Many Little Steps to an Award

IMG_9009So many moments of learning, creativity and serendipity come into the creation of a cheese.

Take the Idyll Gris, aka Grand Gris, aka Layered Ash Cake as an example. FYI the version with Provence Style Black Olive Tapenade  won 3rd place in the All Milks Flavor Added category at the American Cheese Society 2014 annual conference awards in Sacramento, CA. This is a big field — think of all the flavored Goudas out there! – so we are super proud and beaming at this honor.IMG_1587

In its first incarnation it was a large lactic cheese made on a whim and aged with a creamy white rind. At that time, beautiful and runny and delicious as it was, I offered it to a favorite local chef for his restaurant, (Chef Myles at Trattoria Stella here in Traverse City) and we baptized it the Grand Blanc.

Along the way, Hélène Tormo advised me on how to work with our molds (designed for hard cheese) when using lactic curd, so that the curd drained properly and smoothly.

I then started experimenting with ash, and took this relatively short but large and runny cheese the next step, aging it to a silvery perfection. Thus, the Grand Gris.

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Many in the cheese world have seen the lovely Humboldt Fog from Cypress Groves – a lactic goat cheese with a perfect black line of ash in its middle. I chose to do something similar, but in a very artisanal, imperfect and artsy way. The result was a lovely bright white curd with a silvery, gray rind, and a dramatic bleeding black center – unevenly spread across the middle.

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I made one or so of these cheeses every two weeks, and they became a regular item on the chef’s cheese menu. Occasionally I would experiment with how I handled the curd, how large/high I made the cheese. It ages completely differently depending on size and depth. So this was fun for the palate.

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And then I got to thinking of possible variations on this theme. Back when I lived in Provence my children’s father would make a marvelous black olive tapenade. This became a house staple, somewhat like mustard or ketchup in another’s house.

Isabelle Laguitton, my much adored early “all things goat” mentor, used to make a number of little stuffed cheeses for restaurants, and one in particular she would stuff with tapenade. She did it very carefully, smoothing the rind so that nothing spilled out, and the rind grew over the cut edge, hiding the evidence of the hidden savory layer inside. She told me that these two flavors (tart lactic goat cheese and black olive tapenade) went so well together as they are both fermented, and something happens when you marry them, they meld into an elegant unit, each supporting the other, but neither dominating.

Happily, my fellow culinary spirit Rose Hollander makes superb tapenade.

Hence, the next and final step was clearly before me – putting a layer of tapenade rather than a simple layer of ash between my two layers of lactic cheese. The first one went out to restaurants – and rather surprised Chef Myles as he’d been expecting our classic Black and White version. (In those early experimenting days, I didn’t always label each lovely silvery round). The response was positive and encouraging. Onward.

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Thus, last fall, as I mulled with my assistant Melissa over which cheeses we would submit to American Cheese Society competition, I kept coming back to this combination, and the elegant presentation of the layer cake. Yes, many others have done something that had a similar presentation (another colleague had won an award a preceding year for a layer of paprika through the middle, quite lovely). But after all, how many ways can you incorporate outside flavors into a cheese? It’s either mixed in, or on the surface rind, or in the middle.

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In this photo you see the 3 variations we’ve been making this year: Sundried Tomato Pesto, Wild Leek Pesto and Black Olive Tapenade. Together with Melissa, I worked towards this goal – making this cheese weekly, in double and triple batches so that we’d have a perfect one, perfectly ripened to send off for the competition. I wrapped this fragile round carefully and lovingly, sent it off, and… the night of the awards I received that glorious text “we’ve won! 3rd Place for Idyll Gris! And a photo of the ribbon. Yeah!!!

Honing skills as I teach

One of the more interesting aspects of consulting is simply being in another colleague’s space, adapting to their methods and organization while sharing ideas and new possibilities. While I tweak the make sheets for the fresh bloomy rind cheeses and test out possibilities for their future blue and semi-soft washed rind cheeses I am concurrently learning more about full-time pasturing goats in the South Eastern United States.

Pasturing ruminants seems like a no-brainer, but it is actually one of the more complicated and frustrating choices a cheese-maker can make. As I look back at my teachers and colleagues in France, it is not for nothing that so many of the Provence-based goat cheese makers opted for a system “hors-sol” meaning that they permitted their goats ample time outdoors, but fed them  hay, whose quality they knew and could control, rather than pasture.

