Last month was all about overcoming my skepticism and learning about, cooking, and tasting every manner of animal guts and bits and pieces.
This month, as it has turned out, has become Cheese Month, much to my delight. Sure, we’ve been talking dairy for a couple of weeks in class, but I’ve had a few extra and unexpected bonus rounds thrown in.
Now, I love cheese. I love it more than words can even express, and I may even love it more than I love bread and wine. It is pasture and sunlight and earthiness all curdled down into salty lactic goodness. It is magical, remarkable, genius. Milk is something that spoils in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and through many trials and errors and happy happy accidents, it was discovered that if the milk curdled and could be separated from the whey, it would keep for a long time and provide a concentrated (and heavenly) little packet of fat and protein and minerals.
There are infinite cheeses, and there are infinite ways of making them: starting from yogurt, cream or milk; using bacterial or fungal processes; using animal rennet or plant-based coagulators; salting the milk or salting the brine or salting the cheese itself; varying combinations of time and temperature and humidity; pasteurizing, pressing, ripening; and on and on and on forever…I’m thinking about giving up all my worldly ways and dedicating myself to meditating on cheeses.
Bonus round number one was two weeks ago, as part of my Best Day Ever (more on where we were and what we did in a following post). On a farm on the other side of the country, I was taught how to milk a sheep and make cheese by hand, using the most basic of all basic tools and the same process that has been handed down for generations.
First, the ewes were herded into a separate area before the lambs began nursing in the morning. They huddled together and turned away (to make sure we couldn’t see them). Some stared at us blankly, and a few kept freaking out every few minutes and tried to climb over the rest to get to the back of the herd. Some seemed to sleep standing up, and, due to the spring weather, a few had disgusting snot hanging from their noses which was occasionally flung about with a violent headshake. They never stop pooping. They have no concept of self-hygiene like most animals do. Sheep are smelly. Sheep are dumb. And sheep produce a lot of rich fatty milk that in turn produces magical cheese.
They knew the routine well and would each go without much of a fuss into the makeshift milking stall. Now, I’ve never seen a cow or goat be milked, but I’m pretty sure you sit by their side and put a bucket udderneath. Not so with our friend the sheep. No, you prop a bucket up behind her, hold her udders over it to milk her, and from the side she looks like she’s just sittin’ on the pot. Graceful animals, they are.
Each of us girls tried our hand - rather ungracefully - at milking a sheep and then the farm caretaker, José, milked the rest in just a few minutes. Each of the ewes was only partially milked, leaving about half for the lambs to nurse later in the morning.
A couple of lambs managed to escape being separated and huddled together with their mothers in the barn. Despite their distaste for being held, we decided a photo-op was nonetheless necessary and I managed to hold on to one for a minute. While I thought he was quite adorable, I’m pretty sure he was only thinking of the imminent danger that he knew was sure to come/”where’s mom?”.
After we finished the milking, the ewes and lambs were let of out of their separate stalls and reunited in the barnyard in what’s called the reencuentro or reunion, which may or may not have brought a bit of a tear to my eye. Even the seasoned farmers said they think it’s a little bit emotional. All of them began loudly bleating at once, and through all the noise and chaos, the mothers and babies each find their own and nuzzle and begin nursing. There were two poor little orphaned lambs that are bottle-fed, and even though they’ve never known their mothers, it didn’t stop them from frantically searching. One sheep, though, was just a dumb ass and didn’t recognize her own lamb and kept pushing him away when he tried to nurse, kicking and head-butting the persistent little guy. After a few minutes they were all let out of the yard and into the pasture to graze. They flat-out bolted through the gate and through a flock of chickens, springing and leaping dramatically over the confused birds. Seeing big fat sheep and tiny lambs jumping over chickens like show horses over fences was hilarious, and it all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to take a picture.
After the sheep were all taken care of, we went down to the farmhouse to start making cheese. The first step was to filter the milk through a cheesecloth to remove any and all particles of straw and dirt that had fallen into the milking bucket. Fairly basic, I think.
Next, the milk was heated to kill any harmful pathogens and to facilitate the curdling and coagulation processes. José’s wife added the cuajo or rennet, which is an enzyme complex extracted from unweaned mammalian stomachs upon slaughter (it’s a byproduct of lamb and veal processing). Rennet is essential for the breakdown and digestion of milk by young mammals, and as they age its presence is greatly diminished, no longer needed if they are weaned. Calves, kids, and lambs each produce digestive enzymes specific to their mother’s milk, so in this case we used rennet from a lamb’s stomach. Commercially-produced rennet can be purchased in powdered form, and this is what we used. I’ve also made cheese at a commercial quesería that used the dried stomachs of their own (male) lambs…they hang the stomachs to dry and then remove the dried lining, freeze it, and use it as needed for batches of cheese. Pretty? No. Magical? Yes.
So anyway, after adding the rennet and allowing the milk to coagulate, we broke up the glossy and smooth surface with a stick (very professional) and then our hands. We mixed and kneaded and were (nearly) up to our elbows in it. The purpose of this is to separate the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid) and to make them (the curds) as small as possible, allowing it to be pressed into a compact cake of casein (proteins).
Milk + temperature + rennet + time + stirring =
mush mush mush squish squish squish
Tiny cheese curds separated from the whey:
Hanging on the wall of the farmhouse were several rolled-up straw contraptions, which I soon learned were traditional cheese molds. They’re expandable, thus allowing various sizes of cheese to be made with the same mold. The woven surface allows all the liquid to drain out while trapping all the solid curds inside.
We placed the mold on a slanted board with a bucket underneath and poured the curds and whey little by little into the mold. Pour, drain, press, pour, drain press, and on and on.
As the liquid drains off, the curds begin to solidify and form a homogenous and uniform mass. The proteins “tangle up” and make cheese, well, cheese. What was an unappealing beige-y white, lukewarm, milky water with floating pieces suddenly looks familiar and delicious.
Marta and I took turns pouring and pressing, all the while being fueled by little bites of different homemade sausages from the latest pig slaughter and little shots of rough homemade wine from the farm’s grapes.
We left the cheese in the mold, and the following day they’d un-mold it and put it in the shed that had been turned into the official cheese-curing room.
A board was suspended from the ceiling about chest-high and there were already several cheeses curing on it. They’re covered by a thin cloth to protect them from flies and are left to age for about a month and a half in the cool, dry, ventilated shed. They have to be turned once a day to cure evenly and develop a flavorful and protective mold on the outside.
This is cheese making at it’s most basic, and that’s all there is to it. I’ll end with a picture that I think lends a little grace and dignity to these otherwise rather dimwitted lasses.