By Alicia Beach
Yes, we’re still waist-deep in a province-wide lock-down, and no, I wouldn’t say we are bored. Long story short, Lily the Jersey’s milk production was down to four liters a day. Papa Beach woke up one morning and poured himself a coffee. He whistled his way across the kitchen, opened the fridge – “We’re out of cream!” Four liters doesn’t cut it with ten kids.
That afternoon he hooks up a cattle trailer to Leisl the Diesel (our honky-tonk old twelve passenger van) and drives off. He returns shortly with a dark brown cow. She’s a placid, droopy, crooked old thing, with a limp and an aversion to old hay. Mom shakes her head and pulls up the milking stool. Lucie may be elderly and indifferent to treats and pets… but boy does she give milk.
Our house is full of smells… some of the usual sort you would expect to find in a Canadian household – fabric softener, fried bacon, and caramelized sugar from chocolate chip cookies. Other scents are more unique to a farm. Manure tracked in from the barn, fresh air clinging to muddy jeans and rosy faces, yeasty fresh-baked bread… and a new smell, creamy and sweet – homemade cheese!
With the introduction of a second cow, Lucie, to our menagerie of farm animals, so began the difficulty of having thirty liters of milk a day to process somehow.
Drinking that much was… impossible.
Eating that much yogurt was… unconventional.
That left but one option. Cheese.
The process starts with a large pot of the morning milking – about fifteen to twenty liters. It is warmed in a sink of hot water to just above room temperature. Rennet (an enzyme and type of coagulant) is added, and the milk sits for thirty minutes or so. At this point the proteins and fat in the milk begin to come together, and separate from the watery whey, in a jello-like mass.
This mass is cut into curds with a long knife, and as it is cut, the whey separates even more. The curds are then gently heated to 92 Fahrenheit and carefully stirred.
Everything in cheesemaking is done slowly, over the course of hours; the cooking, stirring, and settling of the curds. These steps determine the final texture of the cheese and must be done carefully. My mom is much better at following directions than me… I’ve ended up with quite a few sloppy messes on my hands that ended up in the compost, one rock-like hunk of dairy, and another inedible moldy lump.
In the afternoon the whey is drained off, usually after letting the curds settle into a soft cloudy lump in the bottom of the pot. This is then salted and packed into our cheese press lined with a special kind of cloth called… cheesecloth! (Go figure.) It’s just a large, thin cotton tea towel. Our cheese press is a contraption with a spring and a handle you turn to compress the spring and put the right amount of pressure on the cheese – ten pounds of pressure at first, and then by the evening, fifty pounds.
The weight knits the curds together and presses out the remaining whey. Come morning, we pry it out of the press, peel away the cheesecloth, and reveal a cylinder of green cheese! Of course, it’s not actually green, but a milky white. I suppose you could say the steps are touch and go… Some days the milk will have a higher fat content, resulting in a softer cheese. Other days it will be humid and this will also affect the curds. My mom is starting to get the hang of it. Smooth, yellowing wheels of Gouda and cheddar cheese are already filling the cellar shelves to ripen. They are turned twice a day to prevent condensation and mold from growing on the bottoms. Each wheel takes a few months to age, depending on the kind… but it is worth the wait!
Carefully carving out a wedge of homemade, uniquely ours, farm-fresh cheese, slipping a sliver into your mouth… it’s a special experience that goes hand in hand with the knowledge that this product went from our cows to our kitchen, to the cellar, and then straight to the dinner table. It’s a whole another level of independence, health, and originality!