Pasture is an ever changing feed source. Depending on what you’ve planted, and your patterns of rotation on your land, your animals are pretty much getting a different diet weekly. In the early spring it is high in moisture, and quickly digested. It might then come to a peak of nutritional value when it just begins to bud, yet still has plenty of good green foliage. And then it might pass peak, and go to seed. The goats might then prefer the leaves, or seek out any tender leafy plants growing down below. Maybe there is plantain, or clover, or dandelion greens. Or maybe not. Hot days will dry the green stalks faster. Wet days will first of all cause your goats to want to hide out in shelter, wrestling and fighting for the best spots, and encourage various parasites to climb further up those stalks than their normal limit of about 4 inches from the ground (where there are water & dew droplets, there can be parasites).

There is serious skill in managing grass. And books cannot teach you everything, as each farm, each plot of soil, each year’s weather, are variables to be learned over time.

As ruminants create milk by transforming what they eat, we as cheese makers are manipulating an ever shifting primary ingredient. And, so it has been this past week. We’ve had a dramatic moment of inverting solids, when the fat content drops below the protein, and both have fallen from their brief post-kidding high. We must completely adjust the cheese make to adapt to this new reality.

Cheese making is one of those arts where you hear many a prosaic statement. “If it works, don’t change a thing;” and then, “just when it all is working smoothly, it changes overnight.”

I’m pleased to be here from the beginning of the milk season, when the solids were high, through to this point in the inversion, and on for another 5 weeks. In this way, I’m able to offer this creamery various options to manage cheese-makes through the different phases of their milk.

When I reflect back to my experience with my French advisers and consultants, they rarely stayed with me longer than three weeks. Just enough to get a plan of action with the quality of milk I had during their stay. And then, a month later, I was emailing them frantically with my shifting curd, seeking advice for how to return it to the beautiful, smooth texture of our early results.a perfect curd

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Needless to say, I’m grateful for the alacrity of their responses, and for the experience my years of cheese-making have given me. Though in Michigan, as our goats received at least half their nourishment in hay throughout the year, pasturing during the day, but compensating for most nutritional deficiencies at the  manger, the seasonal shift occurred in a less dramatic fashion than I am witnessing here.

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Meantime, some of our earlier cheese experiments are ripening. In particular a lovely cross between a Morbier and Reblochon, with ash in the middle and a beer & brine washed rind. It is now coming into its own at 5 weeks of age. The texture is softening, and there’s a lovely mouth feel. The rind has a nice balance of pungency and bite. It is aptly titled the Rowdy Gentleman.

The first batch of blues have been wrapped, the second will be wrapped today. They are bluing wonderfully. I can’t wait till they ripen further. A minimum of two months will be required for these, and perhaps more. We shall see.

Fall 2009 – Day two making cheese

This is a reprinting of an earlier blog post I put on my first blog, An American in Avignon. I am going back to my roots, where and when and with whom I first learned to make goat cheese.

The milking part is pleasant, warm, clean and easy — or relatively so. Goats are clean and intelligent animals. From what I’ve seen of cow dairies, there is no comparison. To put it simply, tales of being shat upon, or filthy teats at a cow dairy are not exaggerations. Plus they are large and cumbersome animals, cows. Sheep, I’m told are not the brightest. Should your lands flood, goats will find the high land, climb a stair well or a tree, what-have-you. But sheep will simply baaaa and drown. So, here I am amidst a range of goats of different ages and races, and what a pleasure it is. They leap quickly into place for their feed and milking. They make room for you to put the jetter suction cups on their teats. No kicking, relatively minimal farting, and perfectly at ease with the handling and manipulation of our hands upon them. The milk flows quickly and smoothly — numerous hygienic measures are followed sensibly and not onerously — and a short hour later, we’ve milked all 36 and are ready to head to the dairy.

Before milking, the goats are given some fresh hay to start their rumens churning. Then they munch away on their grain while they are milked, and afterwards they head out to the pasture, or back to eat more hay in the manger. Salt & mineral licks are on the walls in the barn. We milk till the teats are softened and supple, but even then, if we hand-milked there would be more. So, you stop before they are completely milked out.

Today I helped flip and return to the molds the cheeses poured into their molds yesterday morning, and already flipped once yesterday evening. I didn’t maul them too badly, and after a hundred or so, the gesture began coming naturally. As with any repetitive gesture, be relaxed. Tension makes everything worse.

