Talking cheese: of grass, happy cows, the lactose intolerant, and why we can’t make good cheese

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IT turns out that it is not too difficult to make home-made ricotta cheese.

THE HUMBLE, ubiquitous cheese, set on all tables from high to humble, is a record of man’s manipulation of nature as well as the desire not only to survive, but to savor.

Cheese has been made since prehistory, ostensibly to lengthen the shelf life of milk by taking out the water and sugar from dairy, and leaving behind fat and protein, to be matured by bacteria under perfect conditions first provided by caves.

Perhaps cheese even has a hand in allowing for human settlement, since in many cultures the production of food through fermentation and preservation allowed humans to stay longer in a place, as opposed to going around looking for pasture grounds for milk-producing livestock.

Cheese is also a testament to the spread of culture (and we’re not talking about bacteria). Take for example American cheesemaking, which combines the techniques of the people who have migrated to America in search of greener, well, pastures. In the state of California alone, we can find hundreds of varieties of cheese, with influences from many cultures: mozzarella from Italy, oaxaca from South America, and cheddar from England. Of course, California has since produced a few cheeses of its own (like Monterey Jack). “I could go on for quite a while, because there’s practically 200; I don’t know,” said “cheese dude” Mark Todd, a cheese expert and dairy organization consultant, who was in Manila this week for a cheesemaking session organized by the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) in Back of the House kitchen in Quezon City.

Guests at the session lent a hand – and then some – during the cheesemaking session. It turns out that it’s quite easy to make your own cheese, such as a ricotta that was made in about an hour and a half, using materials that could be bought in stores or already found in homes, such as stock pots, a dairy thermometer, a whisk, a spatula, a colander, cheesecloth, skimmer, and a wooden spoon. Using whole cow’s milk, heavy cream, citric acid powder, and kosher salt, guests heated milk and waited for curds to form. The curds were then allowed to sit, then ladled into the cheesecloth spread across a strainer over a bowl. After draining the curds, presto, you’ve got a lovely creamy ricotta.

Mr. Todd discussed why California milk is unique: it’s all in the grass, baby. “If you know anything about milk, what goes into a cow is what comes out.” While some areas in California have a lot of fresh dewy grass, some Californians not blessed with a lot of moisture use hay to feed their cows. And that’s all right too: according to Mr. Todd, either method yields great milk: hay-fed cows provide more consistent cheeses, while grass-fed cows, exposed to more variables, produce milk with more variations, which provides for more seasonality and variety in cheese.

Either way, “California has clean air coming right off the ocean, it has clean water coming right out of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and it has a pretty even temperature,” said Mr. Todd. This means that the cows aren’t exposed to extremes in temperature, and that makes for a happy mammal. “Any product that is produced agriculturally has a flavor of place. The better your place is, the better the flavor’s going to be,” he pointed out.

While we associate California with glamorous Hollywood and high living (at least along the coast), few would associate it with hardworking hands and the desire and ability to feed America. As well, products from a place, like Mr. Todd said, provide a way to know not only the land, but its people. “It says that we’re a great agricultural state, which we really are. Most people that think of California think of Hollywood, and stuff like that. That’s like 5% of California.”

Mr. Todd is in Manila, a city in Asia, and most of the Asian population is lactose-intolerant. Not to worry: “Most of the world is lactose-intolerant – including me,” said Mr. Todd. “If you’re lactose-intolerant, you want to stick to yogurt and particularly aged cheeses.” This is because the lactose in these has been converted to lactic acid during the fermentation process, as opposed to fresh milk and younger cheeses.

Aside from small productions in farms, or big factories churning out processed cheese, cheesemaking as an art hasn’t really kicked off in the Philippines. “You don’t have the right stuff to feed your cows here. You don’t have the right kind of grass,” noted Mr. Todd. The climate in the country makes for low-protein grass, which translates into the milk the cows produce, and cheese relies on milk with high protein content.

When asked how to remedy the situation, Mr. Todd said, “Move.” – Joseph L. Garcia