Mountain grass and the cows that eat it

A pastoral scene in the Dolomites

Photo by Earthwatcher (Stevie D) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a piece for NPR’s food blog, The Salt, Sarah Zielinski examines an old European practice of herding cows into the Alps for summer grazing. As she describes,

in Italy, at least, the practice may be dying out. “Young people don’t want to stay in the mountain because there are poor opportunities for work,” so they often move to the city, says food chemist Giovanna Contarini….

Contarini and her colleagues have been working to save these mountain dairy products. And fans of the cheeses say there’s more than just nostalgia involved. It’s not easy to define the flavor, Contarini says, but aficionados insist the cheeses do taste better.

There’s also evidence that mountain cheese might even be a little healthier, containing, for example, more omega-3 fatty acids than cheese made from the milk of cattle raised on the plains….

“In the mountain areas, the cows are free to pasture,” she says. They mostly eat a mix of fresh grasses and other vegetation. Cattle raised at lower elevations in Italy, in contrast, are kept in farms and eat a prepared feed that contains dried grasses and some fat and vitamins. “Consequently, the rumen digestion is different,” she says.

The rumen is the first chamber in a cow’s stomach, and it’s full of microbes. What a cow eats helps determine what microbes rumble in its rumen, and those differences play out in the chemical composition of its milk. “So some constituents of milk, particularly the fat and the lipid soluble compounds, are different,” Contarini says.

For the full piece, which includes a number of links, head here.

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