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!!!

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?

Discovering Obsalim – a Method for observing and healing ruminants.

If you’d like to learn about my time in Avignon, my truffle market and truffle hunting adventures and more, please take a look at my other blog An American in Avignon. It was glorious to be back in France, and my truffle and foie gras courses went wonderfully. On this blog, I’ll return to my goat and cheese focus.

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When I was investigating goat herding and cheese-making years ago, I’d heard about Obsalim, a method for diagnosing various symptoms in ruminants that could be read visually, and linked to their feed. I was fascinated by this method and wanted to learn more. So, having contacted the web site and sought out the English version of the method (promised in translation for the past few years, though not yet in evidence). I wrote to the person who developed this methodology, Dr. Bruno Giboudeau, a veterinarian who’s been practicing for over 30 years. Dually trained in traditional & homeopathic veterinarian medicine, he resides in the Jura, land of Comté cheeses. In between projects as I’ve been, I thought that translating his book and method and assisting in its diffusion in the United States might be a great interim activity. I’ve done a number of translations, and, I rather do understand the subject 🙂

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Dr. Bruno got back to me when I was in France and let me know that most of his book is translated, but he’s in search of an editing house in the US and/or English speaking world to publish the English edition. We decided to meet at my house so we could discuss this possibility. In anticipation of his visit, I read his book cover to cover (which focuses on cows), and studied up on his deck of cards for goats. In fact, his system is far more than a methodology between two covers. It has been translated into a computer program, and into a very easy to use set of playing cards, one for each of the three primary ruminants: cows, goats and sheep. At this time, the cards are available in English, but not the book.

Dr. Bruno is interested in not only having his book edited and published in the US, but also training up herdsmen, dairy men and veterinarians to put his methods into their hands. To help me see how this might be done, we spent the day together visiting first a cow dairy (where I get my raw cow milk when in France) and then a goat dairy.

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Alongside the expert I observed the patterns of hair growth on the cows, the quantity and color of the deposits in the corner of their eyes, their shiny and damp noses, the consistency of the patties, that they were quite skinny & boney, the quality of the hay they were eating and the general look of the herd as a whole. We were also drawn to a couple of the cows who had severely overgrown hooves that were pointing forward akin to Moroccan slippers, rather than growing straight.

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We then took out the set of cards for cows and went through the different symptoms, pulling out those that fit that day’s observations. We added up the numbers on the bottom (a series of coefficients that are linked to protein intake and assimilation, energy intake and assimilation, & fiber intake and assimilation). When we had done this, Dr. Bruno looked at the numbers, observed that the condition the cows were in indicated that something had changed in the diet 3 weeks ago, and that there was an insufficient intake of protein at the root of their shiny noses and inconsistent hair patterns. We spoke with the Jean-Michel, the farmer and he concurred that as of 3 weeks ago he’d begun taking the cows back out onto pasture, but to a pasture that was a goodly walk away from the farm. Many had recently calved and were coming into what should have been a heavy milking period. But according to the farmer, the milk quantity wasn’t great. So what triggered their current physical state? Well, they were eating fresh spring grass, expending too much energy to get to the pasture block. And, looking at the hay they were eating, we could observe very straight and long stalks with barely developed leaves & flower buds – rich in chlorophyll and energy, but not in protein. Dr. Bruno and the farmer discussed the quality of the feed grain (from a bag, sold and delivered by a local ag salesman), the quality of the hay, and the fact that the long walk the cows took every morning and evening at this time in their milking cycle was melting the flesh off them. He suggested the farmer might compensate by upping the feed intake to compensate for the need for higher protein intake, and perhaps switch the cows to a closer pasture.

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The cows were calm and at peace otherwise. How can you judge this? well, they were eating steadily and quietly, and we were there for over 15 minutes before we observed one of them poop. When studying ruminants, you study their poop, or les bouses as we say in France. Texture, color, flecks of straw, length of the fibrous strands, and more. – Had they been stressed, we would have observed many of them relieving themselves while in the barn and on the stands. After waiting a bit longer we finally observed 4 different cows poop.  It was relatively fluid, but not watery. Dr. Bruno collected samples and put them through a strainer, we were able to observe that in fact, the cows were quite ably digesting their hay. The fluid texture was not something to worry about that day, as it was linked to their being back on pasture, and their systems adapting to the high humidity in the spring grasses after being on dry hay all winter.

