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How Cheesemaking Got Me - A True Story

Posted 11/9/2009 12:29pm by Merryl Winstein.

As a kid, I liked cheese a lot.  Those Kraft American Singles made the greatest crackling noise as the clear shiny cellophane peeled off, and the chewy rubbery feeling of teeth biting neatly through the slice was so satisfying.  I loved viewing the exact size and arrangement of my teeth in the bite shaped scallop.  And the completely uniform orangey yellowy color, it was intrigueing and captivating.

I felt very adventurous when Mom started bringing home white American cheese.  So we had four kinds of cheese at our house - both the golden and the white, then the circular brilliant orange Colby (and were you supposed to eat the red wax or not?), plus Velveeta.

Then I traveled to Denmark alone when I was 14, to join in an International Girl Scout Jamboree, and to be the house-guest of my Danish penpal (who knew pretty much English).  Although everyone there spoke an unintelligible language, and the signs and architecture were baffling, I somehow at least had enough sense and courtesy to eat exactly what my hosts ate, whether or not I knew what it was.

There were open faced sandwiches on thin flavorful dark rye bread, eaten with the knife in the right hand.  And toppings for these "smorrebrod" included anything new, or leftover from the last meal.  Including cheese.

Tilsit, Havarti, Esrom, Samsoe.  Fynbo, Elbo, Tybo, Moribo.  Every one of them strong and odorous - and, to my teenage surprise - utterly delicious!  I knew that I would NEVER have eaten such substances at home - but in a new setting, I found the wonder of real cheese.  None of it bore the slightest resemblance to the creamy insipid versions sold in local stores nowadays - the Havarti was strong, chunky and dark colored, the Tilsit almost sour.  I was shocked that I actually loved the strong smelly cheeses and craved them intensely. Once home again, I did find a shop which sold these Danish selections, but my family never shared my enthusiasm.

In a Canadian food co-op in the late 70's I found English style cheeses - stacks of them.  Cheshire, Wensleydale, Leicester, and every one of them different and delicious.

During that time I made some cheese, cobbling together barely existing descriptions into a guesswork method.  It tasted interesting and strange.  The first person I gave some to judged darkly, "You should not be giving that to anyone to eat!"

I haven't thought much about any of this till recently.  When I did get some goats in 1993, of course I wanted to make some of those wonderful cheeses I had loved in the past.  Turns out the one-day class I did find, omitted a lot of crucial information.  Like, how firm is the curd supposed to look and feel when it is ready to remove from the whey?  How could I know that the mush we viewed in the class was completely wrong, but was all that could be accomplished with the store bought milk used in the class?

Really, the first 12 years of cheesemaking were simply stumbling in the dark, in complete isolation, although somehow some amazing blue cheese came about, and the ricotta worked most of the time.  My sporadic attempts at cheesemaking were interspersed with dairying, raising my human babies, lack of time to concentrate, and not being able to understand the few recipes I could find.  And suddenly, a few years ago, the cheese started working, for no perceptible reason.  I think it's probably because my kids grew older and I could concentrate.

Meanwhile, I have become a competent herd manager for my goats, their milk tastes extra delicious, and I read all night (my "free time") about goat raising, cheesemaking, and historical references on both which tell how people do it pre-gizmo, pre-electricity, pre-refrigeration.......but for cheesemaking I was running into new roadblocks.  And the cheese problems I found were not addressed in any books I could find.

So I took a super two-day workshop from Jim Wallace in Massachusetts.  As everything he did made  more and more sense, I suddenly realized - I have been making cheese all these years without anyone ever showing me how.  Did I only manage to succeed because cheesemaking is so inherently easy and natural anyway?  Really, I wonder why I even kept trying all that time.   I have no answer.

Once at home I put into practice all he had taught.

And, on a roll, within a few more weeks, I landed in Vermont for three intensive weeks at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheesemaking (VIAC) (featured in Nov. 2009 Martha Stewart's Living magazine, page 12 and 160-169)  With a population of 500,000, Vermont leads the nation per capita in licensed cheesemakers (at least that's the claim I heard) - 45 of them so far, and quite a few new ones attending the classes I took were about to start up.  (So far there are about 10 such cheesemakers in Missouri, with a few more opening soon). The Vermont Department of Agriculture works cooperatively with VIAC to actively encourage people to open cheesemaking operations, to provide jobs, preserve the working rural landscape, while increasing revenue from product sales, and increased tourism.

VIAC fed us plates and plates of Vermont and other cheeses, all the best types that could be found, and fresh as could be since much of it was locally produced.  It was simply out of this world in quality and flavor, barely resembling the pallid versions shipped to St. Louis.  Then there were the wonderful classes.  The multi-day classes in cheese and milk chemistry, starter cultures, aging, sanitation and pathogens, demonstrations in the cheesemaking room by experts from other countries, unbiased scientific discussion and documentation of raw milk properties, myths exploded, questions answered.  My idea of heaven.

And here we are together, you the reader and me, an ordinary person who can, however, probably answer a few questions you have about cheesemaking.  So I hope you will take a class and find out how cheese is created.  It all starts with the same few ingredients - milk, some bacteria, rennet and salt, and usually that's all - and how does it turn into myriads of evocative satisfying flavors and textures?  You can find out.  You can make cheese yourself.  I will help show you how.

Meryl Winstein, Fall 2009