Cheese: Milk’s leap toward immortality –Clifton Fadiman
I have detected a pattern with every new project I take on: I go through a period of anticipatory excitement, then of intense freak-out, then I relax somewhat, and then I wonder what I did before said project entered my life.
The most obvious project in my life that follows this pattern–and one that would be familiar to many of you–is parenthood. Owning a milking animal is neither as hard nor as long-term, but indeed, I went through these exact same steps. I’m happy to let you know I am in the “what did I do (with all my time, mainly) before I had a goat?” Freak-out moments aside, it’s been a fun endeavor.
It’s true what they say about dairy folk. We are early to bed and early to rise…the first time in my life that I have ever been so inclined. And I get up excited and fresh and ready to start the day! Highly annoying, it’s true; luckily, I wake up a good two hours before anyone else does so I don’t have anyone to offend. But a part of every one of my days is devoted to milk and its management.
Making cheese has been a huge part of the “fun” of this new project. I make cheese about three days* a week. I devote one day of these three to take on one new aged and/or procedurally difficult cheese. The other two days’ cheesemaking are usually devoted to making feta (our daughter is a Feta Fool) or to the easy-peasy kinds like a chevre, an unaged pressed cheese, or ricotta or paneer/queso fresco. Ricotta and paneer and queso fresco aren’t technically cheeses** (did you know that?) but still, that’s what I make. And I make a weekly rotation of buttermilk and yogurt and sour cream…the first two can also be used as cultures for the above cheeses and the last one is because I selfishly love sour cream. And what with all the eggs around here, ice cream, custards, puddings are happening. Let’s just say I am not getting thinner with my new hobby.
Most cheeses excepting the fresh kinds require a long aging process. In other words, for many of them, it will be months (months!!) before one can even taste them. Talk about slow food! Some are much slower than others. Parmesan will take a year. Blue cheese, up to a year. Cheddar, brick, and colby, six months plus. Brie and Camembert, six weeks. Feta, a month. This is not a hobby for those bent on instant gratification. Gratification, though, why yes.
Our goat, however: Having triplets and then producing all this wonderful white stuff has taken quite a lot out of her. I do remember this with my own breast-feeding days: I could eat for three, and often did, yet the pounds kept coming off…let’s just say that’s not a good thing if you’re a skinny goat. So I am slowly stepping back the milking to once a day. This is a win-win: she’s not stressed and can put the weight back on, I am not stressed and I’ve got more time to weed those gardens. The milk quantity should reduce further too. At the top, I was getting almost two gallons a day. I would be quite happy with 3/4 of a gallon. Considering that she potentially can be milked for a year and a half or longer, that’s still a lot of milk. Lucky us.
*Not all day obviously. The process starts with the morning’s milk and usually ends around dinnertime, say, for a chevre. They’re pressed or hung to dry. Some are heated somewhere in there; some are inoculated with other molds and good beasties, some require lots more of your time and some require nearly none. It’s a big world, cheese.
**Cheese snobs tend to categorize according to technique. It’s a cheese if the milk has been subjected to an enzymatic action and/or lactic acid fermentation; it’s not if it’s made by simply acidifying (via vinegar or lemon juice) the milk as these three are. The most common enzymatic action used to make cheese is by using rennet, a derivative found in one of the four stomachs of nursing ruminants (calves, kids or lambs) which contains the enzyme protease that helps a nursling break down and digest milk solids. There are other non-stomach rennets out there, some derived from plants or molds with coagulant properties. There’s even a genetically engineered rennet available. Me, I use both vegetative and stomach-based rennets, both work, but there’s a taste difference in some cheesses. And lactic acid fermentation: quickly, this is the aging process all milk and milk products and even pickles and kimchi and sauerkraut undergo with time.