Let’s face it, cheese is no angel.
And by that, I mean it’s not a purified, pristine substance. Cheese is home to happy, thriving molds, yeasts, and bacteria.
I know a lot of people would rather not admit this is true, just as they would rather live in blissful ignorance that their ground beef came out of a cow.
Cheese mites are basically the same little guys who live in your eyelashes and your head hair, who hang out and eat your skin flakes and then poop on your pillow—and then you have an allergy to that poop, and the doc says you have an allergy to dust mites. (They also leave their molted skins on your pillow, too. Thanks, guys.)
Certainly, there are different kinds of mites; the ones that love cheese are called Tyrophagus casei and Acarus siro. But just like you can’t see the mites living on your body, you can’t see the mites eating your cheese.
Well, not every cheese—at least, you hope. For most cheeses, cheese mites are a nuisance. They make craters in the rind of a perfectly good, clothbound cheddar, and then leave mite poop and exoskeletons all over the outside of it.
If you’re not careful, they stampede off to the next cheese, eating their way through that rind, into the delicious paste. In the process, they ruin the fun for everyone else—kind of like King Midas, only everything they touch turns to (you guessed it) poop, not gold.
Cheese mites’ favorite foods are fungi, protein, and fat. That’s why they love cheese so much—because of the delicious protein and fat that helps make cheese, well, cheese.
On their quest for the freshest fats and proteins inside the paste of the cheese, mites allow air to get into an otherwise sealed wheel of cheese, and then they let mold follow them in like an unwanted house guest.
So then you’ve got mites AND mold, and unless you’re talking about a select few cheeses that are meant to have the mites, you’re pretty much screwed.
Now, as much fun as it can be to secretly uncover a wheel of cheese and wave at the cheese mite colony, saying “hey there, little guys!” to the mites you can’t even see, cheese mites are no joke. Since you can’t see them without a microscope, there’s an inherent danger of accidentally transferring them to a new cheese surface–which, under the right conditions, can lead to a takeover by the mite colony.
In order to stop them from creating an infestation, you have to isolate the mites and remove them from the area. The best way to do this is by vacuuming them away—just like you do with the dust mites frolicking in your carpet.
Other ways to get rid of cheese mites include blowing them away or tricking them into eating diatomaceous earth and then having their digestive tracts wrecked (thus killing them) as they digest the diatoms.
Cheesemongers use a cheese brine to clean everything that touches cheese. When mites or molds are concerned, a food-safe sanitizing solution is also employed to make sure surfaces that mites and other easily transferable organisms have touched are sparkling clean before the next thing comes in contact with them.
Certainly, a small number of cheese mites is a normal thing that cheesemakers and cheesemongers just have to deal with. Since they love cold, damp places, cheese mites are common in cave-aging situations, like those from where Comté and Gruyère come. In large numbers, cheese mites can be a really big problem and all of these methods can fall short of eradicating them and saving future generations of cheese.
Mimolette is probably the most famous. Essentially an orange ball of cheese that is hard as a rock, the French Edam-style cheese is traditionally aged with cheese mites. The mites eat craters into the rind, making it holey, uneven, and crusty.
The mites are thought to make the cheese have a particular flavor, as the pockets they create around the edges of the paste speed up ripening and change the cheese’s inherent aroma.
The same goes for the German cheese Milbenkäse (literally, “mite cheese”; thanks, German), which is made by aging quark flavored with caraway in a container full of mites—it almost makes the job too easy for them, like a self-congratulatory buffet.
Mites and cheesemaking go hand-in-hand, no matter how you might feel about the thought of living organisms hanging out on your cheese, eating it before you ever take a bite. Next time you taste some delicious Mimolette, don’t be grossed out. Instead, thank the mighty mite for his hard work and effort.
And if you ever see a mite colony leaving a clothbound cheddar in their dust, wave and say hi to the little guys. (Then get a vacuum and suck those suckers away. Bye, Felicia!)
If you want to gross yourself out, or if you’re just curious and open-minded, check out this video of cheese mites eating mold.