The Miracle That is Cheese

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If I were to try and convince someone of the existence of a higher power, I would do so through the miracle that is cheese. Without prior knowledge, who could possibly imagine that the delectable morsels we snack on are created through the transformation of something as simple as milk? In my opinion, the miracle that is the creation of cheese is practically on par with Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Following this logic, the cheesemakers that act out this miraculous transformation on a daily basis are essentially prophets, spreading the word of good food.

I may be going a bit too far with this, but the gist is that a good cheese tastes truly miraculous. The miracle worker with whom I am apprenticing right now, Marisa, makes a whole range of miracles whose flavors I will attempt to describe.

Marisa’s fresh goat cheese rounds are creamy and delicate, with a light creamy flavor that dissolves quickly on your tongue, leaving you wanting more. At the same time, the large cheeses are dense and smoothly consistent in texture, perfect for eating on a crepe with honey or caramel, in a salad, or just completely plain.

Her ‘demi sec’ (‘half dry’) cheese is a aged somewhere between 2 and 3 weeks, the point at which the cheese develops a bloomy rind and a gooey, sometimes almost liquid interior. The rind has a sharp, almost acidic flavor that balances perfectly with the dense and creamy paste. It’s full flavor makes it delicious all by itself, but we also sometimes cook it in to small, flaky tarts; when warm, this cheese really packs a punch.

Her ‘sec’ are small ‘crotin de chèvre’, which technically translates to goat poop, but is also the name for small, well-aged dry goat cheeses. This hard cheese is extremely dry and covered on the outside with a fine, brown powder which is in fact millions of tiny spiders that work away at the cheese, lending it its unique flavor. This cheese has such a strong, sharp bite that we tell customers that it eats holes in your tongue–it isn’t for the faint of heart.

Finally, her  buffalo mozzarella are brilliant balls of pure heaven, spheres of rich and smoothly textured cheese from which buffalo milk leaks as you slice. The fresh flavor of the buffalo milk intertwines with the more complex curd, which has the classical gamey taste that often comes with buffalo milk cheeses. If all of this isn’t enough to make you a believer in the miracle that is cheese, I don’t know what is.

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Marisa and Fred’s Story

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Marisa and Frederic Thomas never imagined themselves as ‘paysannes’, raising goats and making cheese for a living. They originally bought two goats to keep their horse Histoire company, not intending to even have to milk them. Fast forward a few years, however, and Marisa couldn’t resist the urge to try making some of the fresh goat cheese that is so commonly found in French markets.

By 2005, Marisa had expanded her herd to 30 goats and was milking them outdoors from a portable milking station. In the summer, this was ideal; she worked in a bathing suit and rubber boots, enjoying the sun, and tells me that everyone envied her tan. However, when the weather was bad (and in Brittany this is often), milking her 30 goats two-by-two out of doors was a 3 hour long nightmare

In 2009, after having made cheese for a few years with no training, Marisa went back to school and got her professional license to raise goats and make cheese. The same year, Marisa and Fred decided to build a barn to house their goats so that they could continue to expand the business, naming it the Chevrerie de la Baie. To them, this didn’t seem like a big deal, considering that they had already built the house they live in now with their own hands.

Soon after, they decided to buy their first buffalo, an addition to the farm that would eventually allow them to make buffalo mozzarella. Marisa didn’t succeed in making her mozzarella until 2013, due to multiple hiccups (including finding out that their only male buffalo was sterile).

Today, Marisa and Fred are still expanding, adding buffalo and goats to their herds, adding on to the barn, and even adding cheeses–Marisa plans to tackle making burratta next. Every day during the busy season, Fred and Marisa have to work 12 hour days, but every day they sell out of cheese and end up having to turn people away. This story is still ongoing, and their hold on running a successful business is still sometimes tenuous, but the most incredible part of their rise to local cheese fame is the fact that they figured it all out themselves. They built their own barn, learned how to take care of large herds of goats, taught themselves how to make the cheese, and even took the leap to be one of the very few buffalo mozzarella producers in France.

