Posts Tagged 'cheesemaking'

Lies, Incest, Heresy, and the Miracle of the Cheese Baby

Hast thou not poured me out like milk and curdled me like cheese? — Job 10:10

The Lord of Flies pours out his milk. Job weeps.

Blake's Lord of Flies pours out his sour milk. Blake's Job weeps.

I promised, emptily at the time, to write on how cheese is made. I probably owe such a post to any and all who want to, or are kind enough to, read my thoughts on cheese; it makes an essential preface to descriptions of specific varieties, of differences and similarities, of historical developments — which is why all the glossy cheese books begin with some summary of the cheesemaking process. I pointed you here, and do so again, because that page will tell you what you need to know, and I might not. But for my own purposes, here’s the After Cheese Comes Nothing narration of cheesemaking:

BABY CHEESE BECOMES A MAN, IS EATEN

When the time is right we warm Mother Milk’s belly over the fire till its all nice and toasty. The warmth and the care and the smiles make a little Cheese Baby start to grow inside the milky womb; but it’s just a strange disjointed Curd Colony at first, and it swims through a warm white sea of whey, gurgling and plashing, its many clumps scattered about — until the Curd Colony is ready to “evolve” into a firmer solid. To make that evolution happen we then drop into the whey sea in Mother Milk’s belly some Magic Rennet Juice from sweet baby cow guts or thistle flowers, and the Magic Juice makes our Curd Colony stiffen up nice and tight. We pull a plug to let the whey drain away, or squeeze it out with a hug; and then what’s left in the desiccate womb of Mother Milk but a puling white Cheese Baby hungry for salt! Salt it we do — then mold it according to our wishes, lock it in a cellar, and let it rot there in the damp dark till we’re ready to eat it. What’s left of Mother Milk we feed to the pigs.

CHEESE BABIES GREEK AND CHRISTIAN

Aristotle the Babbler teaches Alexander the Mass-Murderer.

Aristotle the Babbler teaches Alexander the Mass-Murderer.

The above Tale of Baby Cheese reverses (at least) one very real analogy with a very long history among cheesemaking people: the analogy of human conception to cheese creation. Aristotle (384-322 BC) offers the first recorded instance of the analogy; and from there its recurrence throughout European and Mediterranean realms might be attributable to Aristotle’s long influence, with Arabs as much as Christians; to an older current of popular lore that Aristotle merely tapped; or perhaps to Providence. Aristotle wrote the following (in his De Generatione Animalium, Bk. II, 739b, 22-31, for those of you eager to look it up and highlight your home copies):

When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male (this acts in the same way as rennet acts upon milk, for rennet is a kind of milk containing vital heat, which brings into one mass and fixes the similar material, and the relation of the semen to the catamenia is the same, milk and catamenia being of the same nature) —

Reading Aristotle is always this tedious. Here’s another instance (Bk. I, 729a, 7-14):

what the male contributes to generation is the form and efficient cause, while the female contributes the material. In fact, as in the coagulation of milk, the milk being the material, the fig-juice or rennet is that which contains the curdling principle, so acts the secretion of the male, being divided into parts in the female.

Aristotle’s systematic inquiries contributed the fundamental groundwork for much scholastic philosophy; so it’s not surprising that the analogy of cheese and conception rears up again in the Middle Ages. None other than our favorite Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (see the prior post) repeats the comparison in her scientific writing (Cause et cure) — “at first, the semen inside the woman is milky. Then it coagulates, and afterwards it becomes flesh, just as milk first curdles and then becomes cheese” — and then she even elaborates on it in her visionary writing (Scivias), where:

1. St. Hildegard combines a lesson on cheesemaking with a moving argument against incest:

Milk that is cooked once or twice has not yet lost its flavor, but by the time it is coagulated and cooked the seventh or eighth time, it loses its qualities and does not have a pleasant taste except in case of necessity. [No doubt “necessity” has something to do with Lot and his daughters in the desert outside burning Sodom.]

Lots and his daughters spoiling thier cheese.

Lot and his daughters "overcooking the cheese."

and 2. The Sybil on the Rhine invents a cheese-parable to explain why some people are good and some are no good. As it is with coagulation, so it is with men; sometimes you get a wimpy curd, sometimes you get a wimpy man. Good thick curd (read “sperm”)

produces forceful men to whom are allotted gifts, both spiritual and carnal . . . And some had cheeses less firmly curdled, for in their feebleness they have seed imperfectly tempered and they raise offspring mostly stupid, feeble, and useless . . . And some was mixed with corruption . . . for the seed in that brew cannot be rightly raised . . . and makes misshapen men.

Tertullian, the Church Father of the 2nd-3rd c. AD, went so far as to compare The Greatest of All Births, that of Jesus Christ, to cheesemaking (in his work “On the Flesh of Christ”). While explaining the particular details of Mary’s immaculate conception, Tertullian suggests that the nascent Jesus was like some variety of perfect but un-rennetted curd. It’s hardly worth mention that Jesus-curds were still shapely and firm; divinely so, even without rennet — unlike the dribbly curds of the “stupid, feeble, and useless.”

