Cheese made from human bacteria at London food exhibition

Posted by Gabrielle Jacobs on 3 June 2019

A new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a bit cheesy, and what’s more, it’s completely manmade – in more than one sense.

Food: Bigger than the Plate is a lifestyle and cultural exhibition celebrating innovation and sustainability in the world of food. One particular project, Selfmade, took the concept of ‘homemade’ goods to another level, however. The installation produces cheese from the bacteria found in and on human body parts, and is meant to challenge our conceptions of food, and possibly change the squeamishness with which we view bacteria and our own bodies.

Selfmade is the brainchild of biologist and smell researcher Sissel Tolaas and artist Christina Agapakis. The project was first conceived in 2013, but was recreated by biotechnologists for the Food exhibition this year.

Five celebrities and the five cheeses they ‘produced’. Image supplied/V&A.

Selfmade draws on recent scientific studies of the microbiome and its importance in how the human body functions,’ the Victoria and Albert Museum announced in a press release. ‘Contemporary society focuses on cleanliness and hyper-sanitation, however our gut health and experience of the world around us – taste, smell – are dependent on the microbial world.’

To do this, the project involved a varied handful of British celebrities, including celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, a cook given to radical ideas and scientific methods for producing good food.

Biodesigner Helene Steiner along with her team of one chef and a scientist produced five different cheeses with bacteria samples from five celebrity donors. The samples ranged from bacteria on the surface of the donors’ skin, from armpits and belly buttons to their noses.

Using microbiology, the cheesemaking process involved using the donors’ bacteria to grow starter cultures, which were then combined with fresh, pasteurised milk.

Here’s what they got up to with the five Brits’ bacteria:

– Cheshire cheese, from Alex James (musician, cheesemaker)

– Comté cheese, from Heston Blumenthal (chef)

– Mozzarella, from Professor Green (rapper)

– Stilton, from Ruby Tandoh (baker, writer)

– Cheddar, from Suggs (singer).

The process was handled by Steiner’s team and a specialist cheesemaker at Open Cell, a biotechnology company in London that offers low-cost workspaces for startups and newcomers to the industry.

The exhibition, Food: Bigger than the Plate, is currently running from 18 May to 20 October 2019. If you’re in town, tickets are from £17 (R315).

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