I watched, captivated, as the milk in my bucket curdled, mystically transforming into a new substance like an alchemists’s dream. It was August 2009, and my life-long love affair with cheese was about to reach a whole new level of commitment.
I was on a farm in County Cavan, learning how to make cheese from the supremely-talented Silke Croppe. Silke makes a range of raw milk cheeses called “Corleggy,” using milk from her own cows, goats and sheep. I had always loved cheese (and consistently eaten far more of it than any sane nutritionist would recommend or allow), but seeing the real-life magic of it made me fall even harder, into a deeper and much, much hungrier relationship. In Friends (because every situation can be compared to Friends), Rachel had known Ross for most of her life, but had never given him a second thought as anything more than a friend. Then one day, suddenly, the real possibility of a relationship with him became obvious, thanks to Chandler’s big mouth. That’s what it was like. But thanks to Silke’s big talent. And with cheese, instead of a palaeontologist. (On a note of mild superiority, allow me to add that cheese and I have never, EVER been “on a break.”)
So what was it about the cheesemaking process that got my heart all a-flutter? How is cheese made, and why do I find it so fascinating? With so many variations across the globe, there is a myriad of different recipes, but the fundamental steps remain the same; cheesemaking is science, absolutely, but it’s as if the science is draped with an intriguing veil of magic and mystique. Being, simultaneously, both a bit of a science nerd and oddly in touch with my inner child, this thang has grabbed my attention and will not let go. Allow me to walk you through the steps. (Please let me keep talking about it.)
(Note: I’ll be referring to the cheesemaker using feminine pronouns, as this traditionally-female craft remains largely a woman’s dominion. There are, of course, some amazing cheesemakin’ dudes out there, to whom I happily doff my imaginary cap.)
1. Got Milk?
Obviously, the story begins with milk. This can be from a cow, a sheep, a goat, or a buffalo. Different milks make very diverse cheeses. Fat content has a lot to do with this (fat means flavour, baby), as do the animals’ diets; the milk of a cow who’s been blissfully chowing down on fields full of clover will taste different to that of one munching on hay. Healthy, well-cared-for herds will produce not only nicer milk, but more of it. The time of year has a significant impact, but there are even noticeable variations between morning and evening milk. Some cheesemakers only use one or the other, while others blend the two in specific ratios.
The cheesemaker pumps the milk into a large vat, a magic cauldron, where she will start to use her clever craft to turn the milk into a unique artisan cheese. Under Silke’s instruction, on that fateful morning when I lost my heart to cheese, we began with regular ol’ plastic buckets, filled to the brim with fresh, raw, still-warm goats’ milk. It would take ten gallons of milk to produce each single-kilo cheese.
2. Living Culture.
Naturally-occurring bacteria live in all animals’ tummies (including ours), and are therefore present in all milk. These friendly lil dudes are good for aiding digestion, and if a cheese is made from raw milk they’ll contribute greatly to its character. The majority of cheeses these days are pasteurised, however, killing them off. This provides fantastic protection from scary things like listeria and tuberculosis, but also eliminates some of the natural goodness of the milk. If the cheesemaker has pasteurised the milk (and often if she hasn’t), she then adds a specific starter culture to “ripen,” or acidify it. Silke passed around a vial of her preferred culture, and we added a few drops to each of our buckets.
3. Let’s Go All The Whey, Baby.
Rennet, a milk-clotting enzyme, is the wonder ingredient of cheese, a magic potion. Rennet is naturally present in the lining of mammals’ stomachs; vegetarian rennet can be made from plants, fungi or microbes. Once added to the vat, the enthusiastic enzymes start to coagulate the milk, separating it into soft, solid curds and watery whey. The cheesemaker cuts this custard-like mixture repeatedly into smaller and smaller parts, allowing more whey to drain off. We did this using lengths of wire, bent into U-shapes. (The whey is a by-product of cheese production, but shouldn’t go to waste: should you happen to be on a farm, it makes excellent food for pigs. They freakin’ love it.) The warm, jellyish curds are stirred gently until they’re firm enough – in our case, using just our clean hands.)
4. Getting In Shape.
Once the milk has separated, the curds are packed into moulds, and weighted to press out any remaining whey (hard cheeses, in particular, will be firmly pressed to push out any liquid or air pockets). These curd-filled moulds will now be turned repeatedly throughout the day, in order to form them into the desired shape.
By the end of the day, or the following morning, the curds have become recognisable young cheeses, and now it’s spa time baby: they’re either massaged with dry salt (which is what we did), or immersed in a salt-water bath, helping the rind to form.
5. The Cure.
At this stage, the story of cheesemaking begins to vary hugely. Some soft, fresh cheeses can be eaten very young, after even just a couple of days. Others can laze around in cellars, caves or purpose-built maturing/curing rooms for over a decade, drying out, hardening, and developing complex flavours. The widely-variable micro-climates of these hangouts account for much of the differences between cheeses; they can be a range of temperatures, dry or damp. Most are turned regularly, but cheesemakers may also choose to wash and/or brush the rind, or wax the outside of the cheese. The moulds and bacteria particular to a curing cellar will also have a great effect: some seriously funky blooms and moulds will spring up on certain cheeses, lending unique colours, flavours, textures and appearances.
Some cheeses are fully ripened in these rooms, while others are aged longer by specialist cheesemongers. A general rule of thumb is, the older the cheese, the more moisture it loses, and so the firmer it becomes. Eventually, the cheese is ready to be sold, bringing us to the very final step in its life cycle.
6. Eat it. EAT IT. Dig right in.
After we’d all made our cheeses with Silke – at the same table, at the same time, from the same milk, and under the same instruction – we brought them home to mature them. When we met up three months later, cheeses in tow, the differences were astounding. The varied bacteria in our informal maturing rooms (mine, the cupboard under the stairs) had transformed the milk into a host of different shapes, textures, colours and flavours. I knew then that I was hooked, done for, spellbound; I would never get over this romance. I am all in, Cheese. I’m all in.
You can see a short video of our day’s cheesemaking here. If you fancy chiming in on dairying, Ross and Rachel, or my borderline romantic attachment to cheese, I’d love to hear from you, so lash me a comment below.