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.

IMG_3213

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.

IMG_3325

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.

IMG_3283

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.

DSC_0249

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.

IMG_3925

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!!!

So Much to Tell — Thank you Claudine

So much to write about. I’ve really let time get away. But then can’t I deny I’ve been hugely busy. Babies have been born, more aptly called kids. Enormous bellies and distended udders have released over 25 pounds of flesh and bone and a gallon of colostrum. Imagine carrying all that! We could nearly hear those joints creaking.

Image

Today’s total is 37, but there are more to come. Still four does to kid of the 28 who were bred.

But for two who’d been bred before we purchased them, our does seemed to carefully time the arrivals of their little ones to the appearance of Claudine Espigue, my very dear and supremely competent and generous goat cheese maker from Provence. For many who visited me in my last incarnation as a tour guide of culinary and wine delights in Provence, you may remember her and her wonderful cheeses. Well, she has just sold her herd and retired, in time to be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to assist and coach us as our does kidded.

Image

Somehow, amidst all the confusion of the fall breeding season, we were able to collect our gestation estimates and get her here all the way from St Martin de Crau just at the right time. I picked her up at the TC airport at 11pm on Sunday night and Monday at 5AM we received our first of a dozen calls to come that a kid was on his way. In fact that first one went quite well. A doe of two years birthed two beautiful bucks (one I very much want to keep for future breeding). Image

Over the next week and a few that Claudine was at my side we were called in at 3AM, midnight, 9:30pm, 7AM, noon… from our beds, from a friend’s house, from the creamery (where we’d begun to play with milk and whey). Each of our team got a chance to work with Claudine by their side. We had a few very difficult births, a couple even had sad endings (two still born boys). Yet having the experience of a life-time and the calm presence and great humor of Claudine alongside us  transformed those moments from terrifying to profound learning.

With the help of some dear friends who invited us over, her time here was not only work – Claudine is now quite convinced that Michigan harbors some superb cooks, fantastic local cuisine, beautiful homes and pretty darn good wines. She’s discovered the joys of Muck boots, walking atop an iced over beach, jeep rides along a snowy bluff, and daily snow storms. Her cooking lit up my home and warmed our tummies. Where did she get all that energy to cook when I was perpetually pooped from all those short nights?

Image

It is now two weeks since she returned to a far warmer corner of this world (and far greener, no doubt she’s eating asparagus and strawberries as I write this!). From fifteen kids at her departure the number has more than doubled. Each member of the team has had his or her moment of glory and we’ve a pen full of the most beautiful kids as proof.

Image

With the kids comes milking the does. And with the milk of the does comes making cheese. And with the kids comes the need to feed them on a punctual and regular basis. And with all this comes lots of things to keep clean, be they swept, shoveled, power-washed or scrubbed. And with that making of cheese comes cleaning molds and pasteurizing and washing and turning and flipping and tweaking all those wonderful cheese caves we’ve put in our creamery. Image

Thank you Claudine for helping me inaugurate our creamery with your cheese skills and flavors. And thank you to so many for this very very full and fruitful kidding season. It is our first with our full herd together, our new team in place, and our building pretty much ready to roll. Onward and upward.

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

perfect curd3

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.

IMG_0129IMG_0132 IMG_0136

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.

IMG_0042

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.

IMG_0085

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?

The most sensual of cheeses

2013-05-04 16.01.49

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.

2013-05-02 14.52.50

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.

IMG_3796

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.

Rain Stirs Memories

A view towards the Pyrenees peaks, hidden by the mist

It is remarkably damp and rainy this month. Granted, I’m more accustomed to the 300 days of sunshine in Provence. The rare weekend of pouring rain mid-fall might come dripping through a porous roof, rendering the clay rich soil of my Avignon garden muddy and heavy, potentially harming the wine harvest. Actually as I think of it, in Provence when it did rain heavily catastrophes followed, floods, washed away homes, broken dikes. Either we had too little or too much over a short, so short period of time.

Across the road from our barn in Northport.

Yet here I am in a damp world. A world that suffered droughts this summer. Apparently the sky is doing its best to compensate. The goats’ pasture is green. Not yet lush, but green and pushing up some fall grass.

It all reminds me of the Pyrenees. So lush, so green, so damp, so muddy. Where I learned so much, but where I felt chilled to the bone more often than not.

As I work on improving my skills making tommes. As I share early samples with the restaurants here in my region, I think back to where I’ve learned and tasted and sampled such cheeses.

J, my French cheese technician, the friend of a friend of a friend who took me on and helped me learn so much. He received me in his at-times cozy, at-times chilled home atop a hill behind Orthez. There with the wood fire burning in the little stove, his purring, persistent kitten on my lap, the creaking central staircase ringing out in the otherwise quiet mornings when I went down for my first cup of tea, I asked questions, I sought knowledge, explanations, details, and I ate many a good meal, ‘bien arrosé’ as we’d say with some good wine I’d brought as a thank you.

In Provence I had colleagues and friends who could show me how to make lactic cheeses, the basic chèvre, or crottin, or pélardon. A few made tommes in the springtime when they had an excess of milk and gave me my first classes in these cheeses back in 2008. Yet their primary cheese was always the little tart rounds, fresh and aged, occasionally rolled in savory leaves, or pepper, or filled with black olive tapenade. And so this is the one I know best.

In the rainy, damp, misty setting of the Pyrenees, driving up tight and winding roads, seeing those spectacular white peaks in the distance, or overlooking a magnificent valley, the tomme is king. In this land the 3-5 kilo sheeps’ milk tomme is the best known. But a few rebels choose to work with goats, and J knows them all. With his introduction I was received daily during my visits to these cheese makers. They told me more or less how they made cheese (no one will tell you exactly). They allowed me to be alongside them as they worked, and cleaned (hot water and fresh nettles from the garden for one cheese vat), molded and washed. I saw tiny operations of 30 some goats who gave barely a litre and a half per goat, no more than 300 litres in a year, and I visited large operations with over 200 goats, mostly automated feeding and milking, with large quantities of multiple cheeses in their cellars.

I saw things not to do, as well as elements to adopt. I witnessed the frustrations of mucor (also known as “poile de chat” or cat’s hair, a gray mold that is desirable on the tomme de savoie, but is a bane to all other cheeses) invading the lactic room when a cheese maker had the bad habit of working in her tomme cellar and then trapesing back through the lactic processing room, her body no doubt covered in the spoors of her salted and rubbed cheeses. As they say, it’s far easier to bring things into a cheese room than to take them back out again.