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Culture’s Believe It or Not: Lichen Cheese

Cheese innovators since time immemorial have pushed the limits of the curd, and some of their innovations are as bizarre as they are delicious. In Culture’s Believe It or Not, sit back, forget everything you know about cheese, and take a bite out of the weirdest wheels the world has to offer. Missed last week’s post on Casu Marzu? Check it out!

Almost everything nature makes is great. We’re going to forget about spiders and nettles and those wicked little flies that lay eggs in people, but for the most part, naturally occurring phenomena are awesome. While we can’t quite credit Mother Nature with cheesemaking per se, she did make all the ingredients for the stuff. And every year that list of ingredients grows, as enterprising dairy wranglers experiment with components never before associated with cheese. Case in point: in 2012 a Quebecois boutique provider, Societe-Orignal, made cheese out of lichen.

No, you cannot milk lichen.

No, you cannot milk lichen.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Heisman

Lichen isn’t something you find in everyday food, mainly because our inferior stomachs have no idea what to do with it. For starters, there is more to lichen than meets the eye: it’s actually two organisms masquerading as a plant. All lichen consists of two distinct halves, fungi and either algae or cyanobacteria. Both algae and cyanobacteria use photosynthesis to grow, which allows lichen to grow anywhere the sun shines. They grow off the base of the lichen—the fungus—which protects them and helps to collect nurturing water. It’s a lot like the symbiosis that sharks and remora fish share, but less awesome because lichen doesn’t grow on sharks. While the two halves of this enigmatic flora may exist separately from one another, fungi are not considered lichen until they have paired with algae or cyanobacteria.

The relationship has proven a beneficial one through the eons, and lichen is thought to be the oldest living thing in existence; some scientists date certain strains of lichen to the end of last ice age, more than 25,000 years ago. Immortality is not even enough for these enterprising spreaders: they love to grow, and they can do it pretty much anywhere. Lichen can be found from the most verdant valleys to the least hospitable tundras, to the harshest deserts, and even in toxic waste dumps. It thrives on sunlit rocks, making tombstones prime growth real-estate.

How rude of you, lichen, how RUDE.

How rude of you, lichen, how rude.
Photo Credit: Graeme Dawes | Shutterstock

Unlike most fungi, whose main job is to decompose, lichen fungus already has a food source in the photosynthetic bacteria it harbors, making it the first thing to grow in a new environment, not the last. Free food and limitless potential to grow have given lichen a commanding presence in the natural world: Scientists estimate that the nearly 20,000 species of lichen take up six percent of the Earth’s land surface—to put it in perspective the world’s urban areas only take up three percent.

If there’s so much of it, it stands to reason, someone—sooner or later—would try to make cheese out of it. Lichen, however, is not so easily commandeered. Lichen is a complex carbohydrate, and unlike some other complicated carbs, we don’t have the stomach for it. Some lichens also contain deterrents like poison and an extremely bitter taste to convince you to find your dinner under a different rock. Luckily humans are a resourceful bunch, and at least some of us have figured out how to eat and digest it. How? We cheat.

In the northern provinces of Canada, Inuits have been eating lichen since time immemorial, but first they let the caribou eat it. As ungulates, caribou, elk, and reindeer all have specialized digestive systems that allow them to break down cellulose and other compounds found in some plants that humans can’t eat. So, as a hunter, just wait until your four-legged quarry has a stomach full of lichen before taking it down, and then salvage it once it’s been partially digested by the animal. Boom—two meals for the price of one!

This practice, while not everyone’s cup of tea, inspired Alex Cruz and his team of fancy gastronomers to make a cheese using the lichen. “They say it tastes like blue cheese so we started thinking: why not make our own fungus to make our own blue cheese? There is lichen everywhere and we make our products from what nature has to offer,” Cruz told Maclean’s in a 2012 article. Societe-Orignal (which roughly translates to Moose Company) sells a number of products all made with ingredients found in Quebec, so it makes sense they’d want to hop on the lichen train somehow or other.

Before you ask—no, the whole cheese isn’t made out of lichen, and we’re pretty sure that isn’t even possible. Instead, the Quebecois foodies took things a step further and created a new blue cheese mold with it. All blues are characterized by sharp flavor, as well as the signature Penicillium mold that produces the color and flavor. Why not, reasoned Cruz, just make a new mold with what we’ve already got in Canada?

“Every time we talk about cheese, it’s about the European traditions,” Cruz told MacLean’s. “I don’t like to be treated like a colony.” Societe-Orignal’s quest for a purely Canadian cheese echoes Quebec’s longstanding nationalist sentiments, which has lead to the recognition of Quebec as “a nation within a united Canada” by the Canadian government, as well as other social actions to promote Quebec French culture and language.

Societe-Orignal made its blue cheese mold out of lichen by “roasting and boiling lichen and then letting it rest to ferment,” hoping to produce a new breed of homegrown blue cheese. This would be the part where pictures of this new-fangeled curd would be, but unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any (the feature image up top is just a Photoshopped doodle). The trail goes cold after mid-2012, when the original MacLean’s article was published. At the time of the article’s publishing, Societe-Orignal was reportedly three batches into its experiment, but Google offers up little little else. The Societe-Orignal’s online shop and projects list both omit the blue, and when I reached out to Cruz he told me production of the lichen blue stopped almost two years ago, so we may never quite know how it tasted or looked. But, it seems like a good idea, and there’s certainly enough lichen to go around so here’s to the hope that one day we can all eat like the elk do. Fancy, fancy elk.

Brook O'Meara-Sayen

Brook O’Meara-Sayen is a journalism student at Emerson College forever on the hunt for that last ten minutes of sleep. In his spare time he enjoys reading, Merle Haggard, and spending Friday evenings trying to break his personal record for most cheddar eaten in one sitting.