The banged-up box arrived in the mail and I tore it open to find the cultures and moulds I had ordered, not even thinking twice about the box. Then, it occurred to me that some of the cultures might have been sitting out in the 100-degree heat for a while… were they still active?? And what happened to the box?! The company said the cultures should be fine but ‘no problem’, and shipped me duplicates. Score!
This was after I had sat on the couch trying to figure out my game plan, mapping out the needs for different cheeses, flipping through my books trying to decide which type I should focus on next; bloomy rind cheeses, the ones enveloped in fuzzy mold like Brie, loomed on the horizon.
This was also before my discovery of “The Art of Natural Cheesemaking”, a book by a man I have come to refer to as “The Bernie Bro Cheesemaker” David Asher. Not even halfway through the book and he’s already blown my mind and has threatened to make everything I have come to know, about cheesemaking thus far, moot.
I call him “The Bernie Bro Cheesemaker” not because I “know” that he is a fan of Bernie Sanders (he lives in Canada on a little island pretty much off-grid from what I gather, so who knows if he pays much attention to American politics) but he started out the book with phrases like “top-down, corporate- and government-controlled cheesemaking” (to refer to the way most cheeses are currently made in North America), there were numerous mentions of the “status quo”, and at one point there is a picture of some goats with the caption, “goats: activist animals that refuse to submit to industrial dairy practices” …the unmistakable thought processes of a “Bernie Bro”.
The book’s premise is that one doesn’t need to buy packets of starter cultures and molds, etc., to make cheese; simply using raw, unpasteurized milk can eliminate the need for starter cultures and some strains of molds (which are killed during pasteurization so thus need to be added back in); blue mold can be grown on sourdough bread and if one needs starter cultures, kefir grains will suffice.
All are very interesting and intriguing premises, but I was initially so turned off by his “anti-establishment” rhetoric, which I’ve come to loathe, I almost couldn’t read any further. While I used to think that way, I now can’t stand such reductionist thinking and feel that closing oneself off to something because it’s “corporate” or whatever limits knowledge, experience, and perspective that could potentially be gained. But… I then realized that I was essentially coming full-circle and doing the same thing in not willing to be open to what this individual could teach me because he used some phrases I have grown to despise. I realized that there was a lot I could probably learn from him, so I read on and I’m glad I did! His book is one of the most extensive I’ve read thus far on the process, science, and art of cheesemaking.
It’s not as if I’m against environmentalism and anti-corporatism, etc. or anything. I can definitely see virtues in an adherence to both; I just don’t want to not experience or be denied a different perspective from something just because it falls under the category of being “corporate” or “anti-environmentalist”. …I don’t want to use Genetically Modified Rennet in my cheesemaking, so it was a revelation when he clarified for me my suspicion that “CHY-MAX” rennet (which I’d seen while shopping for rennet online) is Genetically Modified. My instincts had told me to steer clear of it and I had been right.
But even he himself doesn’t quite fit the “mould” (if you want to believe that progressives are vegetarian- or vegan-leaning): at one point, he leant an interesting argument in favor of the now-shunned practice of veal production; he states that essentially “vegetarian cheese” doesn’t exist, even if the rennet used is vegetable-based, because milk production is almost always dependent on the slaughter of animals. In order for an animal to produce milk, she must give birth to typically two or more offspring per year, multiply that by the number of milk-producing animals in the dairy and you have more animals than what you need, around half of which will be male.
It used to be that these offspring (mostly bovine) were raised and sold as veal; and the by-product was ample amounts of rennet. Because rennet is sourced from the fourth stomach (the abomasum) of a young ruminant, typically a calf, and since the veal industry has been all but eliminated, the price of rennet skyrocketed, which caused cheesemakers to look for a different source. This search culminated in Genetically Engineered rennet, which is used in most cheeses made in America today.
Under his tutelage, I am now inspired to source kefir grains and start keeping my own so that I can more extensively re-culture my pasteurized milk (the only kind I can currently get); Asher states that using kefir grains as a starter culture can re-create the flavor of raw milk without having to actually use raw milk, what a boon!!!
This past week, I went for it and decided to try an aged, bloomy-rind cheese, “Saint Maure”, which I’ve never tried and have yet to see in a store around here. It falls under the category of an “Aged Lactic Cheese”, which are Chèvres and Quarks that have been aged and allowed to get moldy. I followed my initial cheesemaking book’s recipe, but when the instructions left things open for interpretation, then melded it with the recipe from Ricki Carroll’s “Home Cheesemaking” and when that wasn’t adventurous enough, adopted practices from the Bernie Bro.
It started out like the Quark I’ve grown accustomed to making, with some Penicillium candidum added in to make it moldy. Then the curd was ladled into the round, oblong plastic Crottin moulds and left to drain from the tiny holes punctured in the bottom and sides. I filled four moulds halfway, but then after looking up photos of “Saint Maure” online and seeing a longish log of cheese, I combined them to form just two logs, but this was after they’d been draining for a time, so the two aren’t completely melded together.
They drained, then were removed from the moulds and rubbed with salt, which would assist in further removing moisture from the curds. Indeed, after sitting out for a few days, beads of whey started dripping from the logs and within two days a healthy white coat of Penicillium candidum had enveloped them.
After a few days of aging and developing their coats at room temperature, they are to be moved into a cooler environment, ideally a cave at 50-55 degrees F. Since I haven’t yet obtained my “cave”–hopefully soon I will purchase a wine refrigerator which can be maintained at this temperature–the regular refrigerator will have to suffice. Because of the cooler-than-ideal temperature, aging will be a bit slower in there, which could lead to different results in the cheese, but we shall see. My disjointed cheese formed from three different recipes and aged in a less-than-ideal environment may be spectacular, or it may suck. But that’s part of the fun!
There is still a lot I have to learn from “The Bernie Bro” cheesemaker, as I still have half of the book to go. But I also won’t be shutting out the lessons the traditionalists (modernists?) have to teach me. After all, making cheese using solely his methods, the cheese would (absurdly, in my opinion) not be allowed to be sold in the United States. So sometimes–just like in politics–in order to get things done, (and unless you want to shut out the sometimes harsh realities of the world we live in) compromises have to be made. But I will definitely take his practices into consideration and will hopefully be able to incorporate what I can.
Sources: “The Art of Natural Cheesemaking” by David Asher, “Home Cheesemaking” by Ricki Carroll