere in a barrel for a couple of months and voila, it becomes this delicious beverage. Or what about the guy who cluelessly distilled it and went blind? Not so happy but definitely took one for the team.

I’m going to assume that cheese was also a product of serendipity. As a process that’s been around since 5000 B.C., it’s interesting that in the 21st century, we like to think of it as something precious and artisanal.

However, when Bettie, Mark, Joe and I went to a giant cheese factory in the Auvergne in January, it was quite the opposite: it was common and industrial. I’m not saying that condescendingly; people in France alone consume more cheese than an artisanal cheese maker could ever produce. Nevertheless, a tour following the amazing life of cheese was a treat. I love seeing how the things we eat are made and I’d never experienced it on such a massive scale. And now really, how often do you get to wear hairnets and plastic booties? We felt like mad scientists in a milk lab!

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France 178We saw it all: local milk from the region being delivered, the giant vats of milk being curdled, then drained through a giant pipe and put into molds to become brie.

A cheese factory is probably not the ideal place to work because it’s  ground zero for repetitive stress injury, loud and smells like sour yogurt, but something about the symmetry of movement from the machines and the conveyer belts moving the curds and cheese gently along is just so damn soothing.

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Working with cheese means working with a live product. After being brined and turned, they’re placed in rooms where the temperature is regulated so the cheese can reach its full potential. The aging room for the cheese demonstrated how quickly the product changes. There were thousands of pieces of brie being aged at different stages. It’s mold working in all it’s glory!

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We also went to the AOC Cantal aging room which was a little too intense for me. Cantal naturally emits ammonia which started irritating my eyes. The guy giving us the tour was complaining about how the British stole Cantal and claimed it for themselves as cheddar. The France/England rivalry continues but really, aren’t we all the better for it? More cheese, more flavor in our lives.

Finally, back in the offices, we got a chance to sample Cantals at different ages. I preferred the younger, fruitier Cantal to the aged, sharper pieces.

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A while back my roommate and I made mozzarella in my apartment in Los Angeles. All you need is unpasteurized milk, salt, rennet and a thermometer. We had to tweak it a couple of times by experimenting with different kinds of milk that was available to make a tasty mozzarella that melted just so. When I made a typical cow’s cheese in the Rhones-Alps while farming in the spring, we didn’t even bother with a thermometer.

Making a single barrel of Cantal in one’s kitchen is probably not happening anytime soon but it was striking to see over 300 employees and giant machines working in tandem, and so precisely, to make a relatively simple thing for consumption.

People may not be getting sick as often from ingesting strains of mold, but I just hope we’re not losing out on discovering more happy food accidents?

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