What makes ‘Quality Cheese’?
This question, if posed to 100 people, would yield 100 unique responses. Each individual’s conception of quality in cheese is informed their personal history, taste, intersectional identities (gender, skin color, class, etc) and role in the cheese production and consumption process (i.e. cheesemaker, -monger, or eater). In this blog series, I explore how different people in the New England cheese world answer this question.
When I posed this question to a cheesemaker in Vermont, his answer illustrated his philosophy of cheesemaking, and his words were borne out in his practice (as I was able to observe it during a farm visit). Michael, the cheesemaker at Twig Farm, identified the maker and the milk as the key constructors of quality in cheese.
When we arrived at Twig Farm, the baby goats bleated at us and nibbled our fingers. Michael did not want us dawdling with the animals, however; he quickly ushered us into the cheese room (after we had donned gauzy hairnets and blue plastic boot covers). As we watched him measure rennet and add it to the vat of warmed milk, we witnessed his dance between embodied knowledge and technology. Before he can add the rennet, the milk must have acidified to the correct pH, measured with a pen-shaped device. The device reads a pH too basic to make cheese with, but Michael is unperturbed: “I know where the milk is,” he says, meaning that he knows the milk is ready; therefore, the device must be wrong. He recalibrates the pH reader, tests again, is validated, and adds the rennet.
With nearly a decade of cheesemongering experience, Michael’s ability to tell the weight of something as he holds it is nearly supernatural. Though he filled each mold with firm curds until it weighed “145” on his digital scale, at the first flip of the cheese, he identified some molds as over- or under-full, and redistributed curds by look and feel. Just as with the pH reader, he used technology as a tool and extension of his intrinsic and bodily knowledge, not as a replacement for it (Paxson 2011, 121).
Michael, who learned cheesemaking “by doing” as an apprentice to another cheesemaker, marshals technological tools to supplement his sensory and embodied data gathering as he makes cheese. Though he dipped the pH reader into the vat at least 5 times over the course of the morning, I got the sense it was just to double check what he already knew, and he did not hesitate as he corrected the scale’s misreading of weight. He “wants the pH reader [and the scale] to agree with” his embodied, sensory knowledge of the milk and cheesemaking process (Paxson 2013, 148). In so doing, he prizes the maker as key to quality cheese, because it is the maker’s intimate knowledge of the cheese that allows her or him to bring about its creation.
The embodied knowledge of the cheesemaker shapes milk into cheese, and Michael identified milk as the second central component of quality cheese. In his production of aged goat’s milk cheeses, Michael uses milk given by his own herd of goats, milked just feet from the cheese room. Twig Farm bought in cow’s milk up until last summer, when they chose to produce only using their own milk. By using only milk from his own goats, Michael is able to take ownership of the entirety of the final product: “it’s easier to control the stuff we have.”
Control over the milk is of particular importance for raw cheesemakers. As a cheesemonger, Michael had been exposed to the seasonality of raw milk cheeses and appreciated the variety and flavor of that seasonality. He says that he always knew he would make raw milk cheeses, that raw milk was “one of the ideas that came before the act” of buying the farm and goats. Regulations for raw milk cheese are strict, but Michael is confident that his milk makes safe cheese. Because the volume is small, the facilities are clean, and the milk does not travel or wait long before the cheese is made, Michael’s raw milk requires the addition of a starter culture to become cheese. “Our milk is too clean to make cheese on its own,” Michael told us. “Our raw counts [of bacteria] are like store-bought pasteurized milk.” In his cheesemaking and discussion of his farm, it is clear that Michael takes the assured cleanliness of his milk seriously.
When asked “what makes quality cheese?”, Michael responded first and foremost, “well-made.” To be counted as ‘quality,’ a cheese must be “well-made, sound, with good milk. Technically well-executed, salted and aged well.” Michael explained that his approach to cheesemaking follows the guidelines: “Take care of your animals, and be careful [regarding pathogens and bacteria], and you’ll have good milk.” In this response, Michael explains that his cheese comes down to him and his goats: good milk, molded by a skilled cheesemaker, makes for good quality cheese. Ultimately, Michael sees quality cheese as a partnership between maker and milk, saying, “I’m just helping the milk become what it can be.”
But in my search for definitions of quality, Michael questioned whether I was pursuing a worthy goal. Michael wasn’t convinced that ‘quality’ cheese is the goal a cheesemaker should aim for. When I asked him directly for his definition of ‘quality’ cheese, he rebuffed me, saying,
“Quality cheese? What about compelling cheese? A cheese can be well-made, sound, with good milk. Technically well-executed, salted and aged well. But why this cheese? A cheese can be a good quality cheese, but it has to be compelling for me to care about it.”
This is to say, though quality is one aspect of cheese to be evaluated and understood, it is not the only feature of a cheese that matters (to makers or consumers). A few of Michael’s cheeses from June 2017 were bubbling and buckling in the aging room, a sign that all did not go according to plan. When Michael lamented this, Ihsan Gurdal (a Boston-area cheesemonger) countered, “but they’re selling very well!” In visiting these cheesemakers, I learned that quality in cheese matters, but it is not all that matters.
Paxson, Heather. 2011. “The ‘art’ and ‘science’ of handcrafting cheese in the United States.” Endeavor 35, no. 2-3: 116-124.
Paxson, Heather. 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yoon, Yohan, Soomin Lee, and Kyoung-Hee Choi. 2016. “Microbial benefits and risks of raw milk cheese.” Food Control 63: 201-215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2015.11.013