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I watched while Dr. Bruno inspected the over grown hooves, discussed how the farmer might manage them, and why those particular cows had developed these. A goat person myself, I find the sheer size, weight and muddiness of cows impressive and daunting.

So, I was far more in my element when we went off to visit Nathalie outside of Paradou, at the foot of the Alpilles. I was only just meeting Nathalie. As so many of the goat people I’ve been friends with over the years have retired, I actually had to search around for someone to visit. And so I came upon Nathalie, a joyous women of Swiss descent, who clearly adores her goats and who shared with me her views and beliefs concerning goat behavior. Dr. Bruno expanded on a number of elements.

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Nathalie has a mixed herd of goats with horns – some of which were truly large. As is the way with goats, she with the greatest age and the longest horns is the queen of the herd. All differ to her. She knows the length of her horns, as do her fellow goats, who carefully leave her the space she demands. Nathalie had recently cut some horizontal slits in the walls of her barn to permit gentle air movement. She was also anticipating the births of all her primary does. She discussed goat hierarchies, redesigning her barn to take this into consideration. She leaves her bucks with her does through the spring, and all fall and winter. Removing them only in the early summer when the does began to go into heat. This permits her to care more easily for the whole herd through the winter and helps calm the herd (a bit of testosterone apparently has this effect) and prevent fights amongst the does.DSC_0058

So, there I was with my veterinarian, looking for symptoms to diagnose, but these goats were all in such good health that there was little to see beyond sleek coats, bright eyes, long smooth horns, and calm dispositions. The poops were firm little black berries as they should be, no stray bits of undigested hay in them. Nathalie said in passing, when you’ve such happy goats, the milk goes up and is better quality. Far more effective than giving them more barley

.DSC_0059So much to think about. We exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Then off home to digest all this information and this very full day.

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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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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Kids and more kids

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Goats are funny and wonderful animals. They learn very very quickly. And amongst the things they can learn is to rely heavily upon their herdsmen. If you give too much, if you’re too present, if you’re too helpful… they’ll get into the habit of letting you do all the work. You occasionally get a doe mom who just stops pushing, waiting for someone to help her put that kid into this world. So, you need to be there, yet resist the urge to intervene. But when you’ve a doe who’s done all the hard work of getting a kid’s head out of her and then she just stops to rest, but keeps moving around, even possibly hitting that head agains the wall of her box….. Well, we do just jump in and help out then, holding her still, and getting that little one out of her and under her nose so she can clean it off and show it some love.

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Clearly our feeding regimen and many sunny winter walks with the goats has paid off. They are in top health, even after this terribly long winter being mostly indoors with pasture time still off in the distance. Oh there are a couple with a bit of scraggly hair and some rough patches on their backs. But nothing that some spring sunshine and fresh browse outside won’t cure quickly enough. Now, if only winter would finally cease and permit some greenery to appear…

 

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I do love being around our does and their little kids. This is a time when the does are particularly affectionate and quick to nuzzle and come up for a scratch on the head. The kids play, leap, climb and tumble, often atop their mom’s who lounge patiently on the straw. We’ve left the kids with their moms for these first couple of weeks and so we get the crazy sight of multiple kids going after the teats of one of the more patient does. They still do prefer their moms, but you get the feeling that some does just have a bit more maternal instinct than others, and the kids sense it. Depending on when you look into the barn, you’ll catch them in one of four stages : going after a teat, napping in clusters and piles of kids, standing on their hind legs to reach the hay in the feeder, or climbing/leaping/playing. But then again, those are the four stages of many a life, no?

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Kids in the barn means milk in the creamery. Our new milking stands are getting a workout. It took the design skills of 5 of us, tweaking, brainstorming, testing, to get to the final set up. But it works like a charm. The goats have learned to manage it very quickly. They still want to go backwards on occasion (as they did last year), but that’s manageable. Milking is now a vastly more efficient act. IMG_3632

Our first cheeses are rolling out – literally logs and rounds and tubs. Smooth, creamy, lovely. I love this time of the year when it’s all just ramping up, one step at a time.

 

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