by Diana Zahuranic
“Let’s make cheese!” To my friends and me, the idea sounded satisfyingly artisanal. Cheesemaking is simple enough in practice so that anyone with some background can try their hand at it. The theory is more complicated, but because my friends and I had that part down pat, actually putting it to use would be an afternoon well-spent.
Or so we thought. Yes, the craft of cheesemaking is simple compared to the amazing, diverse world of cheese that it produces (or rather, that Europe produces, with no laws prohibiting unpasteurized cheese aged less than 60 days – which is 100s to 1000s of varieties). But the first thing the nine of us did in my friend’s tiny Italian kitchen was say, “Doesn’t anybody know how to make cheese?”
We are all students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piemonte, Italy, and not many months ago we were sniffing and tasting all kinds of top-quality cheeses from Italy, France and other countries as a part of our lesson: Brie that was like butter, savory chunks of Parmigiano- Reggiano, comparisons of Roquefort, Gorgonzola piccante, and Stilton, and the holey Emmentaler that our American Swiss cheese attempts to imitate. We learned the complicated, scientific details of the process, and we sweat over the upcoming exam until a (later sainted) classmate made a handy chart study guide. We passed the exam on cheeses and cheesemaking with flying colors. We’ve seen cheese being made from the beginning to the end; that is, milking the cow or goat to eating the still-warm cheese fresh, or knifing off the first crumbling chunk of a perfectly aged cheese.
To know how cheese is made is different from knowing how to make cheese.
The tools we had were ten liters of raw cow’s milk, a literal cauldron in which to heat and coagulate it, a thermometer, and containers for the curd. We also had rennet, which is the enzyme that, when added drop by drop, catalyzes the proteins to precipitate together, separating the curds and whey. Do you remember Little Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey? She was eating unmade cheese. Or possibly ricotta, which is not actually a cheese because no rennet is added, but I digress.
Rennet’s sources are vegetal or, traditionally, from the stomach lining of a young animal. Ours was lamb rennet, and cost 2 Euros at the farmacia.Without getting too technical, I’ll outline the steps we followed to make cheese. I suggest consulting a cheesemaking book, such as the one we used, Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.
We sterilized the big pot and, honestly, should have sterilized everything else, such as the thermometer. It’s no big deal (hopefully): the more bacteria and microbes the milk can interact with, the tastier – or at least more interesting – the cheese has potential to become. We poured in 9 ½ liters, reserving ½ liter for ricotta later; and we heated the huge pot to 38° C (100° F) using all four burners. The temperature should not rise about 43° C (109° F), or else it will kill all the flavorful microbes; although you will effectively have pasteurized cheese.We turned off the heat once it reached 38° C and added the rennet.
The more rennet you use, the “stronger” the cheese may become. Katz recommended 3-10 drops per 4 liters of milk. We added 12 in all, first diluting it in ¾ C water (1/4 C water per 4 liters). If you’re curious, rennet fittingly smells like a barn animal.
Then the waiting begins. The curds will begin to separate from the watery whey and coagulate in a time frame of 30 minutes to 16 ours. Do not touch the milk, or the bonds forming between the solid particles will be disrupted.
We were hopeful, but after 30 minutes nothing had happened. So we did what any Piemontese will do when waiting, I like to imagine: we cut lots of raw vegetables to dip in the infamously garlicky, salty, anchovy sauce, made by one of our group, called bagna cauda. It is a simple recipe, consisting of garlic, anchovies, butter and oil, and typically sits in a ceramic bowl with a space for a small, lit candle to keep it heated and the ingredients well-mixed. The florets of broccoli are ideal to catch this liquidy dip. However, a word of caution: I woke up in the middle of the night I was so disturbed by my garlic breath. Do not plan on being around anyone the next day unless they too partake of this sinfully salty, garlicky, anchovy dip.
Two hours later, we ate bagna cauda and talked about how disappointing the book is in suggesting the possibility of curd already formed within 30 minutes; reflected on what we wanted to do after the University is done; and drank Italian wine, fizzy lambrusco, and beer.
Two more hours passed and my Dutch friend had made gevuld speculaas, a rich spice cake filled with a gingery, lemony almond paste that is not supposed to be eaten after Christmas. This cake is a traditional Dutch food made for the holidays, and the warm spices that mingle with nutty almond are Christmas embodied in a scent, and fireside comfort in its flavor. If bagna cauda is sinfully savory-salty, then gevuld speculaas is sin itself. It may be my favorite cake in the world. Let me taste it again to decide.
To cut a long story a little bit shorter, we ended up at a bar in the hopes that tomorrow, the milk would have curdled. Tomorrow became today, and our milk miraculously curdled after exactly its maximum-allotted time: 16 hours.
The next step in cheesemaking is to cut the soft curd with a sharp knife. The smaller the curd, the harder the cheese can become, because less watery whey remains in the curd pieces. Then, the whey is drained (don’t throw it out!), the curds are pressed into the molds, and the outsides are salted. Press out more whey. Turn and salt the cheese every few days and…well, we haven’t gotten that far, yet. The cheese-tasting is yet to come.
An important thing to realize is that cheese takes on so many forms because many nuances in every step can be taken. I’m afraid we weren’t trying for anything specific – just cheese. Who knows how it will turn out? Artisanal does not necessarily mean high quality, but our hopes were definitely high.
Finally, the water, protein-rich whey can be used to make ricotta (or often to feed to the pigs); and the leftover whey from that to make the Norwegian Gjetost cheese. We completely failed at making ricotta, which in practice is simpler than cheese-making. I may never understand what we did wrong. The steps we took in cheesemaking were also decidedly amateur, so for all you aspiring home-cheesemongers, a good glance at real directions would truly be worthwhile.
Please, stay tuned for the cheese-tasting, wine-pairing (likely not homemade), and health checkups in the next few weeks to come.
- Say Cheese!
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