Five British celebrities have offered up their microbes in the name of cheesemaking. Using bacteria gathered from their armpits, belly buttons, nostrils and toes, an team has produced an assemblage of unique human cheeses, which will be on display at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum as of May 18.
Blur’s Alex James, an artisan cheesemaker himself, donated his bacteria for production of a Cheshire-style cheese. Chef Heston Blumenthal bestowed his microorganisms to the cultivation of a Comté, rapper Professor Green a mozzarella, baker and columnist Ruby Tandoh a stilton, and Madness singer-songwriter Suggs a cheddar.
The intent of these “microbial portraits” is to challenge the squeamishness many feel towards bacteria, according to Open Cell — the London, U.K. biolab where the project was carried out.
“It draws on recent scientific studies of the microbiome and its importance in how the human body functions,” Open Cell states on its website. “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.”
Microbes are at the heart of many of the world’s best-loved foods and beverages. Without them, fermented products including bread, chocolate, miso, beer, coffee, tea and cheese would be impossible to achieve.
The inspiration for the human cheese project, dubbed “Selfmade,” lies in the fact that many cheeses have aromas in common with the human body. For instance, if you’ve ever enjoyed a slice of Limburger, you’ll be well-acquainted with the unmistakable scent of Brevibacterium linens. The same culture used to surface-ripen cheeses such as Limburger, Münster and Appenzeller is ubiquitous on human skin, where it causes stinky feet.
“Whether we find these odours disgusting or delicious has a great deal to do with context and psychology. Desirable flavour notes in our favourite cheese can repel us when they are associated with the human body,” according to the V&A Blog.
The exhibition, titled Food: Bigger Than the Plate, focuses on the future of food. Devised by biologist Christina Agapakis and artist Sissel Tolaas — who once crafted a cheese using one of David Beckham’s football boots — “Selfmade” joins more than 70 other contemporary projects in the fields of art and design.
The cheeses, which will be displayed in a refrigerated case, may not actually be edible. They’re currently being sequenced in a lab to determine if they’re fit to eat: “The challenge is to identify the good bacteria and to eliminate the bad in order to get a cheese that hosts the right microbes to make it edible and tasty,” says the V&A Museum.