What are cheese mites? - Ann Mah | Ann Mah

« | Home | »

What are cheese mites?

By Ann | March 18, 2014

mimolette

I’ve been curious about cheese mites ever since I learned about them while visiting friends in St-Etienne. Before we dug into one of the many (many, many) local cheeses, my host tapped some powder off its surface into a small glass bowl, and handed me a magnifying glass. I saw a bunch of crumbs moving constantly, tiny specks that sometimes jumped. “Ce sont des cirons,” — cheese mites — he told me. “Small spiders that live in the cheese.” It was completely absorbing and also a little repulsive.

In the years since that trip, my fascination with cheese mites has only grown (especially after I discovered this 1903 British film of cheese mites tucking into Stilton, reportedly the first movie ever banned in the U.K., for fear it would hurt cheese sales). And so, on my last visit to Paris, I visited one of my favorite fromagers – Michel Fouchereau at La Fromagerie d’Auteuil — to find out more about these microscopic creatures — also called cirons, or artisons in French — what they do, and why they’re (sometimes) dangerous.

beurre aux truffes

Fouchereau is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best craftsman of France), and I met him a couple of years ago when I was working on this article. Even though my Paris home is nowhere near his fromagerie in the 16e, I make special trips there because everything he sells is exquisite, from the slabs of butter studded with black truffles to the cheeses that are sold at a precise moment of ripeness. “For a fromager, each cheese is like an animal,” he told me. “We raise it, age it, and sell it so it’s consumed at its peak.”

cheese mites dust

Cheese mites, Fouchereau explained, are microorganisms that exist everywhere — “even in a draft of air” — but they especially love the damp, cool atmosphere found in the cave d’affinage, or cheese-aging chamber. They flock to cooked, pressed cheeses like Comté, or Cantal, boring into the crust, moving steadily towards the softer center, leaving behind a floral, sweet flavor. If left to their own devices, the artisons will take over a cheese until it becomes inedible. Many hard cheeses are, in fact, treated to deter cirons – the rind of Parmesan, for example, is oiled; cheddar is traditionally wrapped in cloth.

old and new mimolette

There is one French cheese, however, that welcomes these microscopic creatures – uses them, even — as part of its aging process: Mimolette. Produced in Lille, near the Dutch Belgian border, it’s a hard, orange cheese (similar to Edam) with a thick crust riddled with holes. Mimolette starts out like any old pressed cheese, but at one or two months old, it’s taken to a special chamber and inoculated with artisons. They nibble relentlessly, burrowing into the crust, aerating the cheese, and dramatically reducing the mimolette’s bulk. The result is a dense, salty cheese, with earthy, sweet, almost caramel, undertones. Alas, for American cheese lovers, aged mimolette was recently banned by the FDA, who declared the excess of mites an allergen and health hazard.

cheese mites

One of the creepiest things about cirons is that they’re “like chameleons,” Foucheareau told me. “They take the color of whatever they’re eating.”  Mimolette cheese mites have an orange hue, for example, while those on Comté are dark brown.

cantal

Because fromagers keep a large assortment of cheeses in their cave – soft cheeses (like Roquefort, Camembert, or goat), as well as hard cheeses (Comté, Cantal, Beaufort) — they never allow the mites to linger and proliferate. In fact, they wage a constant battle against the artisons, cleaning the floors and shelves of the cave of their dust-like presence, continuously wiping, turning, and brushing the cheeses. “They never stop nibbling,” Fouchereau said. “We tolerate them, allow them to gather and do their work. And then, we eliminate them.”

*

Michel Fouchereau / La Fromagerie d’Auteuil
58 rue d’Auteuil
75016 Paris
tel: 01 45 25 07 10

Topics: Cheese, Paris, Uncategorized | 19 Comments »

19 Responses to “What are cheese mites?”

  1. Xandra Logtenberg Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Very interesting, however, Lille is not close to the dutch border as Belgium is in between France and the Netherlands

  2. Gillian Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    This is fascinating. I am not a fan of Mimolette as it was often masquerading as cheddar when I lived in Niger, but your article makes me want to give it another try. Bugs and all.

  3. Devra Long Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Most interesting; have never heard of cheese mites and I love cheese; all types of cheese. Have not had Mimolette but will look for it next time in France!

