BRATTLEBORO—A common refrain among localvores, small-scale farmers, food producers, and various other food professionals is, “People don’t know where their food comes from.” It’s usually accompanied by a sigh or a half-angry, half-incredulous facial expression, or both.
For this cheesemonger, that concern has come up quite a bit lately, especially as more folks “from away” have been coming to my cheese counter. In the last few weeks, rarely a day goes by where I am not asked if I “make the cheese here” in my shop.
In my experience thus far and to the best of my knowledge, no Vermont resident has asked this question. I could make a lot of assumptions here, both positive and negative, but it does provide some relief that folks living in the state with the most artisan cheesemakers per capita know at least something about where cheese comes from.
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Let’s talk about how cheese is made. And where it’s made. And under what conditions it’s best made. My hope is that even the most cheese-savvy of you will learn something from my article. Maybe it will inspire you to try making cheese yourself. Maybe it will discourage you from asking your friendly cheesemonger really silly questions.
Cheese starts with milk. I think most people know that. Goodness. I hope most people know that.
And cheese starts with a lot of milk. There is some variation, depending on the cheese, but generally, it takes approximately 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.
I carry approximately 50 different cheeses in my shop. Let’s assume the average weight of each wheel of cheese is 8 pounds, because that’s fairly accurate. That means I generally have between 200 and 400 pounds of cheese in my shop at any given moment, depending on how far into the wheel we’ve cut.
And that would also mean I’d need a silo out back where 2,000-4,000 pounds of milk could be stored.
Oh, and I’d need three different silos, because I have cow, sheep, and goat cheese.
Keep in mind, cheese cannot start with just any old milk. To make a great cheese, or even a very good cheese, it’s important for the milk to be fresh, to not travel very far, and to be handled as gently as possible.
Even when chilled, fresh milk progressively loses its ability to make good cheese as the clock ticks. And jostled milk is even worse; if the milk is tossed about too much, the curds won’t properly set. The micelles (little hair-like appendages) on the outside of the milk’s cells become damaged and they won’t “knit” together they way they are supposed to.
Because of milk’s delicate nature, microbiologically speaking, the best conditions for making the best cheese are to have the milk come from animals living on-premises (or at least a farm located within a few miles from the cheesemaking facility) and to have the milk go into the vat (the big, stainless-steel tub where cheese is made) as soon as possible.
(Some cheesemakers use frozen or powdered milk or cheese curds to make their cheese. Propriety prevents me from sharing with you how I really feel about that.)
If the milk is to be pasteurized or heat-treated, that will be the first step. In the pasteurization process, milk is heated to a high-enough temperature for a long enough time to destroy all bacteria — beneficial, neutral, and pathogenic — present in the milk.
Heat treatment (also known as thermalization) happens at a lower temperature than pasteurization and is considered insufficient for pasteurization purposes by the United States Food & Drug Administration.
Next, the milk is pumped or poured into the aforementioned vat. (Sometimes the vat is made of copper, but most of the time it’s stainless steel.)
Starter culture is added; this ingredient is a combination of various beneficial bacteria that encourage fermentation of the milk, and each type of cheese has its own corresponding type of starter culture.
(For example, “Swiss”-style cheeses require a combination of thermophilic [heat-loving] culture and Proprionibacteria freudenreichii subspecies shermanii culture. Aren’t you glad you asked?)
In order for the milk to turn to cheese, it has to be more acidic than when it comes out of the animal. Some cheeses are made by allowing the milk to acidify on its own, and milk will do that over time, but it’s harder to control the process.
It’s also harder for the starter culture to do its job if the milk has already started to acidify on its own, which is one reason milk needs to be very fresh when making cheese — it makes the cheesemaker’s job easier.
After the starter culture is added, the milk is gently heated to the proper temperature for the type of cheese desired, and the milk is gently stirred to evenly distribute the starter culture throughout the vat. (The temperature to which the milk is heated is lower than that used for pasteurization.)