Marisa, the head cheesemaker, is an embodiment of the vision, courage, and hard work that goes in to making an exceptional cheese. She has made goat cheese for years in a country where cheese like this is taken for granted. Fred and Marisa’s creativity and innovation cheesemakers is truly inspirational, and I feel lucky to get the chance to work with and learn from them. And, if you ever happen to be in Brittany, don’t miss visiting their farm–it is one of the most beautiful places in France. Poke around their web page and you’ll see what I mean: http://www.chevrerie-delabaie.com/

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.

Arriving in Paris: A Cheesy Lunch

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After a whirlwind of rushed re-organizing sparked by the French Consulate changing the requirements to get a visa days before my appointment, resulting in my visa request being denied, I am finally in France (if with a slightly different trajectory–stay tuned for more updates). I’ll arrive at the farm in Brittany tomorrow at noon, but for now I’m eating my way through Paris.

Today for lunch, my friend Matilda and I went to a traiteur du fromage close to her apartment to pick up a few cheeses, grabbed a few baguettes from Maison Kayser (my personal favorite Boulanger in Paris, even after tasting the top ten ranked baguettes in the city), and topped it off with a few Belgian beers. We considered salad but decided against it–you don’t want to fill up on greens and not be able to eat as much cheese, right?

We only got 3 cheeses, but we went for some French favorites that can’t really be found in the U.S. (or at least not in such good shape as in France). The cheese on the left is Saint Nectaire, a semi-soft washed rind cows milk cheese from the Auvergne region of France that is usually aged around 2 months. Saint Nectaire’s soft, gooey paste has a rather mild flavor–slightly nutty and almost mushroomy flavors are undertones to the primarily creamy taste this cheese leaves as it melts in your mouth.

The cheese in the middle is Beaufort, often considered the king of cheeses. This alpine cheese, somewhat similar to a Comte in style, is made of cows milk and generally aged between 12 and 16 months. As with many alpine cheeses, Beaufort is creamy in texture but has a strong nutty flavor. I forgot to ask at the store whether this was a Beaufort d’hiver (made in the winter) or a Beaufort de Savoie (made in the summer), but I would guess that this was d’hiver because of its extremely strong flavor and pungent odor. In contrast, the summer Beaufort is more floral and mildly creamy, a direct result of the difference in the diet of the cows. Cows grazing on fresh grass and herbs produce milk that reflects these characteristics, while the milk from cows being fed hay in the winter will produce a completely different flavor in the Beaufort d’hiver.

The last cheese is Roquefort, another pièce de résistance of French cheesemaking. Roquefort is a sheeps milk blue cheese, usually aged around 3 months, with a strong and salty flavor. This is blue at its best, with a sharp, tangy flavor that hits you immediately, mellowing off in to a creamy and sweet finish that lingers on your tongue long after you finish eating. This cheese isn’t for the faint of heart. The first time someone tastes it, I often watch their faces register disgust, then confusion, and finally ecstasy as they reach for another piece.

Mythical Cheese Memories

Everyone has stories about some food that they’ve tasted in the past that lingers in their mind as the best they’ve ever had; and incredible croissant that you had just after landing in Paris, a perfect plate of gorgonzola gnocchi from a hole in the wall that you stumbled upon in Florence, or maybe just the first time that you tasted deep fried cheese curds. I love how memories of food become more and more mythical as time goes on—that elusive flavor that you once tasted but won’t ever be able to find again, because you can’t quite remember where the restaurant or bakery was, or you couldn’t translate the name of the dish in to English.

For years, I have always remembered an incredible quesadilla that I had when I was about ten years old, in Oaxaca. This quesadilla sticks in my memory as hands down the most incredible thing I have ever tasted. This cheese has become somewhat of a holy grail for me—for years I wondered how I could figure out how to find it again. Thinking about it now, its rather incredible that 10 year old me, who subsisted mostly on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Chips Ahoy, was really so in to a quesadilla made with ‘stinky cheese’.

If I had to guess, I’d say that that legendary quesadilla was made with Oaxaca cheese and something else—Oaxaca is a great melting cheese that is used frequently in quesadillas, but it is too mild usually for what I tasted. Oaxaca cheese is a semi-soft, fresh, white cows milk cheese with a salty flavor similar to mozzarella—in fact, mozzarella and Oaxaca cheese are made in very similar ways.