  4. Roger Stowell Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    so good to read something new and informative about food. I’ve recently become very fond of an old Gouda which, like Mimolette,is a hard orange cheese. The Gouda clearly has a barrier against the artisons in its wax crust but still has that caramelly flavour. VEry good post.I shall make a note of La Fromagerie d’Auteuil

  5. Katia Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    My father-in-law is going to be THRILLED to hear that you’ve written about his little “artisans”!!!!!! Love this in-depth investigation, Ann!

  6. Ann Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Xandra, I’ve made the change!

    Gillian — Mimolette is delicious when you’re expecting mimolette. It is not, however, a good substitute for cheddar!

    Devra — Cheese mites are EVERYWHERE! :)

    Roger — Thanks for stopping by! I’m a big fan of gouda, too. Fromagerie d’Auteuil is a wonderful spot.

    Katia — Your father-in-law is an inspiring man! :)

  7. Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.) Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Fascinating! And mimolette? YUM!

  8. Jeanne Says:
    March 19th, 2014 at 2:19 am

    Ann, This is a wonderful post. I loved reading all fascinating information on mites and the video was amazing. We love mimolette. Only in Paris have we found one as beautifully aged as your photo. It was delicious. Sad to read mimolette is being banned in the US.

  9. connie Says:
    March 19th, 2014 at 3:58 am

    thanks for enlightening us about these creatures!

  10. Anne Woodyard (@MusicandMarkets) Says:
    March 19th, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Hmmm – I think I’ll take a magnifying glass next time I go to our Artisan Fromagerie in Aix!

  11. Hannah Says:
    March 19th, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    This was so interesting, Ann. I fell in love with Mimolette during our 4th grade French class’ “wine” (sparkling cider) and cheese tasting but rarely have I found it since…excited to try it again with this new-found knowledge next time I’m in Paris :)

  12. Cheryl in STL Says:
    March 19th, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Mu mouth is watering right now….I so miss just being able to go to my favorite STL cheese shop and bring home some Mimolette!

  13. Lynde Says:
    March 20th, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Okay, I got the willies reading this post. I do not eat dairy and a part of me was relieved after reading about THE mites. But they are also little workers so I also appreciated the role they play in the cheese industry.

  14. Daisy de Plume Says:
    March 20th, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Great piece. I’ll have fun tapping these little mites into a glass jar and using a magnifying glass to watch them crawl!

    Did you see that hilarious (and heart-breaking) talk of the town about the Mimolettes the Frenchman in Brooklyn imported?

  15. katy Says:
    March 23rd, 2014 at 1:19 am

    This is so fascinating; when it comes to food (and, who am I kidding, everything really), I feel like there’s always something new to discover. I vow to one day try Mimolette–maybe even soon. Recently, I’ve been craving all things French; if this isn’t a good enough reason to travel, then I don’t know what is. :)

    …and leave it to the FDA to ban something that is good and natural. I also love that, in the article, the FDA claimed to find 7 and a 1/2 mites on some wheels. Do half-mites really even exist?

  16. Lynde Says:
    March 23rd, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    To Katy: Yes, they are called mini mites :).

  17. Ann Says:
    March 24th, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Mardi — Someone MIGHT have smuggled back some mimolette in their suitcase… I HEARD that happens sometimes ;)

    Jeanne — Aged mimolette is delicious. I hope the ban lifts soon. After all, cheese mites are everywhere!

    Connie — Thanks for stopping by! They are indeed fascinating.

    Anne — You should try the magnifying glass! You’ll never think of cheese in the same way. For better, or for worse… ;)

    Hannah — I love the sound of your early “wine” and cheese seminar!

    Cheryl — After writing this post and looking at these photos for too long, I went out and bought some aged Gouda. It’s not the same, but adequate in a pinch.

  18. Ann Says:
    March 24th, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Lynde — It’s like a microscopic little farmyard!

    Daisy — I hope you try it! It is utterly fascinating. A little off-putting, too. I must find this Talk of the Town!

    Katy — I think Mimolette is an EXCELLENT reason to visit France. And, it is confounding that the FDA would try to ban cheesemites — they are unbanishable!

  19. CK Says:
    March 31st, 2014 at 12:01 am

    Utterly fascinating. I wonder if cheese mites are somehow responsible for the invention of Nerf?

« | Home | »