Once the cheesemaker has determined the milk is at the proper pH (acidity), a coagulant is added. This coagulant is most often rennet, an enzyme harvested from the lining of an unweaned animal’s stomach. While this might seem barbaric, in agriculture it’s crucial to minimize waste, and all parts of an animal have a purpose in food production on the most conscientious of farms. Very little rennet is required to coagulate — or precipitate — the milk, and nearly all of it is washed away when the whey (liquid) drains from the curds (solids).
Some cheeses are made without the use of animal-based rennet: microbial enzymes, thistle extract, vinegar, lemon juice, heat, and snails have all been or are currently used to precipitate milk.
Before you run away screaming, know that you won’t be able to find snail-precipitated cheese in this country, whether domestically produced or imported.
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After the rennet is added, the milk is allowed to set until it has reached the desired texture, which is somewhat pudding-like.
Folks of a certain age will remember a product called Junket that used to be sold commonly in grocery stores alongside the pudding mixes. That’s rennet. (It’s still available online at junketdesserts.com.)
Once the milk has set into a pudding-like mass, the whole mass is cut into curds, or bits. The curds are cut into a uniform size, determined by the type of cheese one is trying to make.
Harder cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano have curds that are cut to the size of grains of rice. Ricotta and other soft cheeses are cut into larger curds. Why? Because the smaller the curds, the more the whey will drain, leaving a firmer, drier cheese. Larger curds retain more moisture and result in a softer — thus, wetter — cheese.
While the curds are being cut, they are also being stirred and heated to a specific temperature to further encourage whey drainage. Once the whey is drained, a tightly knit curd — a clumped, semi-solid mass — remains in the vat.
At this point, the curds are salted and either scooped into some sort of form or mold (“mold” as in “container to make the cheese into a specific shape,” not as in “the blue stuff that makes blue cheese”).
Or, if the curds are to become cheddar, the curds are cheddared. Yes, “cheddar” is a noun and a verb! To make cheddar, the curds are allowed to knit, then are cut into “mats,” or slabs. Those slabs are then milled, or chopped, into fairly uniform pieces a few inches long. Those pieces are then put into the forms.
After the curds are scooped into the forms, the young cheeses are pressed for about 3 to 12 hours, again, allowing for more whey drainage. Then the cheeses are removed from the forms and either sold fresh or moved to a cave where their aging takes place.
Depending on the type of cheese, during the aging process the rind will develop and either be brushed, patted, washed, scrubbed, submerged, smeared, or a combination of these actions.
The cheeses will be turned periodically until they are ready to release, and then the best part of all takes place.
We get to eat them!
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All of this activity requires quite a bit of space and a very sanitary environment.
Nobody should be allowed into the “make room” (where the cheese vats are) without protective gear. This gear isn’t to protect the human beings; it’s to protect the cheese. Sanitary rubber boots, long white coats, hair- and beard nets, and rubber gloves are the required attire for anyone making cheese or entering the make room.
If someone inadvertently tracks in even one molecule of pathogenic bacteria, the moist, warm environment of the make room provides the perfect petri dish for that bacteria to flourish and ruin an otherwise perfectly good batch of cheese. Even a neutral or beneficial bacteria can spell disaster if it’s introduced into a vat of cheese where it’s not wanted.
Perhaps I’ve been hasty and arrogant (who, me?) in assuming everyone knows how much square footage goes into making and aging cheese. But now that you know, Gentle Reader, you will be better prepared to appreciate all that goes into the production of cheese. How much physical labor. How much gentle care. How much real estate. How much art and science.
It’s a near-miracle, this happy transformation from a humble container of milk into a glorious, complex cheese.
Maybe next time we’ll talk about how incredible it is that thousands upon thousands of cheeses exist in the world, and all they are really made of, with few variations, is milk, salt, and some beneficial bacteria. Ponder that for a moment.