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Ruminations: Function Beyond Flavor

Herbal teas on the market are sold with functions in mind—“throat coat,” “tummy tamer,” and “breathe easy” are some of the names you’ll see associated with tea brands. A list of ingredients adorns the back of the box, but how do these herbs help treat particular ailments? This was a curiosity of mine that flourished in the midst of a time when all I wanted to do was heal myself and others—our physical and emotional bodies screaming for peace.

I rummaged through my tea drawer and began to research herbs one by one. Quickly, I learned that herbs have specific properties: terms like antiviral, antioxidant, antifungal, antimicrobial, and nervine (calming) came up frequently in my readings. These properties exist within the volatile essential oils present in certain herbs, flowers, seeds, barks, roots, and berries.

Capturing the volatile oils of aromatic plants in water as a tea became a mission for me as I created herbal blends that would soon fill my online shop, Kristini’s Teas. Through the development process, I began to notice the herbs I was working with being used in other foods—especially cheeses.

Cheese is often rubbed with herbs, flowers, and spices—that’s nothing new. Product descriptions usually say something like “rubbed with aromatic herbs.” The adjective “aromatic” refers to the noun “aroma,” and the aroma comes from the volatile oils that hold those special properties. Volatile oils are best captured in fats—“blooming” spices in oil is a prime example of this method.

I spoke with a few cheesemakers who use aromatic plants in innovative ways. Tricia Smith of Ruggles Hill Creamery includes herbs “discretely in the midline” of her Claire’s Mandell Hill cheese. “I want their flavors to hint, not dominate the cheese itself, and I don’t want the herbs intruding on the mouth feel of the rind,” Smith says. Other cheesemakers, such as Capriole Goat Cheeses, prefer to place herbs on the rind. For Juliana, “we use calendula and safflower for aesthetic pop, and the herbes de Provence pair nicely with the mushroom-y notes of the Penicillium candidum mold on the rind,” says manager Tim Johnstone. Peter Jenkelunas, associate director of caves at Murray’s Cheese, tests herbs and flowers for their staying power. “We have tried aging cheeses with different types of flowers over the years, but many will lose their color and turn brown over time,” he says.

Perhaps we can think of these aromatic plants serving other functions as well—keeping out pathogenic bacteria, preventing the cheese from oxidizing—which, along with salt, ultimately help prolong shelf life. A study published in the Journal of Food Quality in 2018 showed that summer savory’s “essential oil represent[s] a viable solution for increasing the functionality, increasing the shelf-life period, and preventing the development of Staphylococcus aureus in fresh cheese.” Research also exists on the effects of cheese rubbed with lavender, cinnamon, clove, dill, oregano, yarrow, pine, anise, sage, thyme, rosemary, hyssop, or chamomile. There’s a wealth of other antimicrobial, antifungal, and antioxidant herbs out there, too. What more can we research? And, more excitingly, what else can we rub cheese with?

The following cheeses are some of my favorites that incorporate aromatic plants:


Granges-Marnand, Switzerland

Aromatic plants rubbed onto the cheese:

►Oregano harbors antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties—a true “cure-all” kind of herb

►Thyme has potent antiseptic and antifungal properties, among many others


Ruggles Hill Creamery, Hardwick MA

Aromatic plants inside the cheese:

►Summer savory is antimicrobial


►Lavender has strong antimicrobial and nervine properties

►Fennel aids digestion

►Rosemary is another useful herb for digestion, and it helps calm headache


Capriole Goat Cheese, Greenville IN

Aromatic plants rubbed outside the cheese:

►Calendula is antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory—a truly powerful plant.

►Safflower is antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

►Herbes de Provence


Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. & Murray’s Cheese, New York NY

Aromatic plants rubbed outside the cheese:


►Lemon Thyme

►Chervil is closely related to anise, dill, and parsley—all of which have antimicrobial properties

►Hops flowers contain the resins lupulin and humulin, which help keep bacterial growth in check (in addition to imparting flavor, this is why the flower is such an important ingredient in beer!)


Murray’s Cheese, New York, NY

Aromatic plants rubbed outside the cheese:


►Elderflowers have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties

Kristina DeMichele

Kristina DeMichele is a digital content strategist for Harvard Magazine; her writing has appeared in Cook’s Illustrated, GRLSQUASH, and Of Juliet

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