Cheesemaking – Part I

February 17, 2006

This and next week’s feature articles were written and contributed by CUESA volunteer and Cheese Specialist, Laura Martinez.

At its most basic level, cheese provides the benefits of fresh milk without the need to keep milk fresh. At its most complicated, cheese is the product of an intricate culinary art form dating back to Egyptian times. Every step of its creation can be varied to produce thousands of different types from four main milks: cow, goat, sheep, and water buffalo.

This article is the first of a two-part series that will look at cheesemaking as practiced by Ferry Plaza Farmers Market cheesemakers. The first part will focus on farming practices and milk production, raw versus pasteurized milk, and starter cultures. The second will follow the cheesemaking process from curd development to final product.

Farming and Milk Production
Farmstead cheesemaking begins long before milk is produced. The flavor and nutritional components of milk and cheese are directly related to what the animals eat. Farmstead cheesemakers have a true advantage over larger, more commercial cheesemakers because they select and breed their own herds and control what the animals eat, how illnesses are treated, when milking is done, and the transportation of milk to their cheesemaking facilities.

Jim and Donna Pacheco of Achadinha Cheese Company gather milk from approximately 1200 goats of various breeds. The goats feed on fresh pasture and hay while roaming almost 230 acres of ranchland, and on grains and whey. When available, the Pachechos add brewer’s grain obtained from local breweries, thereby introducing unique flavors that develop in the aging of Capricious and Broncha cheese. They also use crushed grapes from local winemaking, which cause a small stampede as the goats rush to gobble them down.

Javier Salmon, of Bodega Goat Cheese and Yerba Santa Dairy grazes his herd of 105 goats on twenty acres of organic pastures. They bed down at night with supplements of organic grain grown in the Central Valley, which also augment their diet during dry months.

The Giacomini’s 250 Holstein cows of Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese spend half of the year feeding on the native grasses of family-owned pastures while enjoying salt air breezes from the Pacific Ocean. When the pastures are dry, the cows eat silage created from local grasses grown on the ranch.

None of these herds is routinely treated with antibiotics or administered hormones, and milk is never gathered from animals that are ill or undergoing treatment. Instead of using antibiotics, Javier Salmon works with an herbalist who uses essential oils and tinctures to treat animal illnesses.

In keeping with healthful breeding and natural cycles, all of these animals take a break from milk production when they are expecting calves and kids. The size of the Pachechos’ herd allows them to rotate breeding throughout the season so that milk is always available for cheesemaking. Javier Salmon stops cheese production (and market attendance) for several months during the winter while the goats are pregnant and having babies, while the age of Pt. Reyes Farmstead Blue (6 months minimum) allows the Giacominis to rely on stocks of cheese for market sale when milk production goes down.

Pasteurization, or Not
In 1908 the United States passed the first compulsory law requiring milk from cows to be pasteurized. French microbiologist Louis Pasteur had recently discovered that milk bacteria were killed when the milk’s temperature was raised to a certain point, then quickly cooled to prevent spoilage. Current U.S. law requires pasteurization of any milk used in cheeses aged fewer than sixty days. Fresh cheeses such as ricotta, cream cheese, and brie must be made from pasteurized milk. Raw milk may be used for cheeses aged over 60 days, as most bacteria cannot survive this long.

Strong cases can be made for both raw and pasteurized milk. Many people find the flavors in cheese made from raw milk more complex or believe the benefits of raw milk bacteria outweigh the risk of infection. Others find little difference in the flavors of cheese made from raw or pasteurized milk, and feel safer eating cheese made with pasteurized milk. There is little evidence to suggest large margins of risk in eating raw milk cheese, especially if aged for 60 days, nor is there much evidence to support increased health benefits from eating raw milk cheese instead of pasteurized cheese. Still, farmstead cheesemakers are strongly invested in making cheese that retains as much complexity and nutrition from the original landscape and animals as possible. When they can control the cheesemaking environment and are producing an aged cheese, they use raw milk.

Because the Pachechos do not have exclusive use of their cheesemaking facilities, all Achadinha cheeses are made from milk pasteurized at 145 degrees for 30 minutes. Javier Salmon uses milk pasteurized at 145-150 degrees for 30 minutes to make Queso Fresco and Cremas; raw milk is used for his aged Manchego and Queso Cabrero. The Giacomini famly uses raw milk to create their 6-month-old wheels of Pt. Reyes Farmstead Blue.

Starter Cultures
Left alone, raw milk will spoil and become cheeselike, but the results are uneven and unpredictable. Because pasteurization kills most bacteria, pasteurized milk will not spoil in a way that produces cheese. As a result, starter cultures are used to introduce bacteria that will controllably spoil the milk before it is separated into curds and whey.

Starter cultures are milk-derived, dried bacteria that begin the production of lactic acid. They introduce flavors and contribute to a cheese’s finished texture. The Pachechos and Javier Salmon purchase cultures developed from Lactococcus bacteria specially formulated for goat cheese. The Giacominis purchase starter cultures from France formulated to produce blue cheese.

Animal husbandry practices, pasteurization choices, and starter cultures are the foundation upon which each unique cheese is developed. Next week’s e-letter will explore the rest of the process: how curd is made, what rennet is, and the final steps in cheesemaking.