We then moved onto the tiny cheeses — much appreciated by restaurants and makers of toasted goat cheese salads. Again, we had a metal guide curd distributor for 90 molds. However, we had to place these 90 molds on the stainless draining tray before placing the guide on top. Getting the spacing right is a skill to hone, with in each instance a bit of fiddling and putting back in order required. With these guides, you can practically dump your curd on top and simple smooth it around into the molds. I tried to do it a bit more elegantly than this, but truly…

Then our clean up, prepping cheeses in paper for selling to Aurelie’s various clients, and back out the door. Tonight, we’ll turn the tiny little cheeses I filled today. As there are 580 or so, I should get some good practice with that flipping wrist action.

Meantime, Filou got a nasty little weed in his paw — what the locals call espégao, or folle avoine — resembling a tiny shaft of wheat. It is pointy and akin to an arrow, it wants to go in, further and further, and is terribly difficult to remove. He has had these twice in the past years in his ears, but this time it is between his toes. Shepherds are good people to bring sick dogs to. Aurelie helped me remove a bit of the points of this nasty thing, and to disinfect the wound. But, 24 hours later, he is still limping and the wound is weeping. The verdict is to keep disinfecting, and let the wound abscess to push out what is clearly still inside. If we’ve not accomplished this by tomorrow, I do have a veterinarian beside my home in Avignon and will see if he can help.

Mon brave chien accompanies me nearly everywhere, lying so calmly at my feet (or at the feet of the head of the household). He enjoys the goat barn and has made friends with the resident mama cat who’s a master huntress of rats, rabbits, mice and more. However, when I disappear into the dairy for an hour or more, he whines at the door, not accustomed to my abandoning him in this manner. Perhaps he’ll get accustomed to this just like his mistress?

Consulting, Advising, Learning

IMG_0047 A tangle of gorgeous spring blossoms catch my eye as I go out for my evening walk/run in a warm, slightly humid, and ever so lovely place. I’m a world away from the cold, snowy North. And also a world away from my two sons and my four-footed house pets. I’m ‘down South’ with a colleague, to consult and advise throughout this spring.

As I structure the abundance of cheese and goat knowledge I’ve absorbed over the years, a phrase that I’ve read and heard scrolls through my thoughts. So I looked it up (it and many variants) on Google recently,

“They can take everything from you, but they can never take what you’ve learned, they can’t take the experiences you’ve gained from living your life. Those are yours forever.”

In its original iteration, it was written by a survivor of the Holocaust and quotes extraordinary advice from his mother. But many many people have adopted this wise thought stressing the profound importance and value of education and knowledge. And, being in a position of looking forward towards new projects, the depths and riches of what I own inside myself, the power of all that I’ve collected in living a many layered and challenging life is reassuring indeed.

At this moment, I am tapping into my years of research, questioning and questing — my knowledge. And I am doing this to fulfill my role as a consultant, here to share, teach and advise a colleague.

On this exquisite spring day I’m headed to the creamery. The lab coat I wear when ladling makes it all but impossible to not feel the tenderness of my freshly sun-burned arms, a tactile reminder of my  afternoon of plunking copper boluses down the throats (and avoiding some pretty darned sharp back teeth!) of a number of this farm’s pastured herd of goats. Most of the does have freshened and there are about 80 does milking twice daily. In another two weeks we should have the full herd on the stands – including the two mothers photographed below who kidded out on pasture this morning.

IMG_0055My son Leo and I road-tripped down here to arrive on April 1st (he’s since gone back to Michigan for high school). Our descent was timed for the first cheese makes. And, now that the creamery is up and running, the first priority is to get the fresh soft cheeses out to the eagerly awaiting clients, something my colleague already does very beautifully.

As I observe and question, I see where I might suggest techniques to lower the quantity of expensive freeze-dried cultures used here. It would also be possible to adjust the measuring tools for the cheese makes and offer methods to tweak and refine.  I move slowly, not hastily. In my role as consultant, observing and listening is vitally important, equally on a level with advising.

I’m here at a key moment. They’re building a wonderful new aging structure with two large caves, due to be done soon. At which point we will gear up the development and refinement (some great experiments have already been done) of hard cheeses and blues. I look forward to assisting in the balancing and adjusting of the cave atmospheres, sharing my hard-earned knowledge and experience. Caves are complex to master — my colleagues around the world will agree — and I am here to shorten the learning curve. But, mastery is a too powerful word. I would be more apt to say dance, or collaboration. The best caves live and breath and the cheese maker learns to work with his/her caves; how best to encourage & facilitate the good, and limit the bad.