I know that probably my memory has inflated the flavor of this cheese, and that if I were to find it today it wouldn’t live up to how I imagine it. Every time it pops in to my head, my mouth still waters just a little thinking of what it would be like to eat it again. Even if it’s a trick of memory, it still puts a smile on my face to imagine that I once got to taste a mythical quesadilla made with some sort of secret, peerless, perfect cheese!

What does your favorite cheese say about you?

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My talent for small talk (or lack thereof) consists mostly of my ability to talk about cheese. At parties, one of the most common questions that I get asked is ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’. For me, this question is the equivalent of asking a parent which one of their children is their favorite—it is just not possible to choose (unless my mom has been lying to me all of these years?). Instead of answering, I usually ask people what their favorite cheese is, something that actually helps me gain a lot of insight in to what sort of person I’m talking to. Every once in a while I end up with some interesting answers that shape my future relationship with the person.

Once, at a party, my friends introduced me to a guy who worked at Murrays, a prestigious cheese store in New York City, citing our shared interest. He was pretty cute, so we started talking about what cheeses he liked, my main metric for deciding if someone is date-worthy. When he told me that he only liked ‘mild cheeses’, I immediately started looking for a way out of the conversation. A cheese aficionado who limited himself to mild cheeses was not my idea of a good date!*

I know someone who purports to only like French cheeses, because there is no way that Americans could ever master the art of cheese making like the French have—a silly idea that attests to his extreme Francophilia. He also scoffs at the idea that cheddar could ever be a worthwhile cheese; he’s someone who has ‘taste’ in cheese, but who doesn’t really taste it. I take this as a challenge, though, because all he needs is a taste of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Holland Family Farms Gouda, or LaClare Farms chevre, and he’ll be a convert!

Most of the time, though, people tell me that they like brie or camembert, or maybe even name a local cheese if they’re adventurous cheese eaters. And although a person’s favorite cheese can say a lot about them, most of the time people I meet haven’t discovered their favorite yet, which means I get to suggest a new cheese—my favorite conversation topic!

*(Don’t worry, I gave him another chance-he started tasting more flavorful cheeses and liked them, and we’ve been eating stinky cheese together for 6 months now!)

Raw Milk Cheese and the FDA

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April 18th was the inaugural Raw Milk Cheese appreciation day, a celebration of a category of cheeses that many Americans shy away from. I, however, am a raw milk cheese aficionado, and wish that every cheese could be made from raw milk—the flavor that is preserved when milk isn’t put through the harsh process of pasteurization is so important, especially for fresh, delicate cheeses. We have Louis Pasteur to thank for this loss of flavor, because his invention not only kills harmful bacteria, but also kills the majority of natural bacteria in milk that produce great, safe flavor in cheese.

Now, I’m not saying that pasteurized milk cheeses are all bad; plenty of work has been done to make up for the flavor that is lost in pasteurized milk, and some incredible cheeses are made from pasteurized milk. However, the big problem with pasteurization in the United States is that the FDA has enacted laws making raw milk cheeses aged less than 60 days illegal. This means that cheese makers have to rethink the cheeses that they make and the way that they make them in order to follow this law. The FDA does this to avoid foodborne illnesses that can be spread through unpasteurized milk. Does it really make us all that much safer, though?

In 2012, the CDC released a report on foodborne illnesses in the United States. There were 843 foodborne illness outbreaks in total; out of these, 12 outbreaks were due to unpasteurized dairy products. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses from raw milk cheeses are very rare, because producers who are working with raw milk know to be careful. Not only do producers take care with the safety of their raw milk cheese so as not want to harm others, but they also have personal interest in the safety of their cheese; if their product were to cause harm to consumers, their business would be done for.

Some people claim that the danger of raw milk cheese is not worth it. It is true that foodborne illnesses can be very dangerous, and even deadly; however, we take a much bigger risk traveling in a car, crossing the street, or, frankly, eating at McDonalds. The real issue in food and environmental safety in the United States is the factory farm system that we rely so heavily on, a system that would not be possible without pasteurization. Is the FDA truly working to keep Americans safe by outlawing raw milk cheeses, or are they instead working to please the corporations behind factory farmed products, who would rather the American public continue to support consume their food rather than locally, sustainably produced, delicious products? I, for one, would rather risk my health by eating raw milk chevre (the kind I’ll be making every day soon in France!) than risk it by putting Kraft American Singles on my USDA verified 100% factory farmed ground beef burger.

