My interests lie in creating as much of my own resources as possible. One of my favorite things to experiment with making is cheese. I see it as an art, and love nothing more than to try the plethora of varieties out there. On our yearly pilgrimage to Vermont, my husband always rolls his eyes at me as I wander into cheese stores, inevitably emerging with an odd assortment of wedges and hunks worth a quarter of our mortgage payment. “It’s three-time blue-ribbon winner! Cloth-bound and cave aged!” I defend, romanced by it all. He doesn’t get it.
Cheeses is complex, unique, and often culturally or regionally representative
As with any hobby or art, when you’re into it, you’re really into it. So it’s no surprise that in my kitchen you will find a motley collection of baskets, molds, presses and mats all designed for creating cheese. It’s always amazing to me that the same one ingredient- milk- can be transformed into such a diverse variety of texture and taste, just based on simple, subtle manipulations of temperature and technique.
Kind of like a blank canvas: the way these cultured curds are pressed and cured will determine what type of cheese they will form
I will say this: it takes a long time to make cheese. For those looking for a quick experiment or a half-day project, perhaps one of the soft cheeses like quark, paneer, or- if you can find goat’s milk- chevre would be best suited to you. There’s also a pretty famous recipe for 30-minute mozzarella out there, though I have yet to try it.
Harder cheeses and mold-ripened cheeses require a bit more finesse, specification, and a whole lot more time. The basic principles are the same: heat milk, add a bacterial culture which alters the protein structure and creates lactic acid, then add rennet, which coagulates and separates the solids of the milk (curds) from the liquids (whey.) From there, the curds are processed according to the type of cheese they will become: they may be cooked, washed, salted, molded, or pressed.
Curds make the cheese, but leftover whey can be added to breads, soups, or other recipes, or fed as a high-protein treat to chickens
The specifics of additives and time spent processing and aging define the type of cheese you’ll end up with. Many of our table cheeses like cheddar and colby are formed with mesophilic bacterial cultures and are aged only a few weeks or months, while the harder grating cheeses like romano and parmesan are created with thermophilic bacteria and aged for many years. Swiss cheese requires the addition of an extra bacteria that respirates carbon dioxide gas to create its characteristic holes, and mold-ripened cheeses (blue, gorgonzola, brie and the like) have living fungal cultures added to them, which further digest the cultured cheese, producing gooey, fermented wonders. Yum!
the mold ripening on the outside of this brie ferments and digests the milk proteins, producing the characteristic texture and flavor
Aging a cheese is equally complex. Temperature and humidity requirements can be quite specific and sometimes hard to replicate in the average home. However, even those of us without subterranean caves can usually achieve the right environment by chilling our fridges a little more and storing the aging cheese in Tupperware, which holds high humidity. Some cheeses age and ripen unwaxed, and mature by forming their own beautiful and unique hard rind. Others are brush-painted with hot wax, which creates a protective seal for the maturing cheese underneath. There is certainly a lot to be learned!
I made a colby from two gallons of milk this week. It took about eighteen hours total, with many good hours spent monitoring temperature and stirring curds in their various stage of development. Most of the time, though, is just pressing the cheese, which is fun and oddly satisfying. When the wheel is done air-drying, I’ll wax it and age it for about three months. I end up with about two pounds of cheese, and I end up saving money, though of course it does cost me a day’s worth of time.
So what does cheese have to do with Cleveland Metroparks? Well… it doesn’t, directly. But as you follow our blog, I will presume that you, dear reader, are a lover of nature and understand the deep interconnectedness between the wildness of open space and the impacts our personal choices have upon that wildness. When we make decisions about what we buy, do, and subscribe to in our daily lives, our actions reverberate out into the world. When I buy good cheese, which to me means that it is made by a small producer that uses milk from sustainably, ethically kept animals, then I feel as though my choice is striking a vote for the kind of world I want to live in.
I want to support foods and farms that respect the land, water, and wildlife that we all rely on to keep our world clean, livable, and perpetuating. With over seven billion people on earth, lines begin to blur, and the boundaries between human habitation, farming, and what remains of “wild” space increasingly overlap and intersect. We may not have endless swaths of forest like we once did, but most of us do have a yard that we can utilize to support both ourselves and wildlife. We all eat, and many of us have the power to influence both economy and environment by choosing foods that have an ethical history.
We are connected to the land around us. We can take conservation action by choosing foods that come from ecologically-minded farms.
When I spend hours on the stove making my own cheese, painstakingly adjusting temperatures and stirring until my arm is sore, then I have a very real and full recognition of how much energy, time, and effort it takes to make what is, when you really think about it, a luxury. I am lucky to have the time and resources to do this. I am lucky to be able to get fresh milk. I have petted the cows who make this milk and spoken with the farmer who milks them. It all adds up to this greater realm of experience, value, and specialness.
I know it’s not for everyone. But, hey- if it’s not cheese, maybe it’s something else in your life. Maybe you’ll plan to grow and can your own tomatoes from seed next year. Maybe you’ll create a wild starter and bake your own bread. You can teach your kids or grand-kids what broccoli looks like when it is growing in the ground, or raise some chicks and delight in the miracle of a fresh egg. The possibilities are endless, but the connection is the same: an intimate relationship with your food from beginning to end grounds you and transforms you in profound ways that are hard to put into words. I feel that sharing that connection with others kindles the dim flame of primal nature that smolders deep within us all. And the beauty of it is the simplicity. As I take the wheel of colby from the press, I am very near brought to tears in this act of creating, passing on, and hopefully giving back.
Not too shabby for a hunk of cheese.