Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Animal of the Week September 11, 2006 -- Blessed are the cheese mites

"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"

Sorry, have been working like a llama on coca for the past three days and just not had... ach, you don't want my excuses, you just want Tyrophagus casei (cheese mites).

Well you may not actually want them, they can cause contact dermatitis (affectionately referred to grocer's itch) and ruin your double Gloucester. These tiny arachnids reach no more than 0.7 mm long, and can be found all over your groceries, in damp flour, and even in honeycomb, but they have a particular affection for cheese. Several grocery mites live in a variety of environments, flour mites can be found (quite literally) all over the shop, and prune mites (I kid you not) are also partial to life in other dried fruits and jam. I want to live in jam, I really do...

Although they can cause food spoilage and a mild allergic reaction, cheese mites do have their uses. In Saxony-Anhalt (central Germany) there is an ancient tradition of making Spinnenkäse, also known as spider cheese, or more correctly Milbenkäse, mite cheese. Raw curd is salted and flavoured with caraway seeds (mmmm minty), rolled into balls, and put in a box full of mites. The mites burrow into the cheese, and their various waste leads to fermentation which imparts a piquant, bitter flavour. The cheese is eaten either early when yellow, later when reddish brown, or by the brave when black (completely coated in a layer of dust, made up of mites, their skin, and their faeces). Altenburger is another cheese made with mites (or possibly the same cheese, my German is not so good).

Cheese mites featured in at least two poems by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, here is one, sadly not called The Adventure of The Dusty Cheese:
A Parable
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there, And warmly debated the matter;The Orthodox said that it came from the air, And the Heretics said from the platter.They argued it long and they argued it strong, And I hear they are arguing now;But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese, Not one of them thought of a cow.
I always feel guilty when I'm late with an animal, so next week's will also be late to give the cheese mites a fair shot. And next week's, animal will have an as yet undetermined tenure while I take a break to reorganise my life—more on that then. Must dash, the King and Queen of Hearts will be wondering where I've got to.


At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lo and Behold! - I opened a jar of marmalade made in January 2005 and kept in our cellar, just last week - and found - - - - MITES!!! They were mostly on the little paper disc covering the surface and eating clumps of marmalade on the sides of the jar, but some were wandering around on the underneath of the lid. Where had they come from? I ask myself - spontaneous generation in the orange peel???
I have not examined them undreneath (someone wlese's) microscope to see whether they have or have not the neat thoracic dividing line that distinguishes flour mites (have) from prune mites (have not). They are glossy pink little creatures, fat from I suppose nearly 2 years of gorging on my wife's lovely preserve. It was specially alarming as I was just going to give the pot to some new neighbours as a welcome-in present. They would have got more than they expected or deserved!


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