I make fresh cheese…and learn why Limburger stinks.

The Dawn of Cheesemaking.

It’s impossible for anyone to say how cheese making got its start– cheese came long before writing.

A romantic legend among the Arabs is that a desert trader embarked on a long trip by camel. He had a bag made from a calf’s stomach in which he stored camel’s milk for the voyage. But when he went to drink the milk, the rennet (an acid found in ruminant’s tummies) had turned the milk into curds! Pouring off the excess liquid called whey, he scooped up the curds and formed them into a cheese ball, which he ate. Delicious!

But there’s a problem with this story. At the time, adult humans didn’t possess the mutation allowing them to digest milk. Why would someone carry milk, if it only caused indigestion? And besides, why carry milk when you can milk the camel instead?

Legend aside, what more likely happened was this: early in the domestication of goats or sheep, herders began drawing off milk for orphaned babies – perhaps those whose mothers died giving birth. Whether left in the heat, put in a calf-gut bag, or mixed with an acidic substance, milk proteins would have coagulated. Some adventurous – or perhaps just hungry – person sampled the milk solids and discovered they were tolerable. This is because about 80 percent of milk’s lactose is drained off in the whey, leaving behind a more easily digestible fresh cheese.

Home cheese making – a revival. 

Cheese making and butter churning were skills that most American farm women knew how to do prior to the turn of the 20th Century. Knowing how to make butter and cheese were essential to preserving milk before refrigeration. (My mother, in fact, had a butter churn during my youth, though its purpose was merely decorative).

And, as I was to learn, it’s really quite easy to do. My teacher was Pamela Zorn, a mother of seven kids who not only makes cheeses but also raises nearly all of the food for her family: vegetables, fruits, chickens & eggs, butter, milk, and more. She and her husband, Ron, own Wines & Whey, a cheese and wine shop in Denver.

When I arrive, Pamela is blending raw milk in a 25-gallon, hexagonal pasteurizer vat. She holds the temperature at a precise 145 degrees fahrenheit for 30 minutes before cooling the milk and commencing with cheese making. This gentle pasteurization process preserves the raw milk’s inherent goodness and flavor, which in turn influences the outcome of the cheese.

Once the milk cools to 90 degrees (the temperature called for in Pam’s recipe), she adds a bacterial culture.. The bacteria determine the variety of cheese being made. Then, she carefully measures out a few tablespoons of rennet, which is the color of malt syrup. The rennet is what causes the milk proteins to shrink and bind together, creating the bonds that make the cheese firm.

After just 15 minutes, Pamela invites me to have a look inside the pot. The transformation is magical. It’s the kind high school chemistry teachers like Breaking Bad’s Walter White do to wow kids in class. Already, the milk has separated; on top is a liquid the color of chicken broth, the whey, and underneath is a smooth white mass of milk proteins and fats that resembles thick Greek yogurt. She draws off most of the whey and puts it into a container, to be fed later to the farmer’s pigs. Then she hands me a knife and invites me to cut the cheese curd.

I run the knife through the surprisingly thick material, which at this point is the consistency of firm but not yet set Jello®. I draw long lines across the surface until I’ve cut the curds into about 40 narrow ribbons. Then, rather to my surprise, Pamela plunges her hands into the curds and begins lifting and kneading the small chunks.

This is necessary to make certain all of the curds are equally exposed to the rennet and that the liquid whey is slaked-off, Pamela explains. Omitting this step can leave pockets of wet and not-quite-yet cured curd, which can harbor mildew that can ruin the cheese from within. She scoops out a few globs of the white curd and invites me to taste them. Sure enough, though very mild, the curds already have a rich, cheesy taste. Pamela suggests that adding some coarse salt would help to bring out the flavor even more.

Adding variety.

What I had sampled in the vat was “fresh” cheese, also called “farm cheese,” or in Spanish, queso fresco. Add a little salt, and you could serve it up for breakfast. But if your aim is a cheese with a more sophistication, you must take control of the variables.

Unless otherwise adulterated with nuts, coloring or spices, cheese is made of just four ingredients: milk, a bacterial culture, rennet, and salt. There are about a dozen steps to cheese making, give or take. Slight variations in the ingredients and steps are what account for the more than 2,000 varieties of cheese. Pamela says that cheese making is “70 percent chemistry, 30 percent art.” The art is in the variables.

Once the curds are kneaded to Pamela’s satisfaction, she pours them into a cylindrical mold lined with cheese cloth. Using weights and a device resembling a cider press, Pamela begins to form the curds into a smooth, uniform mass. 

Over the course of many thousands of years and across hundreds of civilizations past and present, humans have created many distinct cheeses. They range from spreadably soft cream cheeses to bone dry Parmagiano-Reggiano, hard enough to dull a steel grater. Some have next to no aroma, while others stink to high heaven – like Napolean’s favorite cheese Epoisses, which is so pungently offensive, it is banned from public transportation all over France.

Why do some cheeses stink while others have hardly any smell? The key lies in the bacterial starter culture. Bacteria play the biggest role in a  cheese’s texture, taste and odor. One of the most famous “stinky” cheeses is Limburger, which many people say smells like sweaty feet. And rightfully so…the bacteria used for this variety of Dutch cheese is Brevibacterium linens, one of the bacteria responsible for human body odor, particularly the pungent odor that comes from overworked, under-washed feet!