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Much lies before us, and day by day, I take notes & make lists, and see where my knowledge can be of use.

My kids’ dad used to say that his quest in life was to share his knowledge and discoveries. It is a privilege to learn & to integrate the complexities of an art such as cheese making (or in his case Provençale Cuisine).

And in sharing and teaching, I solidify my own knowledge while offering it up to an esteemed colleague.

We all win.

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Day 1 making cheese (2009)

Memories of my first day milking and learning how to make cheese with Aurelie back in St Martin de Crau in Provence, back in 2009:

I arrived early this morning to be able to spend a bit of time with Isabelle and Paul Pierre and their family before joining Aurelie (their former intern, now the resident goat-cheese maker) for the morning milking, la traite. Isabelle has just finished five days of chemo, and is clearly exhausted and much affected by this most recent round of treatments. I’d thought she was on more paliative care now, but, I suppose it is difficult for an oncologist to not wish to do the utmost with his arsenal at hand. I hope she’ll be better when I visit next week. Her weariness is deeply visible in her eyes, and in the hesitancy with which she approaches breakfast: coffee or chocolate, bread or no, jam, and which flavor. In each case her husband encourages, suggests, does for. He waits a bit, but sees that if she’s not nudged towards a choice, she’ll simply shut down and stop. She’s mentally in and out, almost mini-naps with her eyes open. As she puts it her head is dans la pâté.

And yet amidst this moment of sickness and family intimacy, I’ve been welcomed to share, to learn, to participate. I tell little stories, but keep them short. I’m attentive to her level of energy, and seek a smile or two, but go no further. It is more aptly a time for quiet and simply being together.

When the sound of Aurelie’s arrival reaches the kitchen, I clean my coffee cup and walk the short trip from the kitchen to the barn to watch and most importantly, to do. Aurelie is relaxed with me, at ease and pleased that I’m eager to get in and mettre mes mains à la pâte” as we say here (“get your hands dirty” is the closest equivalent in English). I’ve watched so many times, but had never laid my hands upon the milking machines, nor the teats aka mammary glands aka breasts, called mammelles here.

The first gesture of the morning is to prepare the small mangers with yummy feed. Today it is organic corn, but normally, there is a blend of soaked corn and soaked and sprouted barley. ¾ of a coffee tin is put into each manger. Then the goats are allowed to come up to feed. They are all waiting, in their pecking order. As with many animals there is a world of hierarchy amongst the goats. The first goes up the ramp, all the way to the furthest manger (the only one open to her) and puts her head down to eat, triggering the mechanism that locks her in. The next follows suit, and the next, etc.,

The next movement is to do a quick squirt of each teat to remove the premier jet, putting it into a bowl that the dogs will enjoy. Then, the clean and prepped milking suction cups (jetters) are attached to the teats. There is space for 12 goats at a time to feed, and 4 sets of suction cups. To each her turn. Aurelie massages the warm, firm teats to help the goats with let-down. The younger goats often release their milk slowly, whereas some of the older seemed to have double the milk. Teats come in all shapes and sizes, but those of these goats were all-in-all pretty easy to place into the cups. I had memories (doesn’t every mother?) of massaging my painfully full breasts to send milk flowing into Jonas’ mouth when he was a newborn – he was a particularly bad nurser. In any case, touching and handling these goat teats felt normal and quite pleasant. Beyond helping in the milking, the goat cheese maker/shepherd also does this to better know his/her goats, with all their individual quirks. For instance, spotting a cyst requires knowing what the normal teat felt like before the cyst appeared. It is good to learn to distinguish the firmness that is a sign of full milk ducts, or simply lumpy bumps, or something to worry about etc.,

Aurelie is using the system and structure designed by Paul Pierre and Isabelle when they set up their business here twenty two years’ ago. With their design and architectural backgrounds, Isabelle and Paul Pierre were creative and original, yet observant of known-methods. The plumbing, the flow from barn to milking station to barn, a system for soaking and subsequently straining the barley. This all takes place in the barn.

The fresh milk is then transferred to the dairy on a small trolley where it is put through a strainer into 15 litre bins. These are placed on shelves made of 1 ½ in PVC (rows of 2). Into the full bins of fresh goats’ milk — that she did not cool down — Aurelie puts an eye dropper of rennit (6-7 drops per litre), and a ladel-full of whey from an earlier batch.

