Thursday, April 06, 2006

Why Some People Can't Stand Cheese

The flavor of cheese can provoke ecstasy in some people and disgust in others. The 17th century saw the publication of at least two learned European treatises "de aversatione casei," or "on the aversion to cheese." And the author of "Fromage" in the 18th-century Encyclopedie noted that "cheese is one of those foods for which certain people have a natural repugnance, of which the cause is difficult to determine." Today the cause is clearer. The fermentation of milk, like that of grains or grapes, is essentially a process of limited, controlled spoilage. We allow certain microbes and their enzymes to decompose the original food, but not beyond the point of edibility. In cheese, animal fats and proteins are broken down into highly odorous molecules. Many of the same molecules are also produced during uncontrolled spoilage, as well as by microbial activity in the digestive tract and on moist, warm, sheltered areas of human skin.

An aversion to the odor of decay has the obvious biological value of steering us away from possible food poisoning, so it's not wonder that an animal food that gives off whiffs of shoes and soil and the stable takes some getting used to. Once acquired, however, the taste for partial spoilage can become a passion, an embrace of the earthy side of life that expresses itself best in paradoxes. The French call a particular plant fungus the pourriture noble, or "noble rot," for its influence on the character of certain wines, and the surrealist poet Leon-Paul Fargue is said to have honored Camembert cheese with the title pieds de Dieu — the feet of God.

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