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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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
tel: 01 45 25 07 10