Tracing My Bongo Burgers: A Day on the Farm, Part 4
This series of posts describes my recent trip to Bobolink Dairy Farm. I decided to break it into chunks because I apparently have a lot to say about it. Today’s entry chronicles the finer points of milk and cheese.
While Lady Aravan is gleefully milking cows and scratching cow heads and hearing stories, I begin my education in cheesecrafting. I have my little cheesemaking hat on (see yesterday’s picture) and don an apron. There’s all kinds of stuff all over this little room, but the important things are a table in the center, and a rack next to it. On the rack are several round smaller cheese wheels, a handful of cheese pyramids, and a larger wheel. Later on we’ll learn the names (the small wheels are Amram, the pyramids are something I can’t remember, and the larger wheel is Baudolino), but for now we learn that those cheeses were made two days ago, and they are headed to The Cave. Lulu takes them away while Jonathan promises we’ll see them later.
The rack is empty, and now our attention is directed to the table. On it are a very similar assortment as what had been on the rack, only these were still in their cheese molds (more on them later, along with pics). These are the cheeses that were made yesterday. They’ve been sitting in their molds for 24 or so hours so that the whey can drain off and the cheese can firm. What needs to happen now is salting. One by one, the cheese is removed from its metal, hole-studded housing and kosher salt is applied to the entire surface. Not too much, or the cheese won’t be salty enough, nor too little, or else the cheese will be too salty. Seems backwards, but it has to do with osmosis and other different factors. We are taught that the proper amount of salt looks like the ground during a snowfall, at the point where you can say that it’s starting to stick.
That brings me to an important point, one that will be reinforced when we actually make the day’s cheese. Jonathan White is an engineer by trade, and like many of us he is used to being able to assign numbers and values and use words to precisely articulate a process. He tells us that cheesemaking is unable to be described with words or numbers. The description used above is a perfect example. Seeing it and hearing the description fits exactly. You don’t use a teaspoon or a tablespoon or any other measurement – you can’t. There is no precision. You have to put enough salt on so that, if it were snow, you’d say it was just about to stick. Words and measures are going to be relatively meaningless in this process: it is going to be about using your senses, what your eyes, your nose, your fingers, and your mouth all tell you.
Each of the cheeses get salted and transferred to the rack, where a fan helps keep the drying process going. In the meantime, Lulu and Jonathan are cleaning. Everything. Scalding water is used everywhere, on everything. The process of cheesemaking is about controlling the right bacteria as much as possible while eliminating the bad bacteria as much as possible. Actually, that isn’t even accurate: it is impossible to completely eradicate the bad bacteria, and instead we are stacking the deck as much as humanly possible to let the good bacteria win.
Essentially, the bacteria thing comes down to this: the good cheese-making bacteria like acidic environments. Acidopholus, which is popular because someone decided to use it in a commercial, is one of those bacteria (its name literally means Acid Loving). While they are present, they munch on sugar and convert their environment to an acidic one. Other bacteria, the bad bacteria, can’t live there. The acid kills them off. That’s why your yogurt and cheese are filled with bacteria and can taste sour; its the acidic environment created by the live cultures of bacteria living in your food. Cool, huh?
While everything is getting uber-cleaned, our attention is brought to the pump apparatus that has been running the whole time. The milking that Lady Aravan has been helping with is filling a big glass jar in front of us. Every now and again, a gentle pressure of air assists gravity in pushing the milk to a waiting milk jar, those big cylinders that you’d recognize if you saw it (it may be in a picture somewhere down the line). The milk that we are watching is going to be what we make our cheese from that day. Seriously, the cheese we made was inside a cow just a couple of hours before it got made into cheese. Totally cool.
We get to taste some of the raw milk, and it is really tasty. Slightly sweet, and here is where words can’t accurately describe what your senses tell you. It’s good. It’s called raw milk because it is unpasteurized – essentially, it isn’t heated to the point where anything living in it should be killed to prevent illness. Jonathan tells us that raw milk can indeed be dangerous, but generally not from the milk itself: it’s the process and environment that the milking is done in that can cause the problem. Not all farms are scrupulously clean, and so he instructs us to visit any farms we might be interested in raw milk from – if they won’t show you around happily, go elsewhere.
The state of New Jersey doesn’t want us to taste the raw milk because It’s Dangerous, but it isn’t illegal as long as he doesn’t try to sell it. I am not and never have been a germophobe; a childhood of going on a picnic with potato and macaroni salad made with mayo and left sitting in the car in the sun all day has rendered me completely uncaring about risk. If my nose and tongue tell me food is ok, then I assume its OK. It’s worked out well for me. I also will thaw meat and refreeze it. I’m a rebel that way.
We have our fresh milk, and Jonathan uses some hot water running from a ring around the mouth of the milk cylinder to bring it up to about 90 degrees, which is about the temperature of a cow’s udder. So we have warm milk. Now we curdle.
Jonathan retrieves a plastic container from a cooler that contains a yellowish liquid. This turns out to be whey from yesterday’s milk. He uses the lid like a petri dish. If there were anything funky going on with the whey, the lid would show bubbles, a telltale sign of the activity of bad bacteria producing CO2. The lid is clear, and then we taste it, something else the state of New Jersey wouldn’t want him to do. It’s sour and tastes exactly like liquified cottage cheese would taste like. He adds a ladle full of whey to the milk, and that is going to begin the curdling process.
There are other means to do it, and most cheese books tell you to order some cultures to add to make the process happen, since you probably aren’t going to have raw milk whey on hand from the previous day’s harvest. But we do, and that’s what we use.
In Part 5, the transformation to cheese continues, and we learn about a special enzyme present in calves that makes cheese possible.