The dairy is kept at 20C (68F) and the now treated milk will sit for three days and ferment gently till the curdle is nicely taken. When ‘ready’ the curdle will be a solid mass amidst a clear liquid, with a fuzzy white skim on the surface.

My next job is to remove day-old cheeses from their molds and place them on stainless steel racks – as neatly as I can, leaving a minimum of thumb prints, rubbing off a minimum of cheese, and–as my skill-level permits–place them in neatly staggered rows. I did my best,… and gratefully, Aurelie is a very patient teacher.

While I was handling these more solid of cheeses, Aurelie was flipping out and returning to the molds the far softer and more humid cheeses from the evening before. (Goats are most often milked twice daily, and so the cheese-making can occur twice daily).

I moved my firmer cheeses to the de-humidifying room, and the molds to their large baskets to be first doused in a bath of acide de soude, and then into the dishwasher. We then hosed down and cleaned off the two meter by one meter stainless, pitched, draining trays upon which we put the cheese molds. These drain directly into open plumbing, and down the drain. In some farms, the whey and small milk solids collected in this manner are fed to pigs – a source of protein-rich liquid for their feed. Yet another example of the intelligence and non-waste possible on small, multi-animal family farms. However here, there are no pigs, and thus the whey is treated as gray water, dispersed through the septic system.

Once our sliding trays are cleaned (there are 6, but this being August, we’re nearly at the end of the season, and are using only 4), we set up the cleaned molds (those that have chilled) in rows of 5 x 6. Upon these we place the stainless curd distributor that permits the filling of many molds at once. Aurelie takes a large quart/litre sized cup and uses it to ladle the curd from the bin into the molds. However first, she has gently poured out and brushed off the excess whey and the white fuzz (the natural Geo – surface mold that grows in her make room) atop. Her cheeses will be milder in flavor if she does not include this. With a squeegee, we finish filling through the grid – filling the molds to nearly over-flow. A couple minutes’ wait is required as the curd descends, the whey already escaping through the holes of the molds, and then we transfer the grid to the next batch of 30 molds. And so on.

This morning, August 23, we milked 36 goats and made 130 cheeses with the three-day-old curd. We filled three 15 litre bins fully, and a fourth perhaps 7/8 or 5/6 full of fresh milk. Yesterday’s milk, alongside (but distinctly placed apart) the milk from the day before yesterday are quietly fermenting away.

Immediately after the milking we cleaned and rinsed the suction cups and tubes (with a specially designed flushing/cleaning machine to which we hooked them up in the kitchen), followed by the molds, bins, etc., A last gesture is to spray down and squeegee the terra cotta tile floor. Aurelie has prepared her containers of cheese that she distributes Monday in weekly crates of fresh, local produce organized by a local AMAP (farmers’ coop).

There were three of us, and two hours later, we’re free to be off to other projects. Not so bad, eh?

Always questioning

Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

What an incredible few years this has been, and what an education! In the summer of 2011 I offered my assistance and services for perhaps a year, just enough to get a goat farm into existence and to make the first batch of cheeses. That then bloomed into 18 months (a tad more realistic) and then to over two years.

My mandate is coming to an end. I am ready to pursue new projects. But wow, looking back, I get frissons all over from all that we’ve accomplished, all that I’ve been able to contribute, and all that I now hold in me as knowledge and profound, deeply lived learning.

Back in October 2011 I was asked to design a creamery. And so, with the assistance of my colleagues I did. That original design was offered to the architects that winter, and they took it and ran with it. Throughout the design and construction process I was kept in the loop, tweaking flow, materials, equipment, and interior climate conditions. My job was to assure the organization of the cheese processing – from milking parlor onward – and convey what I was learning in France from my farmstead cheese technicians to the architects, who then communicated to the local engineering firm, who then translated this information into plans.

When I arrived on site July 2012, the ground had just been broken for the creamery’s construction. The farm had 13 goats in milk, and a dozen doe kids from that year’s kidding. We were in discussion with the Ag inspector for our future licenses, but also to be sure our buildings were in keeping with the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance and all state and federal laws concerning a dairy operation.

