Preserving the practices of traditional foods

  • 27.03.2024
  • article
  • Diet and Health
  • Local Food
  • Max Jones

Max Jones shares some of the fascinating insights from his visits to producers in the Piedmont region of Italy and other rural communities in Europe. Max considers how stifling hygiene regulations are propagating a sense of shame amongst some small-scale producers, promoting the misconception that traditionally produced foods are ‘unclean’, a narrative that risks further eroding local food cultures.

The best job I ever had was working for a cheesemonger in London, in the arches beneath the railway in Bermondsey. I was lucky enough to work with some of the finest farmhouse cheeses from France and Switzerland. Working so closely with cheeses similar to those I had grown up with in the mountains of Piedmont in Italy felt natural, yet I always remember finding them a little out of place amongst our clean whites and ‘cheese-contact’ knives and the tools that we washed down religiously with Topax-19, rough stuff that made your eyes water and your throat sore when you breathed it in as you scrubbed. I went along with it as part of the high standard of professionalism in the company towards hygiene. I became conditioned to it in the way that only a cheesemonger really knows, developing over the years an irrationally visceral aversion to anything – knife or cheese-wire – that may have come into contact with something that may have come into contact with the floor. If in doubt, grab the Topax-19, (cough).

On a personal level, I found there was something about this hyper-cleanliness that felt somehow at odds with the product itself. My increased visits to producers in remote places, made me feel most connected to cheeses made by real people who still used ancient recipes in tiny chalets next to alpine glaciers, wearing the same clothes with which they worked the land. The food was often only made from the milk of a handful of animals, drawing on the traditions of transforming the landscape into food, where the presence of coloured plastic tubs of chemicals was anachronistic. They had no place in this natural context.

These wheels of cheese sang to me and when I ate them, I felt I connected to an old world still held by their very human production. And sitting on the shelves of the pristine maturing rooms in London, away from their earthy cellars and mountain backdrops, they were a kind of anomaly.

Valuing traditional foods

It was this palpable contrast that highlighted to me, our disconnection from these traditional foods, which eventually led me to leave London. I was attracted to the intensely human stories and skills involved with producing food in a given landscape, that were at odds with the sterile environments of some of the larger, stainless steel, dairies I had been to, albeit still considered ‘artisanal’.

I felt drawn to time-honoured authenticity, excited to observe lived wisdom that was still connected to the past. Like the time I joined the producers of Salers de Buron, a huge cheese from the Auvergne whose size reflects its cultural clout. The recipe must be a few thousand years old, and it is made in the same wooden barrel that is taken into the field, and into which the milk is poured. Marcel and his two other herders have no need – or even concept of – having to add starter cultures; the wood of the barrel itself is home to a unique family of cultures, sustained over its long heritage which exists in no small part because the barrel is never washed.

Salers is one of the most extraordinary cheeses I have eaten, utterly unique in its complexity and inimitable ‘wild’ character, and it far predates any notions of health and safety as we think of it now. It actually represents the apex of ancient and established knowledge in making food safe in the first place. It is still done through positive microbial nurturing, acidification and the removal of free water with salt and pressure. I remember asking Marcel if anyone was ever sick from eating Salers in his memory.

Non” was his response.

What are we losing?

Sitting down to lunch in the small stone chalet after milking, Marcel pulled out a large loaf of bread from the bench he was sitting on and casually brushed away the blue penicillium in a cloud of Atlantic green spores that billowed through the small room as he began to slice the bread with a rust-tinged opinel knife. On the table in front of me was a clip-top glass jar, and inside, saucisson sec and a mysterious, brownish clump of something furry. When Marcel unclipped the jar, it opened with a pop – the sausage inside was delicious. When we finished the sausage, he grabbed the little dirty tuft and lit it with a match, dropping it back in the jar, and closed the lid. I realised then that it was a cotton-wool ball; it burned until all the oxygen was consumed as the flame died. It had made its own vacuum in the jar, hugely increasing the longevity of the meat and inhibiting the negative effects of oxidation.

Seeing these methods made me realise the concept of refrigeration, DVIs (Direct to Vat Inoculation, i.e. freeze-dried starter cultures) and chemical sterilisation are all incredibly recent, shaking the foundations of what I had been taught back in London. The overwhelming sense of lived human knowledge and expert heritage that these men were casually propagating on their remote mountaintop, and seeing it transformed in this natural setting by real people, brings to mind the fact that in its natural existence, milk is never meant to be refrigerated and is most certainly never sterilised. Ultimately, its destiny is to become cheese.

'Illegal butter' – the most delicious and complex I've eaten
‘Illegal butter’ – the most delicious and complex I’ve ever eaten


And it is here, where we are faced with the most significant challenge. We are looking on one hand at the magnificent, human heritage of producing food harmoniously within specific geographical contexts that span millennia, yet we are happy to yield to a set of systems and protocols that only began to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prioritising industry-centric food systems, which carry a negative knock-on effect through regulation. To me, it doesn’t really feel right. It never did.

I have spent the past decade identifying and supporting methods of food production that are connected to a time before the protocols of our industry-centric food systems. One of the most beautiful examples of this ancient intelligence are the methods of the alpigiani of high valleys in Piedmont. There are two people there whom I consider true friends, one is in her late seventies and the other in his forties. They still live some of the most sustainable existences that I have seen.

