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Cheesemaking Over Time

Posted 10/5/2012 12:18pm by Merryl Winstein.

It's been 3 years since I wrote the last blog.  I have been writing so many things during that time, including constant revisions on the direction packet which you receive at my classes. 

During this time I have taken 12 different cheesmaking classes in Vermont, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, each class from 9am-5pm for 3 to 5 days apiece.  That's a lot of weeks of study (I also study all night), numerous plane fares, motel stays, and beautiful walks through new scenery, while my husband takes a turn at the home-front. 

I have had the pleasure and privilege of studying under 30 different expert cheesemakers from many states in the USA, also Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Quebec, and lately I have been studying Danish cheesemaking through contacts there.  Reading Danish is like listening to my great-grandmother speaking Yiddish long ago; I can "almost" understand it, but not quite all the way.  I am learning the value of Google Translate!

After all those years of struggling with incorrect cheesemaking information in popular magazines and books, supermarket pasteurized milk which cannot work, and the mistaken pitfalls of using needlepoint craft mats which won't drain, waxing the cheese (makes it sour) and just about all other types of mistakes that can be made, it is so peaceful and rewarding to be able to go into the kitchen, take a recipe I have just received, and successfully make delicious cheese that comes very close to the marvelous sample cheeses we are served at the classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese in Burlington Vermont (where I have taken so many classes). 

But I am constantly reminded that most of you have not had the opportunity to see expert after expert demonstrate things over and over until they become a simple beautiful pattern, one that is the same across the globe.  This is why I pay so much attention during classes, so that I can be sure to pick up the details that will be most important for your success, since you may only be attending one or two classes with me.

For example, the texture of the yogurt-like curd when it is right for cutting, is different for different cheeses.  This is one of the most crucial aspects of making a good tasting cheese, but it's important for someone to show you.  That's what I do -  I want you to feel it over and over and memorize the feeling in your hand so you can repeat that when you get home.   It is simply never a matter of "add the rennet and wait 45 minutes for a clean break."   Some cheeses are cut while the curd is as soft as soft pudding, and the "clean break" will be very soft too.  Others must be hard with whey covering the curd.  And there all are stages in between - each one correct for a particular type of cheese.

Another important texture I want you to learn and memorize is the texture of the curds when they are ready to drain from the whey.  To you, they may look like cottage cheese and separate into individual bits an hour or two before they are actually ready!  And the most common flavor problems in sour, homemade-tasting cheese stem from not understanding exactly what to feel, see, smell and taste when the curds are at the correct stage.  But just like all of cheesemaking, it's easy to do if someone shows you carefully the first time, so that you really understand it. 

In closing today, I don't agree that cheesemaking is a matter of trial and error, though many of you tell me that on the phone before the class.  In my experience, if the directions you have are wrong, and if you use supermarket pasteurized milk, you can try with all your might and nothing successful will come of it.  It's really easier to make cheese correctly, right from the start or after only a couple of tries, by watching someone carefully show you how.  Then when you do it your efforts will taste fantastic and store and ripen successfully.  You will feel proud and enjoy eating it, and will  impress yourself and your friends. 

However, don't count on your children being impressed.  Depends on the family - some kids will be excited about your cheese.  But my kids have explained that even though they know many other people like artisan cheese, they just aren't going to eat it, no hard feelings Mom, they just aren't.