When not on the computer, the phone, or playing with milk, I investigated our local market(s), to see how we would fit as a new presence in the local community. Experimenting with the milk of those first goats I visited restaurants and shops, and dropped off samples. I chatted with the local chefs, interested in what they would like to see from a local goat cheese maker. Going further, I visited cheese cases, ordered cheese from colleagues by mail, and checked out labels, pricing, and styles of cheese available. I went wine tasting and checked out what was offered to nibble alongside. I ordered books and magazines and started establishing a farm library on goats, goat care, goat buildings, goat cheese, dairy, farm management, organic gardening, organic animal husbandry… etc.,

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Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

With the first herdsmen on hand, and those who’ve been hired since, I’ve discussed and taught goat care, shared techniques, preferences, and rhythms from my Provence colleagues. Adapting my knowledge from France to the US, I spent time questioning feed mills, looking at goat rations – those readily available, and those that might be custom-made. I sought out possible collaborators, questioned MOSA (the official Organic listings), and started making a list of all the possible sources for minerals, goat care needs, medical needs, equipment, etc., Coming from France, and entering a new business for all involved in our farm, building this list of vendors and resources has been an ongoing project.

We passed the winter, and entered kidding season with Claudine from Provence at our side. While our four herdsmen took turns spending the night at the farm, baby monitors by their beds, Claudine and I would be back at my house, feeding my own children and putting them to bed, and remaining on call. I believe I timed it, from the moment I got a call (be it at 2AM, 4AM or Midnight) it took Claudine and I but 7 minutes to leap out of bed, pull on snow pants over our jammies and dash over to the farm to help guide, teach and manage the kiddings.

April 2013 the creamery was given its official license to sell cheese. And so, out to the markets, out to the restaurants, over to the various shops. What joy to start getting our cheeses into the mouths and onto the tables of so many eager and pleased clients and colleagues. The spring flowed quickly into the summer, and to my second American Cheese Conference – this time as a cheese maker, not just a hopeful one. And our first award!!!

It’s been a rocket ship of a ride. So much to learn, so many hurdles to leap, our share of glitches and worries, And yet, each time something goes off or akilter, it is a chance to acquire knowledge. Each strange batch of cheese, funky curd and other is to be analyzed and picked apart. And in so doing, another step in the process is better understood.

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Photo by AprilJoyPhoto

As I look towards the future, I’m continuing to hone my craft. At this very moment I am in France studying Cheese Affinage with the Academie Opus Caseus at Mons Fromager outside of Lyon. Cave design, care for cheeses, sensory analysis, and more – skills that require years of study and use to master, skills that work alongside the cheese make to create truly good cheese — I am passionately going deeper into this world of lactic fermentation.

With a bit more time on my hands, I will return to France this winter for the months of January and February and dig back into my roots there offering culinary courses and tours with truffle hunts, making foie gras & visiting and wine-tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape… many of my former haunts and favored activities. If you’d like to join me or know a friend who would, the details are on my web site : Cuisineprovencale.com.

This is a work in progress… (as is much of life, n’est-ce pas?)

The most sensual of cheeses

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Making cheese is sensual. No doubt that’s why I’ve fallen in love with this ancient craft. All my senses are needed and used as I follow the rhythms of a cheese make. Though you may find recipes with careful and precise instructions to follow, the best cheese makers know that there is no one recipe for cheese: There is knowledge and experience, awareness of daily and seasonal shifts in milk quality, and the ability to adjust, trouble-shoot, and adapt. Rather than follow a set of absolutes, the cheese maker is attuned to each cheese’s temperature(s), texture(s), and timing.

Take Camembert, perhaps the king of sensuality (if not the king of cheeses, the crown of which belongs — depending on the person in question — to Roquefort or Cantal). We start this cheese at a deliciously warm temperature, and to hold and nurture this warmth, we bring the room up to a toasty 80F.

The milk comes gushing out of the pasteurizer (yes, this being the United States, we pasteurize), warm and sweet. We add tart and acidic whey from our lactic cheese-make of the day before, and either yogurt or thermophile cultures, along with the surface cultures to develop that classic white rind.

And then we wait. This is the period called “maturation”. The milk is acidifying, slowly or quickly, and cooling to our ideal temperature to add the rennet. This is a delicate moment that must be attended to. If it cools too quickly, it won’t acidify correctly and we’ll have problems. If it stays too hot it could acidify too fast and we’ll lose control of the cheese make. Stringy and over-acidified curd could be the result, which then leads to inconsistent cheese sizing, and difficult ladling and, well, not what you want.

So I check the pH and I check the temperature, and, having made this cheese many, many times now, I work off my experience and take a coffee break, check in on the caves, clean up the lactic processing room, and of course scrub down and rinse the pasteurizing vat. Camembert takes time. More time than hard cheeses, less time than lactic. It has its laws that we must follow.