Later in life Tertullian converted to a heretical Christian sect called the Montanists. The Montanists believed that contemporary prophecies carried on and even trumped the Apostolic tradition; that Montanist prophets actually inhabited the Divine Being in a temporary ecstatic union, rather than just speaking the Word like a holy parrot; that the Church should be more disciplinary with sinners and more disposed to deny redemption. And most importantly, St. Augustine & Co. accuse the Montanists of including cheese along with bread and wine in the Holy Communion. (Today we’re not quite sure whether the Artotyrites, who definitely ate cheese during church — horrid devils — were splintered-off from the main Montanist heresy.) Here’s Thomas Aquinas himself on why cheese doesn’t belong on the Lord’s Altar.

CHEESE BABIES BASQUE

Some of the above is drawn from an article by Sandra Ott called “Aristotle Among the Basques: The ‘Cheese Analogy’ of Conception” (some from Cristina Mazzoni’s book on female mystics and food; some I just found). Ott also recounts the story of a 14th century French priest who promises his concubine that he can provide an anti-rennet — an herb that will actually stop or reverse lactic coagulation — which he intends her to use as a contraceptive. But Ott’s main anthropological object is the Basque community of Sanite-Engráce, where an analogy much like Aristotle’s is still valid tender. There, conception is conceived as the interplay of two fertile bloods, the odol gorri or “red blood,” in the womb of the woman, and the odol xuri or “white blood,” in the semen of the man. The white blood curdles the red blood; so when a woman begins to bulge with child her acquaintances exclaim “You have have been curdled!” These Basques make two types of cheeses: soft household cheese and hard mountain cheese. The former is casual; the latter competitive. Male cheesemakers stake their masculine pride on the quality of their mountain cheeses. (Ironically, they’re dubbed etchekandere, “the woman of the house,” when it’s their turn for cheesemaking up in the summertime shepherd huts.) Good cheesemaking men are appraised as potent males, able to both cause and prevent pregnancy in their sexual partners. And the man’s mountain cheese is considered his niñi txipia, “little baby,” which he must care for as though it were a living infant: heedfully nurturing its bones (the rind), baptizing it with salt (as he also baptizes his truly human children), and coddling it with care so that its weak baby body doesn’t bruise and break.

Needless to say, the Basque people make incredible cheeses — and have done so for millennia. Sheep’s milk cheese primarily. One name you should look for in specialty cheese shops is Ossau-Iraty Brebis Pyrénées: a semi-firm and subtle cheese that is sweet, nutty, tangy, mellow, and creamy in exquisite balance. An old man I respect once told me I should kill for that cheese, or die for it, I don’t remember. Another possibly purchasable Basque cheese is Idiazábal: slightly smoked and firm with flavors of fruit and olive, butter and wood (originally smoked by “accident,” as it was aged in mountain huts that lacked chimneys). There are certainly others. But here’s a drawing:

A Basque shepherd molding his Baby Cheese in the perfect image of the Jesus Cheese

A Basque "housewife" molding his Baby Cheese in the image of the perfect, immaculately coagulated Jesus Cheese

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Factory cheese, Artisan cheese, Grayson

O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house: I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.
— Hotspur, in
King Henry IV, Part I

THE GIFT OF SCIENCE

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Jesse Williams started his New York cheddar factory — the forerunner of all cheese factories — in 1851. That was before Louis Pasteur began heating milk to slay harmful bacteria and regularize the product (in 1857); before Christian Ditlev Ammentorp Hansen extracted a standardized rennet enzyme from calf-stomach (in 1872); it was before F. J. Lloyd created the acidimeter test, which measures milk’s acidity at any point in the cheesemaking process, again improving results (in 1899); and before Orla-Jensen isolated pure “starter cultures” of select microorganisms, to replace the unreliable sour milk and whey starters of ages past (in 1919). In sum: The factory took stage just on the cusp of cheesemaking’s slide into “science” — at a time when commoners still measured milk heat with elbows.

(If you don’t understand the cheesemaking process enough to respect these innovations, here’s a good summary. I will write my own soon, maybe even for the next post. I’m full of empty promises and inconstant ambition.)

Following Williams, cheese in the U.S. and Europe became increasingly industrialized and precise. Generally, all the breakthroughs above decreased waste and minimized failure. Contrary to the millenarian tirades of hippies and malcontents, science did work a little magic for the common man. In the old days failure-rate was high for cheesemaking, even in monasteries, where God’s Own Watchful Eye was always on alert. And yet (as Juliet Harbutt notes) such disappointments were more often blamed on some dairymaid’s menstrual cycle than on sour milk or careless handling. Many things can go wrong when making cheese, and some significant portion of those things might be out of the cheesemaker’s control, especially when the cheesemaker’s a premodern peasant. In that sense cheese is like love, or empire building. It took some real dirty hard science before people stopped blaming vaginal discharge, witchcraft, and Jewry for bunk cheeses. I guess I consider that progress.