Living remotely and dependent on what the immediate landscape provides through the seasons, one of their staple foods is dried chestnuts; it has kept them and their kind alive in the winter for many generations and it also provides a consistent boost in income. They gather fresh chestnuts in the autumn, then, in a small building made of stone and chestnut wood that acts as a smoker, the chestnuts are preserved through desiccation by heat and smoke, and by burning the husks of the previous year’s yield. These people steward the mountainside, facilitating this ancient practice, actively transforming the mountain into food. Yet to be able to trade legitimately, they would have to conform to the requirements of the local food safety authorities.

The threat of ‘food safety’

My friends fear change and resent that their mountain ways fall under the categories of ‘bad practice’ and ‘being dirty’. They worry that this way of life would change with the suffocating restrictions implemented by the local food safety authority. The older artisan in her wisdom smiled at me saying, “Well, let them come. I will put them in the smoker!”

The younger man lives high on the mountain, making butter with the tools of his grandparents. With wooden churns and hand-carved stamps, he works naturally fermented cream into the most complex wonderful butter, in the same room that he repairs his mechanical tools and hangs up his washing. It tastes unlike anything you are likely to have eaten and is as far away from the sweet cream stuff that we find readily on the shelves, as you can imagine. The butter is made from the small yield of raw cream from his handful of cows, for home consumption or neighbourly barter. What is more fascinating, is that I have identified different butter makers from that same valley who make it in this way, and the difference in taste is astonishing. It is because of the wonderful variety of native cultures within each batch of raw cream – those that inhabit the same space and tools as the maker who washes them out with whey and mountain water, are all different, all acting to ferment milk into cheese and cream into butter with their beneficial probiotic bacteria, some synthesizing vitamins differently to others, others developing varying fatty acid profiles, all of which are good for us. And you can taste it. The wider the difference in natural produce, the greater the benefits we can experience by eating this wealth of diversity. It makes a lot of sense.

Casùl – a traditional cream skimmer and butter shaper, rinsed with mountain water boiled on an open fire
Casùl – a traditional cream skimmer and butter shaper, rinsed with mountain water boiled on an open fire


To top up his income, my friend works in a ‘legitimate’ creamery in the town below, where he dons a blue hairnet and whites, adding a lab-made starter culture to cream for butter and cheese making. When I came to try and buy some of his real, home-made butter, he wouldn’t sell me any out of shame for the ‘unclean’ way he makes butter in the face of the ‘proper’ way they do it in the creamery below, along with a genuine fear of being hounded by the ASL (Italian Food Safety Board). I asked him if he remembers any cases of food-related sickness or illness in the valleys.

“Mai” he says – never.

Between 2018 and 2022, I worked with an artisan fish smoker in West Cork, whose daughter had quit the business, creating a scary generational gap and the potential loss of a lifetime of traditional knowledge. When I first met Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery, the reason she gave for her daughter leaving the business was down to bullying from the local food safety authority, who after more than thirty unannounced visits to the smokery in a year, drove her to tears, and eventually to leave the business. I was told that on one of these visits to the smokery, both inspectors arrived chewing gum as a set-up, and Sally was then penalised for allowing them into a food production area and not getting them to throw their gum in the bin.

I, myself, witnessed this in four years of fighting the corner for Sally. It may not have been as bad as it was made out to be, but I did feel on edge when the food safety authority turned up. It made no sense to push a one-woman artisan who processes 300 wild salmon a year by hand, each fish worked with the expertise of a lifetime, through the same set of regulations as an industrial smokery that pumps out hundreds of thousands of farmed fish over the same period.

Is hygiene ruining our traditional foods?

My answer is, yes, I think it is. However, I know that there are those with the desire and knowledge to produce food in ways that are connected to the deep past and their own, immediate surroundings; these people will always produce the food that is their right to make. I often talk about food produced by ‘true artisans’ those that do not have a recipe. The recipe is the person, their knowledge of their surroundings, and how they contextualise a sustainable existence by creating food with a throng of ever-changing variables.

Smoked wild Atlantic salmon
Smoked wild Atlantic salmon cured in propolis and beeswax. Kept for a year in a cool place to see if I could go from fresh fish to stabilising it for longevity using purely natural methods. Not only was it edible, it was delicious.


I am drawn to the people of a place, and the skill and craft used to survive their given landscape in long-established, natural ways. This encourages us to trust in others and I want the person who makes the food I eat, to be the one making every decision in its process. They are the experts, and we must remember the most critical control point is that it isn’t in anyone’s interest as a food producer to poison their customers and neighbours. In the case of our industrialised food, I can absolutely see the need for the overseeing bodies of the food safety authorities, but I have also seen first-hand the negative impact on our unsung masters of tradition.

My utmost respect goes out to those who run the gauntlet of producing food commercially today, and I still dream of a world that facilitates the natural practices of established food preservation, seeing the blossoming of a truly bio-culturally diverse landscape. I want to know the craft behind the things that are grown, caught, made and preserved, allowing myself to trust the makers, and them the freedom to share the fruits of their skills, resourcefulness and deep knowledge.

I would welcome a future in which everyone has the opportunity to experience joy through producing some of their own food. Through this, we can develop truly valuable skills and find ways to exist in harmony, becoming the landscape through its eating and connecting with the processes that nourish our very existence, while allowing us to truly belong.

All images courtesy of Max Jones.

Graphic separator Graphic separator