Posts Tagged 'washed-rind'

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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Taleggio, and the “Foul Sloth” of Avignon

The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person eat of some cheese and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that cheese?

“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” — Thoreau

Of Alpine Cheeses

While common wisdom might claim that cattle prefer flat lush lowlands that pamper their bulk, leaving the rough spots and steep slopes for more agile, rugged, stoic ruminants, in fact not all cows just frown and moo at a little exertion. The Alps, severe as they are, have long harbored dairy-based, cattle-rearing cultures, whose herds make seasonal migrations up and downhill in rhythm with the blossom and fade of mountain meadows (they call these vertical movements transhumance). With the rampant abundance of high-altitude springtime and summer — after the great white burden has lifted — with grasses, flowers, and herbs all ripe and exuberant — then these hardy bovine breeds enjoy some of the most delicious pastures in the world; and they make from it, in the mystery of their bowels, some of that same world’s most coveted milk. By creating hard mountain cheeses like Beaufort, Comté, Gruyère, or just about everything Swiss, the cattlemen transform this rich milk into massive, sturdy wheels that last them through brutal and snowdrenched and stark alpine winters.*

But this post is not about those hard cheeses, or, per the footnote, those godless alpine marmots. It is about a softer and stinkier cheese of the Alps.

Taleggio

This is hero cheese.

This is hero cheese.

On the Italian side of the Alps there are also cows; and when transhumance-ing herds make their autumnal journey down from the peaks to more temperate fields, they are still milked on the way, and cheese is still made. Lombard dialect calls these cows stracche — tired — and the family of cheese made from such weary beast teats is called stracchino. One member of this lineage, our chosen cheese for now, is Taleggio: ancient, lusty, pungent, and meaty. (Another famous one is Gorgonzola, reserved for a future post.)

So Taleggio is made in and named for the Val Taleggio, which is gouged out of mountainside by the River Enna (“val” being Italian for valley). Here’s a map I drew:

Handmade!

Until the late 19th century, Taleggio was all made in the Val, but since then factory cheesemaking has taken some commercial production downhill and out of Lombardy to parts of Piedmont and Venetia. The method, standardized over centuries and awarded D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) protection in 1996, goes something like this: Curds are left uncooked and cut large, hazlenut-size, contributing to a velvet-cream texture; they are turned and cut again, then heated gently in square molds for up to a day before aging. While they mature in conditions that mimic the humid cool caves of the Val, the rinds are washed weekly with brine. Thirty to forty days of aging bring the cheese-squares to an edible ripeness. That’s not long (which is why raw milk Taleggio is illegal in the US, where raw cheeses must be aged at least 60 days), and they can stand to sit some more: the flavors will intensify from moderately tart, with a Swiss-like tang, to deep, rounded, and beefy. The smell also intensifies, even more dramatically, to furnish at its fullness a pungency too robust for the faint of spirit and weak of will.

Taleggio’s redolence of rain-wet grass and body odor, cooked greens and baking bread results from the brine washings, which clean some bacteria off the rind but also foster the growth of Brevibacterium linens, the characteristic infection of washed-rind cheeses — what makes them stink well and colors them orange. (More on that category to come, sometime). A particular blend of yeast, molds, and bacteria flourish on this rind; they come to sweeten the cheese, and break down proteins and fats to make for a doughy thick smoothness. The best Taleggio I’ve known has a wonderfully balanced, complex and lasting flavor: some fresh salt and tang mellowed, widened and warmed by grass and meat flavors, some scrambled egg, a slight sourness on the swallow, a fruity aftertaste.

Very <i>stracche</i> people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Very stracche (tired) people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Some of my sources claim that Taleggio is old enough to have been mentioned by Cicero, Cato, and Pliny. The rest, more conservative, probably more accurate, report that it was birthed to human hands somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries. While medieval washed-rined cheeses are generally associated with monasteries — ironically, the monkish charge of cleanliness bred such strange new bacteria, o how symbolic — I haven’t found anything to indicate that Taleggio was another monastic innovation. Well then, what kind of person ate Taleggio?

In case you need more reason to consume this cheese, know that you will place yourself in the company of well-cultured aristocracy. My limited research finds Taleggio at the tables of two glorious medieval feasts. It was served for the wedding celebration of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1411. (These names should mean nothing to you; so here’s a good line on Sfroza from Machiavelli’s Prince: “Francesco Sforza, through being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and [his] sons, through avoiding hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons.” Now you’re educated.) Taleggio also appeared, a little earlier, at the coronation of Pope Clement VI in 1344.

Pope and Culinary Sophisticate Clement VI

Culinary sophisticate, Pope Clement VI

Like other Avignon popes, Clement VI appreciated and encouraged deliciousness in food and drink. He did not claim perfection or even sainthood, just lived, in his own words, “as a sinner among sinners,” more of a statesman than an infallible mouthpiece of God. Still it seems he worked few fine deeds in his time: in addition to eating and serving Taleggio, he was renowned for reliably sumptuous generosity (sumptuous enough to gobble through the papal treasury); he condemned the massacres of Jews that were becoming widespread after the outbreak of plague in 1348-9; he issued a Bull against the creepy, proliferating groups of traveling Flagellants, labeling their leaders “masters of error”; and he patronized art and learning, like any decent aristocrat.

Nevertheless, the luxuriousness of Clement’s Avignon lifestyle has irritated some critics, ancient and modern, and provoked vicious tirades. I’ll quote two here — because these are the kinds of quotations I live for. First, Petrarch, in a letter, sometime, wrote of Clement’s Avignon:

Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury. In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who cannot be approached except presents be offered. O ye unkempt and emaciated old men, is it for this you labored? Is it for this that you have sown the field of the Lord and watered it with your holy blood? But let us leave the subject.

I have been so depressed and overcome that the heaviness of my soul has passed into bodily affliction, so that I am really ill and can only give voice to sighs and groans. (Quoted from The Petrarchan Grotto.)

Next, a modern outcry: the first item on a list of crimes intended to place Clement VI among the 10 Most Evil People of the 14th Century CE:

Pope Clement VI during the massive death and misery of the world did celebrate by continuing endless drug fuelled sex parties and great banquets of the finest food.

I’m pleased to assume that one such “finest food” was Taleggio; and it speaks to the wonders of the modern world that peasants like us can now enjoy the same grand cheese that played some part in those famed excesses of Avignon.

(If it matters to you, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, states quite baldly that “the incriminations against [Clement VI’s] moral conduct are unfounded.” Let our consciences rest.)

(Posts won’t all be this long in the future. It’s just that right now I’m unemployed.)

* Of Marmots

Concerning the brutality of alpine winters: I think David Attenborough once taught me that alpine marmots have adapted to the endless freeze by becoming some of the most cruel creatures on earth (although still not comparable, of course, of course, to humans and parasites — two beasts that convinced Mark Twain to hate God). These marmots must hibernate in little marmot-holes while the snow is out; and since those winters are so dreadfully long, they must be careful to keep just the right balance of huddled occupants, or else all of them could die. Spring comes, the marmots see the sun and all get frisky. But mother-marmot must be pragmatic, so, in accordance with Satan’s will, if any of her daughters get pregnant with a baby that the hole might not support — *gasp* — mother-marmot beats the poor daughter into bloody, unhappy miscarriage. Thank the stars that global warming might yet extinguish these monsters, according to YouTube.


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