It is true, though — to the credit of purists — that the more industrialized cheese became, the more insipid it got (and might continue to get). It seems that American factory cheese accepted from the beginning a certain subordinate status, along with a more lowbrow, “philistine” or “utilitarian” audience. For instance: An 1867 report from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture documents the defects in American factory cheese, namely, “porosity and bad flavor”; suggests that foul milk with a “fetid and sickening odor” is the primary culprit, no thanks to New England’s unfortunate climate; and then offers the economizing solution that we improve our cheese just enough to appeal to England’s bottom-feeders. And in the New York Times’s coverage of the 1878 dairy fair, the paper reports that American cheeses of more-than-substandard-caliber were entering the world market under false European names — “to the great detriment of our reputation for fine production, though, possibly, to the present profit of middlemen and commission houses.”

But skipping to the present: Only the obtuse fanatic or wild dog would claim that factory cheesemakers have paid no attention over the years to quality. Still, the current inrush of “artisanal” American cheeses presents a totally different approach: blending organic and cosmopolitan food movements, this cheese trend is achieving levels of quality once restricted to sparse European imports. Some “artisanal” makers simply want to make the best cheese they can, while still remaining viable. Some want to slip into this emergent niche market, seizing the hearts and minds of the well-to-do. Most, however, seem to be more preoccupied with general “green food” issues, like sustainability, organicism, local markets, and so on (look at brochures from Whole Foods or your area Farmer’s Market for more keywords).

GRAYSON AT LAST

The Feete pair at Meadow Creek Dairy make a cheese that epitomizes that greenish side of American artisan cheese. I suggest you try it, if you can. It comes in squares instead of wheels, and it is called Grayson. The name might pay homage to Amanda Grayson, mother of Star Trek‘s Spock, or to Dick Grayson, the Christian-civilian name for Batman’s sidekick Robin. I can only speculate.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

After 15 years on their dairy farm in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Feete(s?) started making cheese out of their milk. They were motivated by fluctuating dairy prices and the benefits of adding value to their product on the farm — not an unusual origin-story for American artisanal cheesemakers. Their Jersey herd spurts richer milk than common Holsteins (though less of it); the cows graze on rotational pastures free of pesticides and herbicides, and never eat silage; and they’re only milked seasonally, according to the ebbs and flows of the lady-cow cycle. (As a result, this cheese, aged 4 months, is only available from June to March.) All this makes for substantial and flavorful raw milk cheeses; but also — and this is part of the point — cheeses with some kind of moral integrity.

Grayson recently won two major awards at the American Cheese Society‘s 2008 Conference: runner-up for Best in Show, and first place for Farmstead Cow’s Milk Cheese. Not insubstantial, if you’re into cheese awards. I’m posting on Grayson because of the second award. “Farmstead” means that all of the production is done in one place, on one farm: the grass grows, the beasts eat, they are milked, the milk is cheesed, the cheese is aged. There is a strictly culinary appeal to this purity, since the farmstead cheesemaker has absolute control over his or her product, from beginning to end. No “fetid and sickening odors” will slip past the cheesemaker who doubles as dairy farmer. In fact, some American artisans earn reputations for fussiness and perfectionism — only accepting milk when the pastures are prime, for example. (Uplands Cheese, producer of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is often cited as a quintessential American “designer” cheese.) In addition, on the “ethical” end, no unwelcome practice will taint the moral valor of the cheese, less petroleum is consumed, dada dada dada.

(Yes, weep, for such finely tuned farmstead cheeses can be very, very expensive. Happily, Grayson is on the cheaper end of the spectrum.)

Another reason I pinpointed Grayson was to juxtapose it with Taleggio. (To see my prior post on Taleggio, click here.) It’s a standard refrain in cheesewriting that there are few true American originals: most of the cheese here derives too directly from some “ancestor” cheese in Europe. (Jack, Colby, and Brick are three accepted originals that I can think of, off the cuff.). It’s a strange evolutionary logic I don’t quite approve — but this is no place for “positions,” not now. Many artisanal cheeses are also “inspired” by old European winners; and in this respect, Grayson follows Taleggio. Grayson is also a washed-rind cows milk cheese that attains a silky, dense, custard texture without gooing out too much. Grayson and Taleggio look similar, too — pale yellow paste (the interior, non-rind of a cheese), orange rind — and with real handmade cheese appearance can indicate a lot about what the cheese is and how it tastes. You can eat both rinds, and both rinds taste like wet sand.

Eating the two cheeses, however, will reveal enough differences to justify coexistence. Grayson has a more odorous rind: more sand, seaweed, and sewage. The inside smells sweeter, openly milky, with a little fruit and a little more sock. From a small distance I smell ripe banana. (Why am I smelling this cheese from a distance? What happened?) The taste takes longer to warm up on your tongue; then there’s more tartness, more sweetness — higher tones — and perhaps less range than Taleggio. Grayson also tasted like poultry to me, full grown cocks and hens, whereas I only remember the eggs in Taleggio. These are worldly wonders.

Goat and background included for scale.

Grayson: goat and background included for scale.


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