Art or Alchemy?

Lucie Inns of Cheesology writes about…cheese

The artisan cheese-making process is a mixture of science, art and alchemy. Even now as an experienced cheesemonger, it amazes me that something as simple as milk can be transformed into such a wonderful foodstuff with so many variations and I’m constantly in awe of the cheesemakers whose knowledge and skill enables this transformation to take place.

Unlike mass produced factory-made cheese, many of the techniques used by today’s artisan cheesemakers date back centuries and these, combined with modern technology, allow ever finer control of the conditions that create a cheese’s unique flavour.

The two main constituents of milk are casein, an elastic protein which forms the curd; and lactose, which is a sugar. It is the lactose which provides the energy for the bacteria that begin the fermentation process. If the milk is unpasteurised (raw) then natural bacteria (good and bad) are already present. However, if the milk has been pasteurised (heat-treated) then a starter culture is added which contains the desired bacteria. This bacteria increases acidity levels by converting some of the lactose into lactic acid.

The milk is then curdled using rennet (either from the stomach of a calf or a vegetarian alternative derived from plant extract) allowing the solids (curds) and liquids (whey) to separate. At this stage if a fresh young cheese is required (Sussex Slipcote is a good example) then the curds may simply be ladled into moulds. However, if a firmer, drier cheese is desired then the curds will be cut or pressed through a mill, thereby expelling more moisture.

Once in the moulds the curds are left to drain. Cheeses will often take on the very distinctive imprint of the moulds in which they are formed – Ticklemore goat’s cheese and Barkham Blue are good examples of this as both bear the marks of the baskets in which they were shaped. Some cheeses are then cloth-bound and sealed with lard as in the case of traditional Cheddars. Blue cheeses will have had a specific mould mix added to the milk and as part of the process they will be pierced with long needles allowing the air to penetrate and encourage the mould growth that creates the distinct blue veining.

The final stage of the process is maturing the cheese – affinage as the French call it. The length of time a cheese is matured will define its character, allowing a particular flavour and texture to develop. The temperature and humidity of the maturing room also have a significant effect on the final result and it is here that the skill and experience of the maturer or affineur really comes into play, turning a good cheese into something truly great. That, in my opinion, is where the alchemy comes in.

So, next time you scoop up a perfectly ripened piece of gooey handmade Brie, think of the love, care talent and knowledge of the cheesemaker and skill, art and wisdom of the maturer that went into its wondrous creation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s