Lessons in Cheesemaking
By Sheila McGrory-Klyza
The sun was not yet up as I drove along the back roads of Addison County, the heart of Vermont dairy farming. I took a wrong turn onto a dirt road and pulled over. Having lived in Vermont for seventeen years, I had learned by now to carry along a map detailing the state’s lesser roads. A few minutes later I was on my way again, to the small dairy farm that sits off another dirt road, where I had volunteered to help make farmstead cheese.
While I was bleary-eyed behind the wheel, Sherry Crawford, head cheesemaker at Crawford Family Farm, had already been up for a few hours, collecting the milk that her brother Jim had coaxed out of their fifty cows. She and her assistant Julie Danyew had transported the milk in buckets the short distance from the barn to the cheesemaking room and, while it was still warm, poured it into an enormous stainless steel vat. There it rested, 600 pounds of milk that, by the end of the morning, would become around fifty pounds of cheese. Sherry had already added the starter, a specific blend of bacteria and enzymes that would begin the transformation of the raw milk into Vermont Ayr, a semi-hard Alpine tome-style cheese with a natural rind.
When I arrived at the Crawfords’, greeted by an enthusiastic border collie, the milk was still resting in the vat, letting the bacteria and enzymes do their thing. After a quick introduction, Sherry handed me rubber clogs, a hairnet, and a rubber apron. There was work to be done. I followed Sherry and Julie, a former nursery school teacher, into the cheesemaking room, a converted space in the lower half of the 1910 dairy barn. The white walls gleamed from being scrubbed, and the steamy windows overlooked a rolling pasture.
“It’s time to add the rennet,” Sherry said, consulting a timer and making a note on a clipboard. Soft-spoken and meticulous, she poured a small amount of liquid from a glass vial into the milk and gently stirred it with a large strainer spoon. A sweet tang emanated from the vat. She checked the temperature gauge and explained, “The rennet separates the curds from the whey. But we have to let it rest again. Come on, I’ll show you the cave.”
Sherry led me to an unassuming, adjacent room that they had converted into a temperature and humidity controlled space for aging the cheese. A pungency hung in the air, thanks to the hundreds of wheels of cheese lining the wooden shelves. The wheels were at different stages of the aging process, from the pale yellow ones that were made the day before, not yet showing any bloom of mold, to the mottled gray wheels that had been aging for four months and were nearly ready for sale. In between, newer cheeses wore a dusting of white, powdery mold, while slightly older ones were a mushroomy brown. “The molds change over time. It’s kind of like a field succession,” Sherry said, revealing her science training and her previous work with the Nature Conservancy. “Let’s turn these cheeses that were made yesterday.” As we flipped the four-and-a-half pound wheels, their dense heft still having a slight give, Sherry explained how they hadn’t introduced any mold spores to the cave, unlike other cheesemakers who try to achieve a particular outcome. “All the molds were here in this room to begin with,” she said. And they all play an important role in the distinctiveness of the cheese: its full body and complex flavor evened out by the rich creaminess of the Ayrshire’s milk, prized for its minute butterfat globules.
By this point, it was nearing the time to “cut” the milk. We stepped out of the cave, and Sherry consulted clipboard, timer, and temperature gauge again. Using a small, plastic spinning device to test the milk’s surface for doneness, Sherry determined it was time. “Do you want to cut?” she asked Julie, who had been busy with the endless cleaning chores associated with a cheesemaking facility. “Sure,” Julie said. She cheerfully took a large, flat knife and gently sliced the surface of the milk, now thickened to a custard-like consistency. “That’s called a clean break,” she said, peering closely at the incision and pointing out the ideal combination of curd and liquid. Satisfied, she picked up another tool called a harp, a large, rectangular device with a series of vertical blades. Holding it by the handle, she began drawing it slowly, almost reverentially, through the milk, first one way, then the next. She gradually increased speed and began swirling it, cutting the pieces of custard, the curd, into small bits. This went on for several minutes. “I like to get into a rhythm,” she said, as she seemingly danced around the vat, gracefully but insistently cutting the curds until they were fine, creamy scraps floating in a clearish liquid.
Sherry checked the temperature, which would steadily increase from that point on, cooking the curds, until it reached 114 degrees. They had arrived at this particular temperature by experimentation, like so much of their process, and were still tweaking it. Julie smiled mischievously: “Now comes the fun part. We get to stir.” She put her arms deep into the vat and invited me to do the same. I pushed up my sleeves (having mistakenly worn long sleeves and long pants), scrubbed my arms clean, and then plunged them into the warm liquid. The sweet, tangy aroma enveloped me as the curds slipped around my arms. We gently stirred, using the age old method, as opposed to paddles or automated blades employed by many cheesemakers. “Isn’t this soothing?” Julie asked. As the heat increased, the curds sank to the bottom and slowly thickened. Julie demonstrated how to break up the soft clumps with my fingers: “Not too rough, so you don’t bruise the curd.”
“Look, there go the cows,” Sherry said, pointing out the window and drawing my attention away from my handful of curds. They ambled past, with the Brandon Gap framing them in the distance. While we had been stirring, Sherry had been testing the acidity level of the whey. “Are the curds squeaky yet?” She peered into the vat. Sure enough, the curds were starting to feel “squeaky.” “That means it’s time to pitch,” Julie said, removing her arms and grabbing a white pitcher. She filled it with liquid whey and dumped it on the cement floor, where it found its way into a drain under the vat. A few more pitcherfuls later and she asked if I’d like to take over. I took the pitcher, filled it, and poured it out, sopping the lower half of my jeans in the process. “That’s why we wear shorts,” Julie said with a grin. “And rubber boots.”
I kept pitching out the whey as the curds slowly became visible in the bottom of the vat. “They’re getting too warm,” Sherry noted. “We need to pick up the pace.” Julie took over pitching, more expert at it than I was, while Sherry wheeled over a table filled with round, plastic molds lined with cheesecloth. There was an urgency in the air now, a need to work quickly. With a plastic strainer, Sherry scooped out some curds, draining off the whey, and poured them into a mold. She pressed down with her palms, forcing the curds evenly into the mold, and then topped them off with another scoop of curds. Julie took a turn and passed the strainer to me. The curds were surprisingly heavy and firm. As I tried to press them into the mold, Sherry said, “Put your weight into it, like this.” I pressed harder and then poured in some more curds, thankful for my rubber apron.
We scooped and pressed as quickly as we could. When a mold was filled to the rim, we covered it with cheesecloth and a plastic lid, then topped it off with a liter of bottled water to weight it down, one of Sherry’s improvised ideas. We filled twelve molds this way and, when we were finished, we rested for a few minutes. The cheese rested also, while any remaining whey eked out through tiny holes in the molds. Then it was time to flip. This involved gently easing a four and a half pound cheese—for at some point in this magical process it had become cheese—out of its mold, turning it over, and shimmying it back into its mold. The cheeses were flipped a total of six times before they were placed into a tub of brine. There they would soak for twenty-four hours until, finally, they would find their place on an ash shelf in the cave.
Dark, cool, mysterious, and quiet, the cheese cave is the antithesis of the cheesemaking room. The cheese enters as a pale, bland wheel, a “real tabula rasa,” as Julie described it; then several months later it’s been transformed into a highly flavorful food with a substantial rind distinctive to this cave on this farm in this particular part of Addison County, Vermont.