Weird Cheeses: Would You Eat Fromage Made With Belly Button Bacteria, Or Rat Milk?

 @rpalmerscience
on November 21 2013 12:19 PM

A new art exhibit in Ireland enlists the help of 11 people -- including food writer Michael Pollan and artist Olafur Eliasson -- with cheesemaking. In this case, the volunteers contributed something very special and intimate -- their bacteria.

For their project, called “Selfmade,” Christina Agapakis, a scientist from the U.S., and Sissel Tolaas, a scent expert from Norway, cultured bacteria from a number of places that might make you think twice about eating the cheese they made. Eliasson’s bacteria came from his tears, while Pollan’s cheesemaking microbes were isolated from his belly button. Other contributors offered up bacteria swabbed from their mouths, armpits, between their toes or inside their noses.

“Selfmade” is just one installation in “Grow Your Own,” a show of artists taking inspiration from synthetic biology -- often to surreal ends, such as a mockup of a procedure that would allow humans to give birth to dolphins.  “Grow Your Own” runs until Jan. 19 at Trinity College Dublin.

“We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasizes total antisepsis,” Agapakis and Tolaas said in their artists’ statement. “The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a ‘model organism.’ Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet.”

The pair said they’re interested in raising questions about how synthetic biology might change with better understandings of how different kinds of bacteria interact in nature.

Gallery visitors won’t be able to try a mouthful of Pollan’s belly-button cheese, unfortunately. To get your human-cheese fix, you would probably have to turn to a (relatively) more-conventional method: breast-milk cheese. Just don’t go looking for it in restaurants. In 2010, Manhattan chef Daniel Angerer found a novel use for some of his nursing wife’s leftover product. He began offering some samples of his homemade breast-milk cheese -- delivered in a canapé with figs and Hungarian peppers, according to the New York Post -- to customers at Klee Brasserie.

“My cooking instincts are rather natural (e.g., sourcing ingredients from the local market, eating sustainable seafood, buying free-range-all-natural poultry, and I certainly love a steroid free steak) but THIS is a whole other level of ‘natural,’” Angerer wrote on his blog.

This raised the ire of the New York Health Department, which quickly banned the mother’s milk from his establishment.

Perhaps you don’t want to take a bite out of human cheese, but are still looking to venture to unusual sources of dairy? An old website describes the history and flavor of “rat cheese,” which according to the Federation of Rodent Cheesemakers, was first made by shipwrecked French sailors in the 1700s. But don’t be fooled; it’s clearly a humorous hoax (for instance, the site claims that former president George W. Bush is a fan of a variety of rat cheese called “Fromage des Merdes"). We don't have milking machines small enough to make rat dairies a viable option.

But what if you could milk rats? Well, your cheese operation would require a lot of rodents. Modern Farmer writer Sam Brasch crunched the numbers on Thursday, and calculated that you’d need 674 rats to equal the daily milk production of one dairy cow.

“If you did muster such an operation, rats might actually make for pretty good dairy animals,” Brasch wrote. “Rat’s milk is high in protein (8 percent) and contains almost four times the fat by volume when compared to raw cow’s milk, so it would make a great brie and stand as a rich addition to a cup of coffee in the morning.”

Share this article