(Cross-posted to the blog of the Powell River Food Security Project.)
After the full-on whirlwind of Earth Day, about 30 folks in Powell River had a stimulating opportunity to learn about cheesemaking from itinerant cheesemaker David Asher Rotsztain, who visited us from Mayne Island, where he farms and works to preserve the traditional craft of small-scale cheesemaking.
During the course of a three-and-a-half-hour workshop, we went through some of the basics of cheesemaking. David talked about the choice of milk, the politics of rennet, the odd history of orange Cheddar, the structure and types of milk proteins which are being manipulated to provide us with such a variety of textures and flavours, and plenty more.
What was most heartening to me was to see so many people come out on a Sunday interested in learning how they can engage with one of the most venerable means of food preservation. Some (like myself) were complete novices, never having deliberately made cheese; others were fairly old hands at certain types of cheesemaking willing to learn more about the complexities and details.
We started off adding some kefir to 4 litres of local whole milk warmed to somewhere close to body temperature, the perfect zone of warmth for bacteria to proliferate in. The bacteria, yeasts, and other critters in the kefir culture got to work souring the milk by converting the milk sugar lactose to lactic acid. Then David added a small amount of rennet, a digestive enzyme extracted from the fourth stomach of a suckling calf, in order to start the coagulation. Throughout the workshop, as we discussed other techniques and worked on other processes, we periodically checked the progress of the curdling as the curds separated from the whey.
Finally, as shown in the image above, we were able, gently, to cut the curds and, again gently, stir them to expel whey and firm them up. This is the step before pulling them from the whey and placing them in a mold where they would expel more whey, compress, and settle into the final shape and size.
David told us all about the amazing and complex world of molds and their cooperative interaction with the process of ripening. I did not know that in order to create a camembert or blue cheese, all that is needed is to inoculate the souring milk with some spores from the desired mold (Penicillium candida or P. roqueforti respectively). The mold in question will create a mycelial network throughout the ripening cheese, much in the same way as mushrooms create vast networks throughout the soil of a forest. Spore-producing bodies analogous to mushrooms will pop up on the surface of the cheese, as in surface-ripened cheeses like camembert and brie — that’s what that furry rind is on those cheeses. In the case of blue cheeses, the spore-producing bodies are blue in colour and appear wherever the mold comes into contact with air. The veins in blue cheese are produced by thrusting skewers through the cheese to create air holes where the blue mold will appear.
We made paneer, a traditional Indian cheese produced by heating milk close to boiling and then adding something acidic as a curdling agent. We used a nice organic apple cider vinegar, which instantly created about three pounds of soft curds which David pulled from the whey with a slotted spoon, setting them aside to drain and solidify somewhat. Later he salted them lightly, split the batch in two, and added some ground chipotle peppers to half. (Delicious!)
After a dizzying ride through the amazing world of cheese, yogurt, and kefir, we concluded by sampling the paneer we made, along with a camembert from Salt Spring Island, another washed-rind soft cheese with a very pungent aroma, and a wonderfully yellow blue cheese from Moonstruck Organic Cheese also on Salt Spring Island. Some wine would have been nice…
Since I was coordinating these workshops on behalf of the Powell River Food Security Project, I sat through two in a row. Even then, I was fascinated both times to learn about the simple processes which convert milk into cheeses with such rich and complex flavours and textures. It’s an extraordinary art and one that would be nice to see revived here more visibly. There seems to be a cheese underground out there, and let’s hope that with some more practice and exposure we can work towards a flourishing local cheese industry.