‘Terroir’ matters in cheese, researcher finds

Mateusz Perkowski/Capital Press Lisbeth Goddik, an Oregon State University food scientist, checks some of the products in the OSU creamery. She helps the dairy industry resolve problems in milk and cheese processing.

Similar to wine, the flavor of cheese is influenced by “terroir,” the unique attributes associated with location, according to a food scientist.

While some may consider “terroir” an ambiguous French concept, Lisbeth Goddik has scientifically confirmed that cows in different areas produce milk containing different lactic acid bacteria.

These bacteria, in turn, affect the taste of cheese, she said. “It appears the further the distance, the more different the flavor.”

Her findings have implications for small, artisan cheese producers as well as major manufacturers.

For small producers, the research validates the marketing claim that their cheese is unlike any other that consumers can eat.

Large manufacturers, on the other hand, can use the results to figure out how to “overcome the uniqueness” of producing cheese in different regions to achieve a uniform product, Goddik said.

“Consumers expect their cheese to taste the same” if it’s the same brand, she said.

Research into the impact of geography on cheese flavor is one of many studies Goddik conducts as a dairy processing extension specialist at Oregon State University.

The job provides her with a connection to agriculture — her family’s traditional vocation.

Thirty years ago, Goddik and her family moved from Denmark to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where her brother and sister now own farms.

Goddik said she decided to pursue dairy processing because she was always fascinated with the transformation of milk, which is relatively bland, into a variety of strongly flavored cheeses.

The volatility of farming also didn’t appeal to her.

“I’m the more cautious of my siblings, so I like the idea of a paycheck,” Goddik said.

As an extension professor, she spends her time helping dairies and processors solve problems.

“We respond to industry needs,” Goddik said.

For example, another current project involves analyzing the possible effects of long-distance hauling on milk quality.

Milk is increasingly trucked over greater distances, which led the dairy industry to wonder if that is negatively affecting it, Goddik said.

Data collected in winter indicated there is no problem during that season, but Goddik and a graduate student are still crunching the numbers from the summer.

There is the potential for “temperature abuse” in the summer, as bacteria thrive in higher temperatures, but hopefully there’s no impact, she said.

Not all of her studies involve milk and cheese production.

In one case, Goddik compared the perceptions of cheese made from raw milk and that made from pasteurized milk among “foodie” consumers.

When cheeses were labeled as raw or pasteurized, they preferred the raw cheese. Without the labels, though, the consumers had no taste preference.

“In their mind, people think if it’s raw, it’s better,” she said.

The implication is that artisan cheesemakers who are trying to sell high-priced products will probably be more successful with raw cheese, Goddik said.

Another option for small producers is to reduce the price of their cheeses, she said.

Outside wealthy metropolitan areas like San Francisco, the market for high-priced cheeses is limited, said Goddik.

Also, using cheesemaking facilities more intensely improves efficiency and lowers the per-unit cost of the final product, she said. “Economy of scale is a huge factor in cheesemaking.”

Artisan cheesemakers can also cut their costs by producing cheeses that don’t need to be aged for long and will yield more final product per pound of milk, like mozzarella, she said.

“We’re seeing more and more of that,” said Goddik.

OSU’s creamery won top honors for its mozzarella at a competition held by the American Cheese Society earlier this year.

The creamery was created two years ago, both to train future cheesemakers and to provide an incubator for artisan producers who have yet to build their own facilities.

It was built with funds donated by Oregon’s dairy industry and provides students with a better hands-on experience than they could get in a lab, Goddik said.

“It’s a partnership,” she said. “We’re training their future employees.”

Lisbeth Goddik

Hometown: Corvallis, Ore.

Age: 50

Family: Husband, Patrick, and three grown children

Education: Bachelor’s degree in food science from Oregon State University in 1988, master’s degree in food science from Cornell University in 1990 and a doctorate in food science from OSU in 1998

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