Buffalo Mozarella: The Holy Grail of Cheesemaking

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This week I bought my ticket to France, which means I’ve finally locked in my summer working at Chevrerie de la Baie, the small goat and buffalo farm that I worked on two summers ago. The last time I was there, Marisa, the head cheesemaker, focused her energy on learning to make buffalo mozzarella, a new business enterprise that Marisa was working to perfect. Fresh mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk is often understood as one of the hardest cheeses to make, something that one can only really get in Italy.

A few years before I met her, Marisa had decided to diversify her cheesemaking business and get buffalos. Fresh goat cheese doesn’t sell for much in France, and Marisa was barely making enough to make ends meet with only goats on the farm. She was also looking for a new challenge; at this point, making the goats milk cheese feels like second nature to her, and she wanted to try her hand at something different. So, she went for something really different, and started looking for investors to help fund her starting to make buffalo mozzarella.

This was quite the proposition; buffalos are not only extremely expensive animals to purchase and care for, but they are also extremely dangerous. Even with well-trained and happy buffalo, if you catch them on a bad day and they choose to charge you, you’re pretty much toast. Training a buffalo to be comfortable being milked is exhausting and dangerous work. You have to teach them to enter a ‘cage de contention’, a large metal cage that protects the milker from being kicked or butted by the buffalo (well, mostly-Marisa got a few kicks while I was on the farm). And once you finally get the milk, you’re in for a difficult and painful cheesemaking experience, including hand-forming balls of mozzarella by pulling pieces of the curd out of approximately 175° fahrenheit water.

All of this, though, is worth it for that incredible fresh buffalo mozzarella. I was on the farm two summers ago when Marisa made her first successful batch—something she figured out how to do by herself. It was one of the most glorious moments, after weeks of struggling to get the buffalos in to the cage de contention, after trying different ‘recipes’ and seeing failure multiple times, after Marisa repeatedly stuck her hands in water slightly below boiling temperature so she could form the balls of mozzarella by hand. That first ball of mozzarella that we cut in to was firm, and a bit of milk oozed out as we cut it, testifying to the freshness of the boule. The flavor of the fresh, milky, fatty cheese was out of this world; the texture still needed a bit of work, but Marisa is still tweaking and adjusting to get the cheese perfect every time. The best part of the cheesemaking process is this constant adjustment and playing, making every cheese slightly different from a similar one made a month before.

Nostalgia for summer on the farm….

This past week I tasted some palhais, a small goats milk round from Portugal that is salty, creamy, rather mild, and quite ‘sessionable’ as I like to say (a term borrowed from beer fanatics like my brother, used to describe beers that are suitable for drinking long drinking sessions). I finished this small palhais round in about 10 minutes, eating it with my fingers standing at the kitchen counter. This little white goats milk cheese made me nostalgic for the cheeses that Marisa made at Chevrerie de la Baie, and the evenings we would spend sharing a few rounds of fresh chevre and mozzarella de buffle.

An average day on the farm consisted of me waking up and having a bowl of coffee, a few crepes with nutella (okay, maybe more than a few), and then heading off to the barn to feed the goats and check in on ‘my babies’ (the kids). After making sure everything was copacetic at the barn, we would take an ATV out to the field to feed the buffalos and check in. There was always something to do out with the buffalos, in the barn, or in the laboratoire, and we spent most of the day going back and forth (with regular breaks for coffee and a square or two of chocolate, of course). We usually didn’t finish for the day until 7 or 8 at night, but every once in a while we’d get done in time to sit down together before dinner with a glass of wine and few cheeses while the sun set.

Although I learned a lot from Marisa and Fred during the day, one of the best parts of living on the farm was when we got a moment to sit and talk (well, once I could understand French well enough to keep up with the conversation). They would tell me stories about how they had built their business, starting a goat cheese farm in a region in France known for their cows because they wanted to do things their way. They told me about how crazy everyone thought they were when they got the water buffalos, and about how much work it had been to start a cheese business themselves. There was something so idyllic about sitting around a table outside, snacking on an impeccable cheese that we had made together, and learning about the years and years of work that went in to being able to make that delicious piece of fromage.