Chapter Two: Snow Day

Posted on December 9, 2009

They cancelled school today, which means, in Minnesota, there is serious weather.

I was planning to go to the dairy this morning. Normally, I like to test the nasty conditions, and press on regardless, but I woke from a startling dream of the truck getting blown off the road. I’m not much for superstition, but with the winds blowing as hard as they were, and never having tested the aerodynamic limits of “ol’ red”, I decided to pack it in. I just received more cheese molds, so I can make a “monster” batch on Monday to catch up.

Now, back to a cheesemaker’s day in the life.

Once I’m loaded with milk, it’s a ginger bit of driving back to the plant. We have a garage attached to the building, so I back in close to the door and set up the pump to drain the milk into the cheese vat. The vat holds 200 gallons of milk, and I’ve never had it more than one-half full. Monday will be a three-quarters batch, and it will thrill me a bit to see the vat coming close to capacity.

I fire up the water heater that pumps hot water to the outer jackets of the vat for pasteurization. I seal the vat, hooking up the air space unit and thermometers that ensure proper procedure, and start the milk paddle that gently stirs the milk as it warms.

It takes a bit over an hour to get the temperature over 145 degrees. At this point, I hold the milk above 145 for a minimum of 30 minutes. I usually let it go five minutes over to be certain.

After pasteurization is complete, the cover comes off the vat and I get a free moisturizing facial from the steam. The milk is then cooled down to 88 degrees (with the aid of cold water now coursing through the vat jackets). We are now ready for inoculation. I add a cocktail of cultures and enzymes that give the cheese its character, and slowly let the mixture ripen for an hour. Many, certainly the behemoth cheese operations, shorten or bypass this step, but I believe it allows everything to marry well, and adds depth to the flavor.

After ripening, the rennet is introduced. Rennet is a strange and wonderful thing; it turns milk into cheese. Originally (and currently) found in the stomach lining of a calf, kid or lamb, it chemically alters the milk, allowing casein to bind together with the fat globules and render curd. After a time, which varies from batch to batch, the curd is “set”, and fully separated from the whey. There are plants that can also achieve the renneting process, and the stuff I use is vegetarian. It has been concentrated down to a viscus brown liquid, and, try as I might, I haven’t developed a liking for it’s smell. I can’t even begin to describe the aroma much less develop a fondness for it, but I’m working on it.

Once the curd has fully set, it’s time to cut. My vat has a set of three knife attachments that cut the curd in a matter of minutes. I have to be careful not to overdo any of these steps where paddles or knives rotate in the vat: for whatever reason, it lulls me and I can get lost in time.

Once cut, the curd is allowed to rest for a few minutes. Then a gentle stirring takes place, followed by another rest. I then drain off about 10-15 percent of the whey.

Soft rind cheese like Camembert is made with block molds that have a series of small, uniform holes that allow the whey to drain off by gravity. I also set an extender mold on top of the block mold so there is enough curd to ensure a proper piece of cheese.

It takes twenty to thirty minutes of hard labor to scoop the curd and whey mixture from the vat into the molds. My tradition is to find a good playlist of music and go at it. Along with the physical exertion, I also have to pay attention to each mold to ensure as much uniformity as possible.

Once complete, clean-up begins. I should also mention that, though there is some down time during the ripening and rennet stages, there is always something to clean, test, or set up; time goes by quickly.

Cleaning and sterilization is as much a part of cheesemaking as any other component, and not to be trifled with. One missed step and you’re headed full-steam for trouble of one sort or another, so it gets the attention it deserves.

After I’ve cleaned, it’s home for dinner and a bit of a rest-up. Four to six hours later, I come back in to turn the cheese over. This keeps the moisture content of the cheese stable as it completes the draining phase. After a bit more cleaning, the cheese is covered and allowed to drain overnight in the warm make room.

I’ve glossed over the testing that must occur throughout the make process, but, at least for my cheese, the most important gauge is pH. I have a really handy pH meter that guides me throughout the make, and there is a window of target pH’s that I need to hit to get everything right. In other words, the cheese will tell you when it’s ready. Most days, it’s ready around six the next morning.

I’m probably most alert and lucid in the early morning, so this stage is somehow comforting and peaceful for me. I demold the cheese from each block. Coarse sea salt is then applied by hand to each piece. Once salted, the cheese goes on to racks and heads for the aging room, a humid walk-in box set at 53 degrees, ideal for aging Camembert. The final clean up commences.

It’s a full day from start-to-finish. As mentioned, I’ve done one back-to-back make, and I’ll avoid that going forward wherever I can. When complete, I feel a palpable sense of having done something of worth, and a satisfying ache in my middle-aged bones. As I write this, I’m starting to feel a little cheated I didn’t get to make cheese today, but I’ll get over it. There will be plenty more chances ahead.

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