"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cheese Season Solutions (Practicality vs. Purism)

Cheese season will be short this year. We are leaving for Oaxaca June 24th, and at that point we will let the does dry off, since Rowan cannot milk and take care of the farm and go to school full time. Right now, Iris is at peak milk production, providing me with just about a gallon of milk a day. The other two does still have kids on them, and I am not usually bothering to separate the kids because Iris is providing me all the milk I can reasonably use.

Unless, that is, I find a solution for the difficult problem of aging hard cheese. I have tried for several years, with little success (okay, no success) to age my hard cheeses. I purchased a wine fridge. I bought cheese wax and waxed the cheeses and stored them in the wine fridge. I read about optimal humidity levels. I turned them over daily. No matter what I did, the wax cracked and the cheese molded within about a month to six weeks.

With larger wheels of cheese (large for me is about a four to five pound wheel) I was able to whittle off the mold and eat the interior of the cheese, but more than half of it was lost, and I could always detect a little moldiness even after trimming. Just seemed like a giant waste and a big disappointment.

So this year I have been making more chèvre, which I can use up in lots of ways (although I feel like an Iron Chef with chèvre as a secret ingredient - "you must use chèvre in EVERY dish") There's about three pounds of it in the fridge at the moment. I still make the hard cheese, my farmhouse cheddar, but we just have to eat it young. It's extremely frustrating, because the cheese continues to improve every day, right up until the day it starts to mold, which is at about one month. Very green hard cheese is not delicious - it's naturally quite sour and one-dimensional. Complex flavors don't begin to develop and the sourness doesn't subside until the cheese is about two weeks old, and then it becomes a challenge to try and eat it before it goes bad two weeks later. I have found that I can speed up the maturation process some by cutting the fresh cheese into 2" cubes and giving them a final salting. But what I really want is to be able to make hard cheese that I can eat six months later.

Recently, an exciting new cheese shop opened up in my town, Twin Sisters Creamery (http://www.twinsisterscreamery.com/#!cheese-shop/cjdh). Not only do they sell a wonderful assortment of cheeses both local and international, but they are cheesemakers as well, producing a terrific blue cheese called "Whatcom Blue," among others. When they first opened, I went in and had a long chat with one of the owners and she was delightful. We talked about cheese for a half hour or so, and she was interested in the fact that there are many home cheesemakers around. I told her I'd be back as soon as cheese season started, and if she wanted to sample some of my goat cheese, she'd be more than welcome. She said she'd love to.

It occurred to me today to go and ask her about solutions for my storage issues. I brought along a wheel of two-day old cheese, and two baggies of cheese cubes, one about two weeks old and one about four weeks old. I was hoping that she would want to taste my cheese and would be impressed with it (I'm a sucker for praise), but mostly I was just hoping she would have some suggestions for aging it successfully.

Turns out, she wasn't there. I spoke to her husband, instead, who was a very kind and friendly guy, but not the head honcho cheesemaker. He didn't want to taste the cheese ("I'm not really a goat cheese kind of guy") and I don't blame him - if I were a professional cheesemaker I certainly wouldn't want to taste random cheese from a local person I'd never met before. He did, however, have a very useful suggestion for me.

A Foodsaver. A vacuum-sealer.

It was kind of a "du-uh" moment.

Vacuum sealers are the kind of medium-large, medium-expensive appliance that I always categorized in my head as "unnecessary gadget." Along with microwave ovens and dehydrators. Less frivolous than ice cream makers or popcorn poppers, but to a culinary purist like myself kind of a cheat.

I always imagined myself - in my daydreams - as learning the real, old world, traditional crafts of aging and curing; hanging salami in natural casings, brining kosher dills in stoneware crocks, brewing and bottling hard cider, and carefully turning and aging my own cheese. It matters not that each of these processes is actually an entire professional category on its own, I cheerfully imagined that I would become an expert in them all. And look good doing it, too.

Time passes and illusions fade. Cheese molds, cider turns to vinegar, and salamis never even get made. Time to get real. Do I want to eat my homemade cheese in November, or not? Am I simply a dilettante, feeding goats year round for the sake eating fresh cheese three months of the year, or am I serious about this thing?

So I bought a Foodsaver. It won't be just for cheese - I can also use it in the fall, for storing home-smoked salmon. I still have some questions, and I still plan on going and asking the head honcho cheesemaking lady about them. First among them, won't the cheese stop maturing once it is sealed? Doesn't it need air to keep developing? Maybe not - after all traditional cheeses are either waxed or develop a rind that severely limits gas exchange. At what stage ought I to seal the cheese? As soon as it's pressed? After air drying for a few days? Just before it would begin to mold?

Assuming I can get some answers to those questions, and assuming I can figure out how to work the darn thing. I will start separating the babies from all three does and try to make cheese two or three times a week until we leave. Hopefully, with a little experimentation, I can start to make maximum use of the oceans of milk that flow in the springtime, and save it for the droughts of winter.