Ode to mold
Greetings Culture blog readers! My name is Molly and I live in Virginia, where I am building a small dairy and creamery which will hopefully be open and selling cheese by spring 2013. My Culture blog will focus on making cheese, miscellaneous food-centric thoughts, and the adventures I have on my way to becoming a licensed dairy! So, without further ado, a few thoughts on mold:
Did you know that the same group of molds that brought us Penicillin is also responsible for the flavors that make Brie, Camembert, and Roquefort so delicious? Did you also know that some other members of the genus produce toxins?
Fungi collectively form a HUGE group of organisms- about 100,000 species strong (just for contrast, there are a little over 5,700 mammal species)- some delicious and some deadly. While most molds are too inconspicuous to even be on our radar, three species of the genus Penicillium have played important roles in human history.
Brie cheese has been documented all the way back to the days of Charlemagne, and people have been eating blue cheese since the first century. The mold growth that makes these cheeses so delicious, Penicillium candidum and Penicillium roqueforti respectively (P. glaucum is also used in some blue cheese), probably colonized the cheeses of early cheesemakers by accident. Like most molds, they grow in moist, cool environments like caves- which is also where people happen to store cheeses. Over the centuries the strains of mold that made the best cheeses were isolated, until today you can simply buy spores of the exact characteristic you want and add it to your cheese (for a trip through the making of blue cheese check out my latest post at www.herdsandcurds.com!). Nearly two millenia later, a scientist went on vacation and left his laboratory a mess. Some penicillium molds colonized his bacterial cultures and the bacteria began to die. Upon returning to his lab, Alexander Fleming noticed the effect, isolated the compound the mold was producing, called it Penicilin, and changed medicine forever.
Hard to believe that same family of molds that shaped modern medicine as we know it also helps produce stinky blue cheese and creamy, decadent Brie! Not only that, but some other Penicillium cousins can be toxic. In fact, the blue mold that grows on that bread you forgot to eat or that orange that got lost in the crisper drawer can make you sick- toss it in the compost!
If you are allergic to Penicillin you might be wondering if you can still eat blue and bloomy rind cheese right about now. Don't worry! P. roqueforti and P. candidum don't produce the same compound as their cousin, P. chrysogenum.