I recently taught a class on cheese to a group of kindergarteners. Most introductory cheese classes I had taught in the past were to shrewd Manhattanites who came prepared with questions on mesophilic versus thermophilic cheese cultures and on the documented origin of wild thistle rennet cheese (the truth about which I still have no clue), and so I thought it might be a nice break to get back to the basics with this group of youngsters.
"Where does cheese come from?" The answer to my opening question seemed obvious to me.
"The grocery store," they replied in unison, as if to mock my cheesemonger sensibilities.
True, I suppose, but the more accurate response I was looking for was milk, which I'll devine here, in The Slice's first installation on cheesemaking.
To begin our series on cheesemaking with milk is not to equate you readers with entry-level grade schoolers. Rather, the subject of milk is a complex one. The quality of all cheese is inextricably linked not only to the quality of the milk, but also to the diet of the animal from which it comes.
Just like you can't make good wine from bad grapes, you need quality milk to make delicious cheese. Feed a cow wild grasses, fragrant wildflowers, and herbaceous clover, and be guaranteed that the milk will taste different --arguably better suited to cheesemaking -- than, for example, if the cow happened upon a field of odorous wild garlic.
The difference between exceptional and inferior cheese can often been linked to the facility in which the cheese is made. Farmstead and smaller production cheeses often mean that cheesemakers devote more time to ensuring the quality of their animals' diet and lifestyle: implementing rotational grazing to guarantee fresh grass at every graze, practicing organic farming methods, and abstaining from growth hormones, herbicides, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and animal-based feeds.
I'd be hard pressed (sorry, pun intended) to find a cheesemaker who doesn't believe that happy cows make the best cheese.
So first and foremost, no matter which store your cheese comes from, remember to praise the essence of cheese and to realize the origin (and potential) of cheese in its liquid form.
- Nora S.