Learning to make cheese. Learning to make good cheese. Learning to make good cheese on purpose, consciously and with clear awareness of the many variables that affect it. Learning to make cheese when your primary ingredient (milk) changes as frequently as the weather, the seasons, the cycle of life, the mood of the goat, the changing grasses in the pasture. Oh yes, and learning to care for said cheese once it exists, and bring it to the peak of its potential.
When you choose to be a cheesemaker, you choose to accept life as an onion. As you begin, you see the outer layer. You peel it. You master it. But oh, there’s more. And so you attack the second layer with a great feeling of forward motion. But, hm, there’s more. Another layer appears beneath, perhaps more opaque, a bit thicker. Ah, you think, I’m getting to the depth of the matter, now I’ll truly be a good cheese maker. And then… there’s more.
For every aspect of cheese making that I learn, I discover that much more remains to be mastered. For every color added to my palette, I discover that there are nuances and variations that I must learn to see, manage, and use to my advantage.
For the past two weeks I’ve been at the Academie Opus Caseus based in a small town outside of Lyon, in the Auvergne region of France, the home of Mons Fromagerie, where the brothers Hervé (a Meilleur Ouvrier de France in cheese mongering) and Laurent (his equally brilliant and energetic younger brother) Mons have teamed up with the talented and energetic American Susan Sturman to establish programs for cheese professionals to learn the basics of cheese affinage, cheese monger skills, sales, and cheese basics.
I’ve come to be inspired. I’ve come to learn, and I’ve come to work hard (says she as her biceps scream from handling, brushing, washing and replacing a few hundred 4 kilo rounds of Brebis Pyrenée and Ossau-Iraty cheeses). Our days have been spent absorbing basic principals, learning protocols, tasting cheeses, working alongside the many professionals who are swirling about here in a most focused and intent manner (the image of a bee hive comes to mind). And as we do this, the conversations and instruction invariably bring up the exceptions. And the need to observe and be ready to tweak. And the fact that no matter the protocol, if your senses tell you something is off, you must respond (preferably before it’s too late).
Cheese must be managed regularly. Cheese responds to every variation of temperature, humidity, air flow, and available micro-flora in the atmosphere. So, how to encourage what you want for, in and from your cheeses?
Apparently, here in the center of cheese affinage mastery, it took over three years to get their new caves just right. Ahhh, but how reassuring this fact is to an apprentice of life and cheese. Humility and humor, hard work and human frailty. Yes, they all go hand in hand in the world of cheese. Do your best, pay attention, do better tomorrow. Be consistent, be present. Repeat.
The high points of these past two weeks have been many: a group tasting of three our cheeses and a good number of cheeses from past students and colleagues brought by my two course mates. I just purred watching Laurent and Susan taste my offerings alongside my colleagues, and judge them good, well made, without notable flaws, and, for two, products that would easily find a place on a French cheese plate. I was not alone. Our teachers and guides were impressed by the creativity and skill in their Australian alumnae, and with the exquisite farmstead goat cheese brought over from England.
Many in France have seen the documentary “La Guerre des Fromages qui Puent” – The War of the Stinky Cheeses – put out on Télé 2 in France spring 2012. In it, the message is quite unsubtly conveyed that the French public is becoming more accustomed to industrially made pasteurized milk cheeses, while the artisan cheese movement is taking off in the US, and with great results. What might have been true twenty years ago (that French cheeses were the best in the world, with none to compare) is shifting. Artisan cheeses are being made in the US, Canada, the British Isles and Australia by passionate and skilled cheese makers, and yes, many of us have learned from our French colleagues. It is not international espionage, though there is the occasional comment to that effect. It is nonetheless an exportation of French savoir-faire to willing and eager learners, myself amongst them.
The three of us in the course this session have come as we are excited about what is possible in the world of cheese in our respective countries. My Australian colleague has visions of developing a cheese affinage business and store front in Brisbane to show case the many great artisan cheeses being produced in her country. My English colleague is brimming with ideas for working with restaurants, designing cheese appreciation courses, and working alongside a treasure in the English Artisan cheese world.
I do believe we’re in the right place at the right time. And this layer of the onion is simmering gorgeously in locally made cultured butter, richly yellow, aromatic, and tempting us forward.