Friday, January 20, 2012

The Dawn of Cheese tinkering

     About 2 years ago I decided that I must make cheese. I have always adored cheese so this decision was as dispassionate as it was inevitable.  So, my first step, and this applies to all my new avocations: Buy many, many books. Buy as many books as are available about the topic at hand. Understand that I am by nature an empiricist so any new endeavor must be accompanied by comparative analysis of the current experts, evaluating their methods, comparing each to the other and arriving at a mean which, I hope, is the true average and my best available path.
     But, to my dismay, despite the assurance of cheese making authors that we find ourselves in the midst of a "artisanal revolution" of cheese making, NAY, near-epidemic levels of home cheese making, there are currently two, yes TWO books of any merit on the subject.  As a former student agricultural biochemist ( a career path I chose, wisely, not to pursue ) this proved a far too small a sample size to adequately compare all the best techniques and theories available and arrive at a "platonic ideal" of procedure from which I would make the WORLD'S GREATEST CHEESE.  In fact, I found even these books a bit vague and even inaccurate at points.  In their rush to proselatize the "ease" and "simplicity" of making cheese, they ignored my simple questions about it's complexity. And make no mistake, it's quite complex.  I like the complexity. Cheese IS sacred to me, and to many of you I suppose. There should be something about it that is sacrosanct and unknowable. Fine, but now I am making cheese for the first time, and these divine mysteries have recently taken on the character of intolerable annoyances.
     There are so many places this process can go wrong. I knew this of course.  In college I spent most of my junior and senior years grappling with the same microorganisms that so confound me in making cheese. Lactococcus lactis lactis might have passed as my girlfriend junior year, and yet I now find myself grappling with it unarmed. In the microbiology lab I had an advantage: technology. There were laminar flow hoods, protective garments, sterile technique, all the tools of the microbiological Catcher in the Rye. I was the conductor, the bugs my orchestra. But now, with lab science only a memory, I attempt the same act of control in my home kitchen: a fetid, dog-hair laden, technology-free bastion of uncontrollability.
     This blog is an attempt to remedy that situation.  As a child of the late 20th century I live with the conceit that every problem has a technological solution.  This may not be true, hell, I certainly won't promise that it will make THE WORLD'S GREATEST CHEESE, but my goal is far more modest than that.  The fact is that all the things I find confounding about cheese making have been solved by none other than commercial cheese makers. A group of manufacturers which, as many latter-day homesteaders would have you believe, are nothing less than the anti-Christ or at the very least the anti-Cheese.  Maybe so, politically I am liberal but as a craftsman I am a dead-centered moderate. Yes, I think we can learn a thing or two about home cheese making from commercial cheese making. Call me a heretic. Call me an infidel. The commercial production process, despite all it's attendant evils, still has lessons to teach.
     So here we go, what exactly is my point?  I want to experiment with every spongy, nebulous, undefinable part of the cheese making process and demystify it, unravel it, rob it of it's spiritual share.  I'm not angered by cheese's mystical station, in fact I think it is still under appreciated. I simply want to turn home-alchemy into home-manufacturing. The individual who commits to the path of cheese making is a dear soul, and deserves to be rewarded with cheese that tastes like cheese, and rewarded consistently, without losing his or her mind or savings.  To do that the cheese maker needs some help, and I will be the test case who tries to find that help. I will try shit, perhaps ill-advised shit, in the service of turning home cheese making into a process of making good cheese rather than making good sweaty kitchen slaves.  My hope is take my meager remembrance of my scientific past, merge it with my role as a nascent cheese maker and emerge with some knowledge that helps us all.
     My approach to my topics, at least philosophically, will be borrowed from my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said: "To be believe what is true for you in your private heart, is true of all men, that is genius." While I won't pretend to genius, I will work under the assumption that whatever I have found difficult or annoying or insurmountable as a home cheese maker are the same points in the process that you have found that way.  I will address these annoyances as they emerge, and, with an equally Emersonian commitment to innovation, will attempt to thwart them with bargain-basement solutions based on top-shelf scientific cheese production methods.
     Will it work? Well, let's see.....

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