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Patience and care pay off. The milk acidifies perfectly and at the perfect temperature we add the rennet.

Rennet is the naturally produced enzyme which breaks down milk. We obtain it from baby ruminants before they are weaned from drinking milk (think calves, kid, lambs).

I love the tale that Mario Battali told in one of his articles (which one?) on the origins of cheese. The hypothesis is that a long, long time ago a hunter roasted a whole young ruminant (kid, faun? lamb?) and discovered a lovely gelled milk product in the intestines. In fact, when I met Mario the other day he described a classic Italian peasant dish called (????) that serves up inch long pieces of lamb (or kid) intestines filled with curdled milk (quite similar to ricotta) and simmered in sauce like small ravioli. He promised that we might make this dish together one day (can I hold him to that promise? Wouldn’t that be grand!).

Add the rennet. Wait. Check for the Floculation point. Pay attention. Calculate. Wait. Observe. Get ready. Cut. Move around. Cut. Remove whey. Wait. Cut. Move around. Remove Whey. Wait. Check for texture. Observe. Ready? Ladle. Wait. Flip. Wait. Flip. Go home to rest and come back the next day. Flip. Salt. Wait. Flip. Salt. Wait. Observe. Is the rind beginning? Is it beginning to look a bit fuzzy? Time for the caves. Do I wrap them before or after they head to the caves? Hmmmm.

Camembert belongs to the family of “pâtes molles” – soft paste, or more prosaically, runny cheese. As I’ve learned, many factors contribute to that uniquely gooey texture of a ripened camembert. And slowly, I’m gaining the skills to manage and predict this most wonderful behavior that comes from the gentle breakdown of the proteins and fat in the cheese encouraged by that most white of rinds.

To help make these decisions we test the milk solids before cheese make – protein and fat content – are they high? Are they consistent with the past few weeks? What is the ratio of one to the other? Colleagues who’ve been making cheese for decades simply taste the milk, feel it in their fingers and on their tongue, and they just know. Their senses speak to them, but they are also aided by their knowledge of the seasons and the pastures their herds feast upon. All contribute to milk quality. I am learning the variations of milk quality and how they coincide with time on pasture, rainy days, post-kidding wearies and more.

I never expected to make camemberts when I first made goat cheese in Provence. When you tell a French friend that you’re interested in goats, this is the last cheese that will come to mind. And frequently I’ve encountered doubtful and surprised friends and colleagues. Truly? a goat camembert? Yes, gooey and delicate. Reminiscent, if also very different from its French cousin. Time to make some of my favorite multi-grain bread to go with it.

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Back in the Old Country

Back in France for a visit over the holidays. And of course, cheese plates and cheese are a focal point of every gathering. We may begin the many feasts with foie gras mi-cuit, smoked salmon and various pâtés, but always, always, before dessert comes the cheese.

And, having lived the past two years as a cheese maker, I have a completely different take on what is now my life blood. I’m in awe of the funky, dark rinded, smelly and powerful objects placed before me. “These come from our cousins in Corsica. Best taken with a chunk of bread.” And I say to myself, after carefully slicing off the dark gray rind, seeking the more tender blond center, a good sip of powerful red wine wouldn’t be amiss either.

The next day’s cheese is wrapped in paper towels and tin foil. This one is from their aunt, or their neighbor, back in Corsica. A special gift for the season. Or perhaps they brought it back this past summer when they were visiting? Age is relative. The potent scent wafts up as the package is peeled apart. I will of course taste it. It is common knowledge that I don’t care much for Roquefort or Blue cheeses (and this fact always brings a grimace and a shake of their heads. How could I not??? And I call myself a cheese maker. Harumph!). But, as long as the blue is not a defining characteristic of the cheese, it will most often pass my lips.

And yes, with a good chunk of bread and a swallow of strong wine, that pungent bite is almost pleasant.

And I think to myself, if ever my cheeses were to get to this point, would anyone on the other side of the Atlantic taste them? Buy them? Well, maybe my herdsmen.  🙂 They’ve become specialists in cheeses that have a few too many blue spots, or that are too runny to sell, or that have ripened too far to be transported to market.

To give you an idea of what is still considered edible, and is in fact sought after by a few, I’ll share this photo from the Cheese shop Vergne in Nîmes where I worked for a week last year.Image