In June 2005 we flew to Italy for the first time to deepen our knowledge of Italian food and culture on its native shores. We spent most of our time living and working on farms in the countryside. One of these was Lago Scuro, near Cremona in the region of Lombardia. In addition to being one of the inspirations for our farm-based restaurant, Lago Scuro was our first experience of cheesemaking. We watched as the milk warm from the cows was piped into vats, and a starter culture from the previous days cheesemaking was mixed in. After proper fermentation, rennet was added for coagulation, curds were cut and drained in forms, and later the cheeses were salted and began their aging process. For us, who knew nothing about the production of cheese, the whole process was mystifying.
One day, Fabio made mozzarella. We saw how the blocks of curds were broken up by hand into little pieces and added back into scalding water where they would begin to melt, be formed into masses, and stretched by Fabio’s firm hand and wooden paddle. Finally and most magically, Fabio’s intern would hold up a scalding mass and Fabio would simultaneously cut off and seal a ball of mozzarella from the large mass, dropping it in a vat of cold water to cool. “Mozzare” in Italian means to “cut or lop off”, and it is this word which gives the cheese its name.
Most of Fabio’s cheeses, however, were not an attempt to recreate some Italian cheese with a famous name. Rather, his goal was to make cheeses which reflected the terroir of the surrounding countryside. We tend to think of cheeses having specific names (Cheddar, Brie, Parmigiano-Reggiano) instead of being types. This is sort of like calling all tissues “Kleenex”, which is really just a brand name.
I used to think that certain cheeses — mozzarella, for example — had to be made with some kind of special “mozzarella starter” which made that milk turn into “mozzarella”. What we learned from Fabio, and later cheese maker Jonathan White of Bobolink Dairy in NJ, was that it is subtle changes in temperature, type and amount of starter, fermentation time, aging process, etc., which produce different types of cheese. For example, in mozzarella, the curd is allowed to rest until its pH drops to around 5.0, which allows it to be stretched. In the case of a cheese like Brie, white mold growing on the rind helps develop the soft, buttery texture on the inside of the cheese.
The best analogy I can think of is cooking eggs. To begin with, the quality of the raw ingredient makes a big difference. An anemic store-bought egg is a pale shadow of a vigorous pasture-raised egg. In the same way, fresh raw milk is going to produce richer, more interesting cheese than store bought milk. With the same humble ingredient – an egg – one can produce boiled eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, omelletes, frittatas, etc. The textures and flavors are enormously diverse based upon heat, method, and other variables. Even within the category of scrambled eggs, a huge variety of styles exist based upon the temperature, type of pan, frequency of stirring, whether they’re stirred with a fork, spoon, or spatula, whether they’re salted before or after cooking, whether one adds milk, cream, water, or nothing. With cooking eggs as with making cheese, little differences in process can produce very different results.
In the seven years since working at Lago Scuro, we’ve often been inspired to make cheese. We’ve made some attempts, mostly unsuccessful, but we continue to be inspired. Honestly, it’s not easy to do at home. Aging cheeses is a special challenge, since the 85% humidity required is hard to achieve on a home scale. To make matters worse, until recently there hasn’t been a first-rate book to guide would-be cheesemakers through the craft. With all due respect to Ricki Carroll’s landmark book first published 30 years ago, it simply doesn’t give the detail needed to understand the process and do troubleshooting. For example, it recommends holding the milk at a certain temperature by keeping it in a sink full of warm water. But what if I need to do dishes?
Fortunately, the perfect book now exists. Published this past fall, Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking by Gianaclis Caldwell is accessible enough for beginners but comprehensive enough for those deepening their knowledge of the craft. Although circumstances haven’t allowed us to make any aged cheeses this winter, we’re gearing up for a major effort this summer. We think we’ve finally figured out the aging space and hope to have good results by the fall!