Friday, June 16, 2006

Cheese and the politics of technology

I've always been dumbstruck by the fact that people ever saw fit to approach an animal like a yak or a buffalo and try to milk it, let alone figure out how to ruin and rot milk in order to create something fresh and beautiful. Cheese is amazing. (People are amazing.)

Cheese is also really political. For the MILK project, Esther Polak and colleagues started to get at that when they used GPS technology to trace certain mobilities in milk and cheese production across Europe.

Stilton Montgomery cheddar

I remember reading an article about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and how the rural artesans distinguish their cheese from more industrial varieties (like Grana Padano) by agreeing to particular manual production methods. Although these methods are more time-consuming and costly, they produce local culture as well as cheese, and consumers are willing to pay for this social artesanry and its environmental benefits.

Originally made by 13th century Benedictine monks, Parmigiano Reggiano became the first cheese in Italy to be economically and politically protected by a formal, but voluntary, organisation. In the 50s, they officially set out the Parmigiano Reggiano production area, comprising three provinces and parts of two more. This territory was extra-political in the sense that it ignored established political boundaries in favour of topographic and socio-cultural ones.


The supply chain is made up of local dairy farmers, cheese-makers and ripening firms. Thousands of farmers deliver milk twice a day to hundreds of cheese dairies, and the dairies then sell their cheese to a small number of ripeners or wholesalers. The intimate connections between dairy farmers and cheese-makers ensure that milk and cheese production are sustainable, holistic and communal processes. The production process also creates ample, stable employment opportunities, and many work not for profit but to keep the collective culture going. But calls for cost-reduction in a global market reach even the farmers, who are increasingly turning to feeding technologies that affect milk quality, which then affects cheese quality.

Raw Milk Camembert Stilton

According to the article, Parmigiano Reggiano production practices suggest that high levels of collective performance are most likely when people are focussed on a highly specific and local product. Collective performance also increases when each member of the co-ordinated supply chain benefits economically, and when collective agreements are continuously negotiated. These agreements are crucial in determining the roles new technologies will play in their production processes, and by extension, in their everyday lives. The greatest risk to the producers is that the cheese lose the distinctive qualities that create demand, and "productive" or "beneficial" technological interventions are currently the single greatest threat to this distinctiveness.

Cheddar Montgomery in Anschnitt Cheese!

So this is what I get from the cheese-makers: Not only do we need to focus on how new technologies are playing out in local contexts, but we also need to pay more attention to HOW WE WORK.

What are the research and design equivalents of Parmigiano Reggiano production? Who are the producers of our raw materials? Who turns those materials into something new? How do the technologies we use shape the products we create? How are the different makers connected to each other? What makes these relationships and their products distinctive and valuable? Is it a beneficial and satisfying relationship for all - or only some?

Cheese! Parmigiano

And if all that wasn't enough reason for you to pay attention to cheese (!) apparently sweet dreams are made of cheese and even cheese waste can be good.

Maybe after my PhD, I'll get into local cheese - do an internship at Monforte, or with the folks who make maple cheese, or maybe even at the fromagerie with the happy sheep. Until then, I guess I'll just keep reading Big Cheese Stories and learning from the cheese-makers.

(Photo credits, left to right: Row 1: maitre-philippe, aaroscape; Row 2: nothing, podchef; Row 3: damon allen davison, niznoz; Row 4: maitre-philippe, nothing; Row 5: nothing, maitre-philippe)


Blogger Chris said...

Truly, blessed are the cheesemakers. :)

The regional protection of products in Europe has been an interesting development, and it is gradually spreading to include more produce.

While on the one hand, I'm not keen on the bizarre alternative product names it produces (parmesan not made in the required region is called 'Grated Italian Hard Cheese', or "Gihc", as my wife and I call it), the protection of traditional skills and the prevention of corporate acquisition of "regional intellectual property" can only be positive.

Best wishes!

Blogger e-tat said...

Part of this post sounds like a desrciption of the Slow Food Movement, while another part sounds like a discussion about the rewards of collectivisation. Not the Communist collectivizations of the Soviet/Maoist era, but the collectivizations of (mostly food-based) businesses in the US during the 70s and 80s. I know mainly of cooperatives & collectives in the midwest (~Ohio--Dakotas), where the operating principles were about getting to know each other, and building an economy partly based on each person in the chain being able to say what other people did. As a baker, I knew who grew the wheats, who milled them, who distributed the flour, and quite often, who ate the bread. Similarly, I carried a map of the culture in my head, including knowing where the herbs came from, who ran the food coop in Appleton, and where other collectivised food producers existed in the region.

These were relationships built on something other than competitions on price, and were intended to be mutually supportive.

In retrospect that social model of business is something of a luxury, and I don't know that the cultural aspects of it have survived. Large whole foods markets with conventional business structures remove some of those connections. Conversely, things like micro-breweries based partly on localism produce new forms of connection.

So the choice of organisational methods can be very important to cultural sustainability. I am less sure about economic sustainability. I am fairly certain that models of mutually-informed collectivisation are a good way to develop and maintain cultural relationships, but wonder if there are instances that survive on something other than the luxury market. One difficulty in answering that question is the mass-marketing/consumption of goods. It seems, perhaps by definition, that the line between mass market and luxury market is the same as the line between people who don't know where their food comes from and people who do.

Blogger Phil said...

"productive" or "beneficial" technological interventions are currently the single greatest threat to this distinctiveness

Perhaps because "productive" technological interventions are ultimately predicated on smoothing out distinctiveness and creating a frictionless chain of predefined interactions (or: turning meaningful human activity into a thing).

This drive seems to be so ubiquitous that resistance to it will always seem localist or niche-based - but that doesn't mean resistance isn't valuable. Never mind slow food, here's to obdurate food!

Anonymous anne said...

chris, what interested me the most is the idea that parmigiano reggiano is not just a thing, it is ways of living and working and being in the world. so one can assign unique product codes to every block of cheese, but what's important is not the commodity - it's how it's made.

e-tat, i fully support the slow food movement although i find it difficult to really get at slow technology... after all, food has a far longer and richer tradition than mobile phone use. and yes, i'm also quite supportive of collectives and co-operatives. i really appreciate you bringing up the connection between, say, artesan cheeses and luxury markets. recently, ulla-maaria was toying with the idea of replacing "craft" with "limited editions" - which has amazing market implications in addition to the standard race, class, gender concerns.

phil, you remind me of weiser's call for seamful ubiquity, which never gets explained in terms of its capacity to create friction and resistance. hmm. i'll have to think on that more...


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