Until I tried making cheddar cheese, I never knew how working with raw milk compared to loving a beautiful woman. And like a beautiful woman, how easily cheddar can break your heart.
Zak Schafer, a young artisanal cheese maker, watches over a huge stainless steel warming tub filled with 4,500 pounds of creamy milk fresh from the Shelburne Farm dairy herd that morning. Occasionally he dips a cup in to test the raw milk, applying variously bacteria, heat and salt to coax it along its way to becoming about 500 pounds of some of the finest aged cheddar cheese in the world. I’ve traveled to this stunningly beautiful former Gilded Age agricultural estate near Burlington, Vermont, for an intensive day-long adventure in cheese making. “With raw milk,” Schafer tells me as he tests its acidity, “you’re always chasing. The temperature varies, the moisture, the pH, the fat content. Things change.”
His fellow cheese maker Tom Gardner expounds on that fickleness: “Raw milk is like a beautiful woman. You think you know her then suddenly you say, What just happened there?” He might have added, like a beautiful woman if you capture the milk’s nuances with just the right touch, the sensual pleasure can’t be matched.
I work alongside Schafer, Gardner and fellow cheese maker Paul Hartnett in a white-tile clean room, called the “make room.”
Giant mixer spoons suspended over the warming tub stir the milk as the cheese making process causes it to curdle, and then the cheese makers laboriously separate it into gelatinous curds and watery whey. After draining off the liquid, they frequently dip into the curds to check temperature, acidity and moisture content, to help determine the precise amounts of starter bacteria and rennet needed to urge the milk along towards cheese. Once they achieve just the right characteristics, the cheese makers cut the curds into heavy white slabs that they stack, shuffle and stack again. That’s called “cheddaring.”
The pressing and knitting together of the curd slabs are what makes cheddar cheese unique. Finally, the ever more dense slabs are sliced and diced into fingers and then heavily salted before the cheese making team packs them into molds. From there they will be sent to coolers, where as 40-pound blocks—if that raw milk doesn’t break the cheese makers’ hearts—they will ripen for up to three years into a gloriously creamy and sharp aged cheddar cheese.
Drawing on many of the same basic techniques, home cheese makers can make so-called pot cheese, moist cheeses similar to ricotta and mozzarella. Hard cheeses like cheddar, though, require a commitment in time and attention, plus specialized starter bacteria, rennet and a press—and a cooler to age the blocks. But even at home, true cheese lovers can learn to make their own artisanal cheddar with the heartbreaking soul of a beautiful woman.