Would you eat cheese made with bacteria from a belly button?
If so, you may be closer than ever to your dream dinner. Making news recently, biologist Christina Agapakis and scent expert Sissel Tolaas have extracted bacteria from the belly buttons, feet, mouths, and tears of artists, writers, and cheese makers to create 11 “human cheeses.”
The project, called Selfmade, was funded by Synthetic Aesthetics, which creates collaborations between biology, art, and design. After being displayed in October at the “Grow Your Own” exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, the initial reaction to the creation has been, unsurprisingly, utter repulsion.
But that’s the exact response the pair looks to question in order to begin a conversation about the environment in which we live.
“These cheeses are meant only as ‘food for thought,’ ” Agapakis said. “What we hope is that after the first visceral response of ‘ew,’ we can start to think more about the intersections of human and microbial cultures.”
“Culture” in two ways, that is.
“Cheese is a wonderful artifact with which to demonstrate how ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are not merely inseparable, but fully implicated in one another,” Heather Paxson, anthropologist and author of The Life of Cheese and toe bacteria donor, said.
While foodie thrill seekers won’t be able to get their taste buds on these particular human cheeses, unusual—and initially repulsive—ones exist for enjoyment in cultures around the world.
Breast Milk Cheese
Vegan cheese lovers, rejoice! Breast milk cheese is vegan-friendly, but it’s not for the squeamish.
New York chef and restaurant owner Daniel Angerer received criticism in 2010 after he served up the taboo—cheese crafted from his nursing wife’s breast milk. Critics attacked his “human cheese,” some even calling it cannibalistic.
After all, there is something inherently off-putting about using the word “human” as an adjective for food.
One adventurous reporter swallowed her initial repulsion along with a bite-sized portion of the cheese and found it to be “strangely soft, bouncy, like panna cotta.”
The New York Health Department has since forbidden the chef from dishing his wife’s dairy, but others still produce the “human cheese.”
Casu Marzu, “Maggot Cheese”
Popular on the Italian island of Sardinia, casu marzu is a sheep’s milk cheese. The process of making the cheese is innocent enough, until the cheese makers add larvae of the cheese fly.
Casu marzu, literally “rotten cheese,” uses the acid from the larval digestive systems to break down the fat in the sheep’s milk, resulting in a soft and liquid product. By consumption time, casu marzu contains thousands of larvae.
The milk used in cheese making requires a combination of lactic acid, bacteria, and enzymes in order to coagulate and create curds. It is believed that cheese originated from nomadic herdsmen who stored milk in vessels made from goats’ and sheeps’ stomachs. Because of the natural digestive bacteria, lactic acid, and enzymes in the stomachs, the milk would coagulate. Another cheese from Sardinia, callu de cabreddu is created in the stomach of a freshly slaughtered goat!
Some choose to remove the maggots before eating the cheese, while others do not. It’s purely a matter of taste. Diners who choose to consume the larvae must cover the cheese with a hand; if disturbed, the larvae can jump as high as six inches.
Once the larvae die, locals consider the cheese unsafe to eat.
Pule, The World’s Most Expensive Cheese
Think Camembert is pricy? You really have to fork out the cash to stick a fork in pule, a Serbian cheese made from donkey milk. At $576 a pound, it’s easily the world’s most expensive cheese.
It takes 25 liters of donkey milk to make one kilogram of pule because donkey milk has a low fat content. Since each female donkey can produce only 20 liters of milk a year, each liter costs more than $50. A Serbian donkey can make more money than a young Serbian doctor!
It’s not enough that donkey milk is costly; only one farm in the world milks donkeys for cheese. But Zasavica produces the cheese only for advance orders.
As a result, only a lucky few have had donkey cheese grace their palates.
Vieux Boulogne, The World’s Smelliest Cheese
Vieux Boulogne was named the world’s smelliest cheese in 2004 at Cranfield University in England. An “electronic nose” and a panel of 19 human noses deemed it the stinkiest, even beating out Époisses de Bourgogne, another French cheese so pungent it’s been banned from French public transportation.
The “electronic nose” was equipped with sensors to detect a variety of chemical aromas. The particularly strong smell of the Vieux Boulogne was created by a unique ingredient. During production, the rind is washed with beer, and its interaction with enzymes in the cheese activates the powerful smell.
The Agapakis-Tolaas team is also interested in the context of smell with their “human cheeses,” exploring the idea of double standards in scent.
“We were surprised to find a lot of information about how many microbial species that make sweat or feet smell the way they do are closely related to species that make cheeses smell the way they do,” Agapakis said. “These connections were surprising and really interesting from the point of view of what is culturally ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ ”