Key Ingredient: Time
By Suzy Konecky, Cricket Creek Farm
Photos courtesy of Cricket Creek Farm
Dear Future (Cheesemaker) Self… Cheesemaking is about patience. Especially when it comes to the aged cheeses that spend those lucky months ripening in caves and cellars, where rinds grow crackly craters, a smearedmakeup finish or anything in between.
Cheesemakers must be patient in waiting to taste their cheese, patient in waiting for the cheese to reach its ideal age, patient for the cash flow. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so few beginning farmers venture into the world of dairy processing—it takes so darn long! Certainly, all of agriculture involves patience—waiting for the spring starts to come up, waiting for the baby chicks to grow or the sow to reach breeding age. With cheesemaking, done properly, it can take months or years to reach your finished product.
To oversimplify one of the most complex fermentations in food production, cheesemaking can be divided into two distinct processes: The first is the day of the cheese “make”— the day that the milk is transformed into a mass of curd that is then pressed or drained to release whey and water. The second process is the aging.
The “make” day is the first exercise in patience. Our vat is a stainless steel tub with a water jacket surrounding it. It slowly heats the milk to the temperature ideal for the proliferation of the bacterial cultures we add to it.
Wait for the milk to heat up. Wait for the cultures to ripen the milk. Wait for the milk to coagulate. Wait for the curds to be cut and firmed to the ideal size and consistency. Wait for the whey to be expelled. Wait for the cheese to be sufficiently pressed or drained. And all the while, wait for the milk, and then curds, to acidify.
The aging process is the time when the cheese truly takes on a unique character. The complexity of fresh milk is a major factor in how the cheese will develop during aging. Unlike most other types of cooking or food processing, the principal raw ingredient in farmstead cheesemaking is in constant flux. Imagine baking bread with a slightly different type of flour each time, not knowing for certain quite what would happen until, well, it was already happening. This is not to say that farmstead cheesemakers can’t predict changes in milk. However, there are so many, countless, factors that can impact fresh milk day to day, many of them are a (hopefully pleasant) surprise.
Our milk changes quite drastically month to month, and day to day. Our cows graze on diverse pastures and eat a wild variety of grasses, legumes and flowers. Some days it is buggy in the pastures—flies buzzing in the eyes, ears and noses of our hot cows. The ladies clump together so they can use their tails to graciously swat the flies from the faces of their pasture mates. Some days it is cool and they can leisurely graze and chew their cud. Some days it is just too hot, and they crowd under a small portion of shade or around their water trough.
All of this changes the milk. Was she stressed because there was a new person in the milking parlor? Did she let her milk down more slowly than usual because there was a cut on her teat? Where is she in her lactation cycle? Many of these changes can be tasted, just by drinking fresh milk. Every one of these changes multiplies when that fresh milk is made into cheese, and when that cheese sits to fully ripen over weeks or months.
What actually changes? For one, flavor. Have you tried fresh milk that tasted like the sweet ferment of haylage or the lush greenness of spring grass? What about milk that tasted distinctly barn-like? I sometimes taste maple, and other times a cool saltiness like the breeze off the ocean that gets in your food on a warm beach day.
Aside from these flavor variations, there are also variations in the percentage of components in the milk—fat, protein, water, sugar and minerals. Milk is comprised of these five components. Every one of these components varies slightly depending on the feed of the animal, stage of lactation, seasonal and climatic changes. Winter milk tends to have more fat and protein than summer milk, for example.
How does a cheesemaker cope with all this fluctuation? On an industrial scale, cheese manufacturers “standardize the milk”—adjust it so they are working with the same ingredient each day.
Farmstead cheesemakers in New England generally don’t standardize milk; we work with what we have. Some cheeses are made only during a certain time of year because those cheesemakers have determined that their cheese is only suited to a particular type of milk. Just like your plump June strawberries, your summer hot pepper or your frosty fall parsnip, these cheeses have seasons. Other cheeses are made year-round, and the cheesemaker works to adjust the actual recipe—what to add, how much and when.
Some changes are easier to predict, and can be expected—those that come from age-old patterns of seasonality and lactation curve. However, some changes are harder to predict, and require cheesemakers who can think on their feet and celebrate the resulting variations.
Then, of course, there are also the changes that we bring on ourselves, those that don’t come from the milk at all. Some of these changes are noticeable early on—such as “If I stir the curds for longer, will they toughen to the ideal texture?” or “If I add more bacteria culture, will the milk acidify in the desired time?” Other changes, more subtle alterations, require weeks or months to present themselves. One of my co-workers described it as a time capsule. Your milk, your assumptions, your best guess in that moment locked into a 10-pound wheel of cheese for a future you to open up. For a future you to look back on and assess.
Might as well include a note, Dear Future Self, I sure hope you like what I’ve done here….
Suzy Konecky is a Brooklyn native and a longtime lover of cheese. While earning her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science, she studied in the department of International Agriculture and Rural Development, with a focus on the agricultural economics of Venezuela and the impact of widespread GMO development in India. Suzy was inspired by the vibrant agricultural community of the Finger Lakes region of New York and has since been following her passion for nourishing food.
She now manages the creamery at Cricket Creek Farm—cheese production, inventory, marketing and sales.
Want a taste of how farmstead cheese is made in the Berkshires? Suzy Konecky occasionally teaches cheesemaking classes at the creamery at Cricket Creek Farm. Watch for the schedule to be posted in the Cricket Creek Farm weekly newsletter, which you can sign up for at CricketCreekFarm.com and Facebook.com/cricketcreekfarm!