The Mystery of the Mozzarella

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About two weeks ago, Marisa walked out of the laboratory looking frustrated and stressed. For some reason, the buffalo mozzarella wasn’t coming out right, and she had had to throw away all of the cheese she had made that day. She had no clue what could be wrong. Everything was the same as the day before, when the cheese had come out lusciously creamy. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the process.

Around 6:00 the next day, I looked in to the window of the lab and saw her throwing away another batch of cheese. Again, the mozzarella had a weird texture and a bad taste. And again, we had no explanation for what had happened.

We wracked our brains for what could have gone wrong, starting with the new batch of rennet she had recently gotten in the mail. She had been using it for a few days already and it had worked well, but she was still suspicious, and immediately put in a rush order for a new batch. The new rennet did nothing, and at this point, a weeks worth of cheese had been unsuccessful. Marisa then milked each of the buffalo individually, storing the milk from each in a different container, so that she could try making cheese from each to see if one of the buffalo was perhaps the problem. No luck; none of the batches of mozzarella worked.

Marisa had already called every cheese maker and cheese savant that she knew, asking for a solution, with no luck. Not many people know how to make buffalo mozzarella, and especially not in France (buffalo mozzarella is a traditionally Italian cheese). Finally, Marisa spoke to someone from the company who sell her the culture she uses for the goat milk cheese. As soon as they heard what was happening to the cheese, they knew what the problem was; the milk composition had changed, and was causing different reactions during the cheesemaking process. She needed to adjust the quantities of each component of the cheesemaking process to the changing milk.

No one really knows why the milk changed. Marisa has been making this cheese for 2 years now, and has never yet had an issue with the composition of the milk. This taught all of us, though, how tenuous a fresh cheesemaking production can be. Marisa lost two weeks of sales, a huge blow for a small producer like her. But she came out the other end with new cheesemaking knowledge, and is now back to making delectable balls of buffalo mozzarella. When customers ask about the high cost of the mozzarella, Marisa explains that it’s two times the work for half of the cheese, and therefore four times as expensive–and this hiccup served to underline exactly how true that is.

The Importance of Milk Quality

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After almost two weeks at the farm, I’m exhausted but happy, spending my days caring for and milking goats, bottle feeding the kids, and working in the lab. Marisa has been teaching me a lot already about cheesemaking, and it’s all much easier to understand this time, now that my French is up to snuff. I’ve been making a lot of fresh fromage de chèvre, fromage blanc (similar to yogurt but fresher), faiselle (basically curd that has been lightly drained, eaten very fresh), and watching as Marisa forms the beautiful rounds of buffalo mozzarella.

The other day I was spooning whey in to molds with Marisa in the lab, putting the same amount in each mold as I had the day before. She stopped me and told me I only needed about half as much whey for each cheese, because the whey was different today. I asked how she could tell and responded, ‘I can’t explain it, but I just know.’ She told me that the whey was different today because the milk was different. The milk could change because it rained and got colder, or because the goats had eaten a bit less that day, or for some reason we didn’t quite know.

This concept of the milk changing is bizarre, but it is also the root of any good cheese. Quality milk is one of the most important parts of producing good flavor in cheese, particularly in fresh, unpasteurized cheeses like Marisa’s frais fromage de chèvre. However, quality milk is a lot of work, and every detail counts–you need to take very good care of your animals, your barn, your milking equipment, and your lab. If your animals aren’t doing well, or your milking room isn’t clean, or any other small part of the process changes, your cheese will suffer.

It is also crucial to have this understanding of how the milk changes from day to day, something that still eludes me. It takes years of working with the milk to know when the curd is going to act differently, and how to compensate. Marisa is somewhat of a cheese wizard in her command of the milk. The second something is a little different, she knows how to fix it so that her cheese isn’t affected. That mastery of the milk is truly the mark of an accomplished cheesemaker.