Really 'cheesy' secrets

From the pastures where the cows graze to the aging of cheese - each step is important.

Inside Paul Percy's barn in Stowe, Vt., a group of cows wait their turn to be milked. One cow watches Mr. Percy, the farmer, with a look of curiosity in her large, blue-brown eyes. Let's call her Daisy.

Daisy and the 200 other cows here provide milk to the Cabot Creamery Cooperative. The milk is used to make cheddar cheeses that are shipped all over the country. Cheesemakers like Cabot understand that the secret to making a good product lies in the details. From the pastures where the cows graze to the aging of the cheese - each step is important.

Percy's animals are well cared for. He grazes Daisy and his other cows on green grass in the summer. In winter, he keeps them warm and feeds them chopped hay and corn grown on his farm.

The environment in which the milk is produced is important in cheesemaking. Cabot attributes its award-winning flavors to the climate, soil, and grasses of northern Vermont. The quality of what the cows eat is reflected in a cheese's flavor. For instance, the strong, tangy bite of Cabot's "seriously sharp" Hunter's cheese may come from the wild onions or garlic that cows find in the pasture.

Wayne, the man who milks Daisy, cleans her udder and attaches a milking machine. Daisy's milk is then cooled and taken by truck to the cheese plant in nearby Cabot, Vt.

The creamery follows the same basic process for turning milk into cheese that people have used for thousands of years.

Cheesemaking began in the Near East about 4,500 years ago and later flourished in Europe and in the New World. People produced cheeses made with milk from cows, goats, sheep - even water buffalo, camel, and reindeer.

The cheddar cheese made by Cabot is similar to the hard, aged cheese first made in Cheddar Gorge, England, in the late 1500s. Cheese was a useful food before refrigerators were invented because it kept a long time without spoiling. The larger the cheese, the longer it kept.

The first step in making cheese is to heat the milk and add a bacterial culture to help the milk ferment.

Next cheesemakers add rennet, which can be either an animal or plant substance that causes milk to separate into jellylike curds and whey, a greenish-white liquid. (One exception is cottage cheese, or "pot cheese," which doesn't require rennet. It originated in Eastern and Central Europe. Farmers used to set a pot of milk in a warm place until acid in the sour milk produced soft curds.)

As the mixture cooks, the cheesemaker stirs and presses the curds, gradually draining off the whey. When the curds thicken, they are molded into solid cheese blocks or wheels.

At Cabot, the milk for its cheddar is cooked at exactly 161 degrees. Then mechanical "fingers" stir the curds, and the whey is drained. Hoses suck the curds into two towers, where pressure knits them together.

The cheese is then cut into 40-pound blocks. It's even sent through a metal detector to make sure that no sheared-off bolts or other objects accidentally get mixed into the cheese.

Blocks of hard cheese are vacuum-sealed in plastic (to prevent molding), boxed, and shipped to a warehouse, where cheese is aged in special cool rooms.

The longer a cheese ages, the sharper its flavor. Mild cheddar is usually aged for a few months, while sharp cheddar can sit for up to four years. (Most soft, creamy cheeses follow a different path and are meant to be eaten fresh.)

Cheesemaking can be a bit like baking chocolate chip cookies: Even when you follow the recipe, each batch of cheese can turn out a little differently. As you've learned, many variables come into play in cheesemaking, including the temperature at which the milk is cooked, the humidity in the air, and what the cows ate.

That's why after the cheeses have aged for at least two months, experts at Cabot grade them.

They poke into each cheese block with a metal "trier" and pull out a long, thin sample. They smell it, bend it, and taste it to determine what type of cheddar it will become. Should it be taken off the shelves after six months and sold as a mild cheddar? Or will the block make it to the level of a high-priced sharp "vintage" cheese?

The next time you bite into a cheese - whether extra sharp or mild - you'll understand the steps that went into making it. Even the climate, soil, and pasture play a role in how good the cheese tastes.

If it's Cabot cheese, you may even taste a bit of the countryside where Daisy pulled up grasses with her long, rough tongue.

A pot, a ladle, and fresh goat's milk

Carol Lively grew up as a city kid, but watching her on her three-acre farm in Rowe, Mass., you'd never know it. She grows prize-winning organic vegetables, milks 20 goats, and whips up nine different kinds of cheeses in her small kitchen.

Today she is making mozzarella with her 6-year-old daughter, Christina. She pours the pure white goat's milk into a stainless steel pot and begins heating it. Christina helps by adding citric acid.

"It's humid today, so we'll add a little more," Carol says. The milk begins to curdle even before they add lipase powder, a bacterial culture, and a few drops of rennet. Carol stirs the curds by gently moving a ladle with holes up and down in the pot. "The curds from goat's milk are more fragile than cow's," she says.

After more whey separates from the curds, she ladles the curds into a bowl and saves the mineral-rich whey for making ricotta cheese later. She cooks the curds in the microwave for a minute and drains more whey off. Now comes Christina's favorite part. She squishes the curds gently with the ladle. It's looking more like cheese now - rubbery cheese.

Carol pulls a bit off, and it stretches like taffy, but not enough. "It's too coarse," she says. She puts it back into the microwave for another minute. Then she mashes in one to two teaspoons of salt.

Not much whey is coming out now. The cheese is ready to shape. Christina rolls a "cheese stick" between her palms. Carol makes bite-sized balls. It's warm and chewy and has a buttery taste - nothing like mass-produced mozzarella.

Outside the goats frolic on their playground, which includes a plastic slide and a toy car. One goat has learned to beep the car's horn. Carol has just applied for a license to sell her homemade cheese. But as she pets her grandmother goat Lizzie, it's clear this isn't just a moneymaking operation. A gentle joy goes into the milk Carol gathers from her barnyard.

For more information, see Ricki Carroll's book, 'Home Cheese Making' or visit www.cheesemaking.com.

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