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?

When Flipping Cheese

This is a blog post from December 2009 — back when I was interning in France — It feels like a long long time ago!

From a one-day in the mold (or half for some cheesemakers) to the 10 day aged in the aging room. The visual and tactile evolution of goat cheese rounds.

Flipping soft cheese is an art, a skill to be acquired, mastered, practiced, repeated ad infinitum. It is zen-meditation inspiring. You are manipulating lovely textures, ever so gently, back into the mold or out onto the drying racks. In the spring time, the action can go on for hours. Now, two weeks before the end of season, it is relatively brief. Two days’ worth of cheese is flipped in simply a little under an hour. That soft and breakable one day cheese is now in my fingers, now in its mold, ready to continue releasing its whey and turning into a firm little round. And the two day olds are ready to be flipped out and put in the drying room. Those in the drying room are switched to the aging room, and those in the aging room… age.

hmmmm.

I did get to be with Isabelle a bit this past Thursday. Yet again on the chemo. Her liver is suffering, but has built back up to a certain level of tolerance after her three week chemo-hiatus. English class was cancelled, and I was looking forward to a more graciously slow-moving meal of sea bream, dorade, and sauteed veggies together in her and Paul Pierre’s company, when school called to tell me Leo was sick. Ah well, I passed over the vegetable making to Isabelle, gave her the ritual three kisses, and headed out the door.

The afternoon finished quite peacefully with my boy and I watching Ivanhoe on the computer. A gift really. With children who are almost never sick, quiet time together just has to be accepted out of the blue when the universe so chooses.

Learning & seeking is a way of life for a cheesemaker.

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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What Cheese to Make?

IMG_2515In a world where one country can propose over 246 different kinds of cheese (as spoketh De Gaulle), how does one decide what cheeses to make? There are multiple options and few limitations in today’s world, but all those different cheeses came about due to quite clear and delineated limitations.

Why are the alpine cheeses made so large and so dense? How glorious to enjoy those aged, nutty flavors and crumbly, crystal filled textures.

And what about tender fresh chèvre? How did they come about?

Creamy and decadent camembert, brie and vacherin, or stinky meunster and époisses.

Natural gray rinds, or sticky orange ones?

If I were to work in France I would make the cheese of the region, whatever it would be, as there simply wouldn’t be much of a market for someone who bucks the local trends. A teacher of mine tried to make camembert style cheese in the Pyrenees, and found he could barely make a living. Colleagues in Provence make some hard cheeses from their goat milk in early spring, when there’s an abundance of milk, and the tourist season has yet to take off. But as soon as the market picks up, they’re making their classic little pélardons and crottins.

As an American cheese maker, there’s not much local cheese tradition to fall back on. There’s a definite local preference for hard cheeses; cheddar and gouda being the best known and most frequently appreciated. But, I don’t think I’m here to make what is familiar, or rather not necessarily.

Thus, how to choose? Well, you could say, as I’m working with goat milk, that limits my options. Yes, the best known goat cheese is the fresh, creamy and slightly acidic white cheese, great for spreading, blending, baking. But in fact, goat milk can be used for any cheese (practically) that you can make with cow’s milk. The fat globules are smaller and more fragile in goat milk, so not every recipe will be as successful, and the handling of the milk is of the utmost importance. But, that said, you can always try, taste the results, and then decide.

So back to decisions and options. The French break down the cheese world in a few standard categories:

les lactiques – these are your creamy fresh cheeses that have a somewhat ‘yogurty’ bite, easily spread on your toast – crottins, pélardons, cabécous, St Félicien, St Marcellin, St. André triple cream. These cheeses are generally eaten young, even just a couple of days old. They are fragile, don’t travel well, have a short shelf life, but have a high yield for the cheese maker, and thus as long as there’s a market nearby, it’s a great style to make. Anyone who’s visited Provence markets and noted the abundance of fresh little chèvres crottins or pélardons can see the proof of this. All the local goat cheese makers work with these styles. It keeps their lives simple, keeps their yield at its highest (the only thing higher is yogurt), and permits them to work consistently and to earn steadily throughout the season and the years. One of the extra boons to this style is that if it is aged dry and hard (which is possible), it can keep for a very long time and still be enjoyed.

les pâtes molles – this is the soft cheese family that includes the bloomy rinds: brie, camembert, as well as the washed rinds: reblochon, époisses, meunster.  This is a fragile and short shelf life cheese. It takes generally 3-4 weeks to mature, and once at its peak, should find a home and a cheese plate relatively quickly. Whereas an aged lactic cheese above can be grated on salads, or brought on a hike  – an old soft bloomy or washed rind cheese goes terribly ammoniac and over-runny. Once past peak, a camembert’s life is short and over. But consider the home of the Brie: the department Seine et Marne which makes up a portion of the Ile de France, best known for its lovely city, Paris, home of kings, beloved of kings, and proximity to the wealth of Champagne. Brie has been made and eaten by an abundance of high dignitaries for centuries. It travels across oceans today, but traditionally, it didn’t need to travel far to be consumed, and to enrich its makers. And, if you’ve ever spent time in these regions, you’ll note the high rain fall, the dark and damp winters, the effects of river valleys. High humidity, damp and cold but not freezing temperatures… sounds like a perfect cave to me.

les pâtes préssées non-cuites – these are pressed cheeses that are not heated particularly high during cheese make (generally under 40C or 100F) including the tommes des Pyrénées, morbier, raclette, tomme de Savoie. These cheeses have a longer shelf life than the pâtes molles, upwards of 3-6 months. They are often washed rind, occasionally natural rind. They are soft but not runny, easily and cleanly cut with a knife, but great for melting over a baked potato. Their yield is lower than the lactics (5:1) and the pâtes molles (7:1), at an average of 10:1. These cheeses are generally made in manageable sizes – 2-5 kilos, 5-15lbs. A great family cheese, ideal for transporting mid-length distances. Not usually found over 6 months old, but occasional batches can be tasted  – some bite back, some are fantastic.

