University of Vermont

College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

The Unexpected Art & Science of Cheese

Its 9,000-Year History, Molecular Structure and Art Revealed in Every Morsel

Cheese scientist Paul Kindstedt, from right, and his student Gil Tansman use geologist John Hughes's x-ray diffractometer to study cheese crystals. ~Cheryl Dorschner photo

Professor Paul Kindstedt just wanted to write a textbook for his nutrition and food science students at the University of Vermont. Who knew – it would completely transform his scientific research.

In 2003, when he was in the thick of writing American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses, he knew he needed a little historical context to help new farmstead cheesemakers understand the big picture. But Kindstedt easily realized that the 9,000-year history of cheese was an important story to connect today’s traditional cheesemakers with their ancient roots. What Paul Kindstedt didn’t realize is that writing that history would change the direction of his research 180 degrees.

Nine years and more than 250 pages later, in 2012, his Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization was published. This big cheese bible is a textbook, a rich backgrounder for cheese connoisseurs, a handbook for cheesemakers, a lens through which to understand history and "worth your time," high praise from "The Atlantic" magazine.

“It highlights the unique stories of traditional cheeses and thereby adds to their specialness, which is crucial for cheeses to command high prices in the marketplace,” Kindstedt says. “Several high profile cheesemongers have told me that Cheese and Culture helps them to sell artisan cheeses, and that's good for Vermont artisan cheesemakers.”

Great timing: in December, an interdisciplinary team of scholars published in the prestigious journal, “Nature,” a major discovery dating the earliest definitive evidence of cheesemaking at 5,500 B.C. in what is now Poland. As a result, Kindstedt receives requests from journalists worldwide for his comments and expertise. Kindstedt even became an animated cartoon at the hand of famed Fast Draw “investigative Cartoonist” Mitch Butler for CBS Sunday Morning on January 20.

Kindstedt built that expertise, over 26 years at UVM specializing in the chemistry, biochemistry, structure and function of cheese. Most notably, by figuring out the science behind eradicating naturally occurring calcium crystals that form on cheese, he helped major industrial cheese manufacturers produce smooth, uniform products for mass markets.

But by 2005, with the publication of American Farmstead Cheese and as co-director of UVM's Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, Kindstedt was at the forefront of a burgeoning movement.  In 2011 he earned a Hatch Research Incentive grant to shift his research goals toward cheesemakers specializing in small-batch, farmstead cheeses, while building on the considerable body of research he had already accomplished.

The ‘Snowflake Bentley of Cheese’

And now, radically, he’s looking at cheese crystals in quite the opposite way.

“My previous work was all about eradicating crystals – the new work is to take that base of knowledge and look at crystals as the signature of traditional cheesemaking practices and their nature,” Kindstedt says. “The hypothesis is that traditional cheeses are much more prone to forming various types crystals because of the way they’re made and aged. ”

“In European cheeses, crystals are seen as a characteristic of proper aging, a cheese without crystals will tell you the cheese wasn’t aged for as long as it should have – it’s too young a cheese for the price,” chimes in Gil Tansman, Kindstedt’s graduate student working alongside him.

That’s what these researchers will need to demonstrate scientifically and then convince artisan cheesemakers and their customers.

And they’ve found the resources for this scientific inquiry in what, at a glance, may seem two unlikely places: UVM’s geology lab and UVM College of Medicine.

It is Tansman, says Kindstedt, who on his own initiative came up with some completely unexpected tools for studying cheese crystals – tools he found in Professor John Hughes’ geology laboratory.

“The tools and techniques John Hughes uses to study moon rocks, are useful to the study of cheese,” says Tansman. The pride of the Hughes lab is an x-ray diffractometer, which irradiates crystals causing beams to diffract in specific ways. By measuring the angles of the beams, a researcher can determine the identity and atomic and molecular structure of a crystal. Combining that information with various forms of microscopy, he can create a picture of the crystal. More on that picture later.

“The amount of probing power Professor Hughes uses hasn’t been used for food science before,” says Tansman. “While he is examining an extremely well crystallized piece from a mountain, we study a less well crystallized organic substrate and a more transient matrix, still we find that there’s an overlap. We may have to try harder, to find the right samples, press them properly and deal with instrumentation, but at the end of the day, the information is there if we use the techniques developed by other disciplines.” Tansman’s x-ray crystallography patterns suggest that each kind of cheese displays unique crystals.

Meanwhile, Kindstedt has asked the staff in UVM Medical College’s Microscopy Imaging Center to train Tansman this semester to use its electron microscopy instruments. ‘Some of the same equipment used to study cancer cells, such as dissecting microscopy platforms, are fantastic for cheese,” says Kindstedt.

Kindstedt is excited to see “food science research drawing bits and pieces from both geology and medicine,” in the same way that his books draw from the fields of archaeology and anthropology to bring new understanding and information to the very core characteristics that define artisan cheese.

What’s more, those cheese crystal images from the geology lab turn out to be, well, art, not unlike the famous snowflake images first photographed by Vermonter Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley in the early 1900s.

"Gil Tansman is the Snowflake Bentley of Cheese," says Kindstedt. "Gil is making it possible to see those crystals at the microscopic level – they’re really a thing of beauty – that’s what Snowflake Bentley was doing. Crystals show off some of the attributes that make these cheeses so desirable – their hand-craftedness – it’s a signature to be celebrated. And if you look at that at the microscopic level we show people that these are works of art.”