Absorbing Technique in stages

Interning is completely different from going to school. On the one hand you don’t necessarily get the detailed explanation of why, but on the other hand you participate, touch, and experience the daily rhythms and flow.

I’ve had weeks of cheese classes focused on soft/bloomy and washed rind cheeses (i.e. camembert, reblochon, vacherin, pérail) and tommes, pressed cheeses both ‘uncooked’ which means not heating them higher than about 40C/104F, and often no more than 35C/95F, and ‘cooked’ which are heated beyond 65C/149F. In these classes we discussed Ph and acidity, the basic structure of milk proteins and the concept of coagulation. We covered every possible disaster and what caused it, and I received some crucial basic recipes to play with. Alongside the other students I made multiple cheeses each day, checking the Ph and acidity regularly, learning how to follow their curves and evolution. I’ve notes and booklets from these classes to which I refer when double-checking, seeking, or when I feel like trying something different to see what the results will be.

Not everything I heard and did sank in on the first try. And so going back to these notes is essential. Each time I understand just a bit more – the more I experiment on my own, the more I’m able to glean from their teachings and their concise texts.

School is intellectual, dense, and in this case it is over time that I am absorbing all that was conveyed to me.

Internships are tactile, can span weeks or months, and stress one’s ability to learn like a sponge, through all the senses. Rarely is everything explained as oftentimes, the person you’re with doesn’t have the detailed explanation in their head. They’re doing what works, what has always worked, and respect their craft enough to not neglect it or insert bad habits. When with someone who’s never had a problem or an ‘incident’ as friends would put it, well then, they don’t need to address it.  I’d never seen a Ph meter or acidometer till I went to school. Nor had I ever seen a “testing” corner in my cheese makers’ labs. They simply made cheese daily, carefully, following set rhythms, attentive to all the moments in the process, as they did every day for their entire career. A key phrase for every cheese maker “if it’s working, don’t change a thing!”.

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So why their cheeses were good, why they did each step, well, they had some explanations, but so much is just attributed to the quality of their milk and the good bacteria and yeasts that had taken up residence in their cheese labs.  You learn to pay attention to all the non-verbal clues.

My fingers learned, and my skin, and my nose, and my eyes and my tongue. My hands can flip cheeses in and out of molds with ease and speed, having done so thousands of times now. As the old adage goes, it’s like riding a bike (or kneading bread in my case). My skin knows the temperature a cheese lab should be, and the texture a lactic or bloomy rind curd should feel like on my palm and in my fingers. My eyes know the color of whey, my nose the scent of a room full of drying and setting crottins (lactic), my mouth the taste of ‘good whey’, one day old curd, one week cheese, 1 month cheese, a good amount of salt, too little salt – particularly for fresh chèvre, aka lactic cheeses. I find myself as giddy and pleased when I’ve a ‘beautiful curd’ as Claudine (I can still hear her coo “quel jolie caillé!”. When it’s “perfect” i.e. smooth, solid, firm, tart, and lightly yellow green (very mildly so, I assure you) whey is floating atop it, I am filled with pride and pleasure. My skills at ladling curd have been observed and adjusted — a not so simple repetitive motion. I am following in the footsteps of people who’ve been there beside me, taught me, encouraged me to absorb, as I worked alongside them.

a perfect curd

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As I have experimented this summer and fall with the milk of our 13 goats this all comes back to me. But I also have a powerful realization of where I need to fill in the gaps in my education. Most specifically, aging tommes and camemberts. I’ve worked so much with fresh chèvres, spent weeks with Provençale cheese makers and so have the rhythms and needs of these cheeses as part of their heritage and gift to me. But, for the tommes and camemberts I was not (as yet) able to spend more than a day at each farm. I’ve watched the fabrication of the cheeses (and feel pretty confident at this level), but I wasn’t there to work in the cellars daily, attending to the aging and refining of the cheeses. My senses need attuning to this most particular art of cheese making. Something impossible to do at cheese class: A standing joke at cheese school was the pitiful state of their aging cellars as no one was there to care for the students’ experiments and bring them to their peak. Once our creamery is finished, and with it our three aging cellars, I will have the conditions to facilitate this mastery.  However, I deeply feel that my senses need to ‘know’ more.

Thankfully I am heading to France this winter for a month. This is the perfect time to continue my education in my preferred form. I will of course get on the phone to my technicians and advisors and discuss cheese aging and the general laws and quirks of ‘affinage’. But, more importantly, I will go to the great cheese shop run by a maître fromagier in the city of Nîmes where I’ll be. His son is known to my friends there, and I’m going to do my charming best to negotiate a couple weeks of interning alongside him. It will be post Christmas rush, when sales will be slow and the cheeses on hand needing daily attention, not simply to be packaged as quickly as possible for the long lines of holiday traffic.

It is time to move on to the next stage of my apprenticeship and learning. First you learn how to care for the animals: to feed, house, heal, and keep them healthy and stress-free; then you learn how to milk them. With the best quality milk in hand you learn how to transform it into cheese. And then, when all these primordial steps are part of you, you learn to age and refine to perfection.

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