les pâtes préssées cuites – these are the cheeses that are brought to a high temperature, the curd cut as small as possible (rice grains), and pressed with heavy weights. Imagine where they came and come from : the high hills of summer, a shepherd or more surrounded by his cows, taking advantage of the wonderful grazing areas, but far far away from town, market, family. Living in the alps, summers are short, winters are long. Milk is abundant and lower in fat when the grass is green. Thus, this cheese evolved to use up a lot of milk, put it into as compact a shape as possible, made to age for upwards of a year, and so cover the food needs of the family throughout the harsh winters. 35 gallons of milk will yield 20 lbs of cheese. 130 litres for under 10 kilos. Which may lose 15% its weight over the months of aging. A yield ratio of approximately 13:1. It is a glorious cheese. Delicious, designed to last a long long while, salty and crumbly, dense and nourishing.

And so, what do I make here? In this land with a great summer filled with outdoor markets, awesome restaurants, a short spring, stunning fall, and very cold and (for this poor girl from Provence) overly long winter? Well, in the spring, I start with tommes of the Pâte préssée non-cuite variety – smaller tommes designed to ripen for the summer market. Then I get busy on fresh for the local restaurants and specialty markets – fresh in tubs, fresh in delicate forms such as crottins, logs and pélardons. And then I begin my pâte molle, the camembert. I start small with this cheese, careful of its short shelf life, and desirous of finding a home for every cheese I make. I know that the local market will pick up in May and June when the weather improves. It will take off like a rocket when the Fourth of July arrives. Thus, the camembert being one of my most popular cheeses, I’ll adjust my cheese makes to have enough (I hope) for our summer visitors.

Late summer, I’ll start making tommes again, most likely of the pâte préssées cuites variety in larger sizes that will age over the fall and be ready for Christmas. The fall milk will be likewise managed into large rounds that can age through the winter, and perhaps even to next summer.

No doubt, this being the United States, where it seems anything is possible, the above cheese-make calendar will evolve and adapt. The challenges will always be there, and I’m looking forward to making the best possible cheeses I can.

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

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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Giving Thanks

As I went to the farm today and spent my morning transforming the last of this year’s milk, washing the tommes made this fall, I gave thanks. When I visited our truly beautiful and affectionate goats (may they all be pregnant!), filling their water buckets and receiving their nibbles, I gave thanks. And as I drove back to my house in a driving, cold wind filled with sleet and snow, I gave thanks.

At this time last year I was scheduling a trip to the Pyrenees to help design this structure. I had not yet told many people (other than my goat cheese makers) what I was up to. It was all in the planning, and all far into the future.  We didn’t know yet where we were going to live, if the boys would be okay with the shift of worlds and schools. I hadn’t yet broken the news to their father. The planning stages that would need to happen to move a family of 3 plus dog across an ocean and into a different language and culture had only just begun to manifest.

And here we are, in the midst of an incredible and beautiful project. With my boys by my side, I’m learning,  growing, and creating.

I’m grateful to explore and develop this goat farm, from the choice of animals, to the experiments with cheese, caramel, ricotta and… It is one thing to learn and to study and to think a project. It is far more enriching to actually make it all happen and work with it from the beginning through its many stages of completion. A project such as this has the potential to grow and evolve throughout its existence. We’ll get the buildings built, we’ll get the first does and bucks of our herd, we’ll make our first selection of cheeses. And then all these will continue to evolve, to be tweaked, to be adapted to our needs and to the markets we end up supplying and reacting to.

I am grateful for the many teachers I’ve had: The cheese-makers I befriended so long ago in Provence, who first taught me and shared this passion.  The technicians who’ve helped me take this traditional knowledge and skill to a more intellectual comprehension of what I’m actually doing and trying to do — and who are there to answer my questions and help me work through problems in, ahem, camemberts that are most terribly temperamental.

I’m very lucky. I know it. And so I sit and grow in the positions of manager, visionary and cheese-maker. Thank you all of you.

Are they or Aren’t they?

Well, we’re still not too certain which of our does are pregnant, and which not. It’s imperative that we have milk in the spring. So, we want all the does pregnant (c’est à dire pleine), and ideally kidding within the same month. We’ve been letting nature do her thing, and maybe we’re mostly set. But…. that doubt is still there. The vet is coming next week to either calm our fears or push us to try the alternative. So, we’ll be looking into AI (artificial insemination) and thus are now doing the research to invest in the necessary equipment, cold storage (liquid nitrogen) etc., to do so. An exciting new step.

One of the people we bought a few of our beautiful new goats from is strongly encouraging us – he also knows someone who has quite a number of straws of excellent quality semen from one of the best breeders of the past couple decades. With these we could do some very interesting breeding in the future, moving towards specific results over and beyond milk quality.

Is this necessary for a goat dairy? Not absolutely. But being able to AI our does when we know they’re ready to breed would be a useful skill to acquire.

Meantime, as I left the farm tonight having put my tomme into the brine and salted my camemberts, I stopped by to visit the goats and just spend time with them. Our star buck  was doing a dance with one of our beautiful new triplets. He nudged her against the fence, and she wagged her tale happily. He pushed her against the wall, and she simply stayed by him, in his touch and space. A couple of our Saanens tried to nuzzle him away from her, and even tried to come between them. But he made his intentions clear and they moved out of his range. It took awhile, but the dance did finally peak in his mounting her not once but twice. It goes so quickly, you’re not certain that it could be enough. But maybe…  In any case, he’s certainly on the job.