The Editor's First Day at Cheese School
At 8:30 this morning I took my seat in a classroom at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese (on the campus of UVM in Burlington), to start the first of a four-day- cheesemaking intensive course. This education for me is long overdue. As the editor of culture magazine, I’ve learned a lot on the job about what makes one wheel different from another, but there are big gaps in my cheese intelligence. What really happens (on a microbial level) when milk, starter, coagulant and a cheesemaker come together in a creamery? It was time I knew.
But first I was to learn about my classmates. We went around the room introducing ourselves and I was amazed to hear that the other 14 students (of various ages) had come from all over—Bolivia, Nova Scotia, Tennessee, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Iowa and various towns in the northeast. One farmer said she signed up to learn about cheesemaking, “so I can keep my husband’s dairy farmer dream alive.” A chef, a human resources professional, a teaching retiree, and an immunologist all came to jumpstart new careers. Others students were already practicing artisan cheesemakers looking to troubleshoot various cheese problems and to make consistently better products.
The first six hours of today’s class were an intense, remarkable journey into the world of the Unseen. Cheesemaking is all about controlling phenomena that are invisible to our eyes. Like the way microbes transform lactose into lactic acid to move the pH of milk; how hydrogen ions cleave from casein to change the polarity of molecules to make curds and whey; sodium (NaCl) works to push calcium out of its spot in a casein micelle; or how short fatty acids break apart in a triglyceride molecule to become free agents that suddenly contribute flavors and aromas. These are just a fraction of the cheese-yielding agents revealed to us by three of the Institute’s lauded faculty members: Dr. Paul Kindstedt, Dr Montse Almena, and Marc Druart.
We finished the day in the cheesemaking room, donned in hairnets, paper slippers, and lab coats as Druart walked us through the steps of making a fresh cow’s milk cheese with two different added cultures and animal rennet. The batch is curing overnight, as I write this, transforming into a gel we will cut and drain in the morning. It’s the first of many cheeses we’ll be making over the next couple of days. Marc explained how the long slow acidification through the night will yield more diacetyl—the thing that can give cheese nuttiness. Now I can taste that quality and know how it happens. School is so cool.