A consortium of French scientists recently published a practical guide to raw milk microbiology aimed at farmhouse cheesemakers interested in fostering the natural microbial diversity of their milk. They show that healthy and stable microbial communities contribute to cheese safety (as evidenced by some of the research into the microbial biofilms on wooden boards used for aging Reblochon), and are also crucial to cheese flavour.
This short post introduces a simple test discussed within the book’s pages. It is quick and inexpensive, and can give a sensitive general indication of changes in raw milk quality without the need for expensive tests with an external lab: the lactofermentation test.
Many of the best raw milk cheesemakers keep a water bath on their kitchen counter and incubate a bit of milk each day as a matter of habit. Milk with a healthy predominance of lactic acid bacteria will rapidly set to a smooth gel, often within 24-36 hours at 22C. Milk that suddenly refuses to acidify or gel, or produces curd with small gas bubbles or a scrambled appearance, is an early indication of a problem. The test often turns up issues long before they appear in the cheese (where the added starter cultures may obscure those same tiny changes in the milk’s microbial makeup).
The test is adaptable: it can also be used to monitor the hygiene of the milking machine and pipework (by pouring UHT milk through the clean system and then incubating it), to assess the microbial quality of the milk of individual animals, and to get a sense of a milk’s natural microbial flavor profile: does that naturally soured milk taste good? It’s a point that bears repeating: if you don’t want to taste the naturally soured raw milk that goes into a cheese, why would you want to serve the cheese made from it to your friends or customers?
The French textbook’s section on the lactofermentation test contains detailed instructions for carrying out the test and interpreting the results.
To pre-order a copy of the translated French handbook Raw Milk Microflora, or even just to support the project, please click here.