July 11, 2016

Excuse me if this is a little cheesey...

Hello lovelies, and a hearty welcome to Rick, Ben and Rach who are newly subscribed.

This week I wanted to talk about a new book I got hold of a few weeks ago.  I was talking about it enthusiastically with Maia, Alison and Daniel as we meandered through the forest at Creswick looking for mushrooms, and I promised to write it up and send it to this list so that Maia could pass it on.  So, Maia, please do!

The book is "The Art of Natural Cheesemaking" by David Asher, and I usually describe it as "like Sandor Katz on wild fermentation, but specific to cheese".  If you're not familiar with Katz, let me backtrack a bit, and quote him:
We must reclaim our food. Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist. Reclaiming our food means actively involving ourselves in this web.

The foods that fill our contemporary supermarket shelves are products of a globalized infrastructure of proprietary genetic material, synthetic and often dangerous chemicals, monocultures, long-distance transportation, factory-scale processing, wasteful packaging, and energy-sucking refrigeration. The food being produced by this system is destroying the earth, destroying our health, destroying our economic vitality, and robbing us of our dignity by breeding dependency and reducing us to the subservient role of consumer.

We need to cultivate a different set of relationships.
(Yup, this is the sort of stuff I have on my cookbook shelf.)

Asher's just as vehement when it comes to curdling milk. 
Standard methods of cheesemaking – reliant on pasteurization, freeze-dried starters, and synthetic rennets that interfere with the ecology of cheese – are equivalent to standard practices in industrial agriculture, such as the standard use of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides that have overtaken traditional agriculture, and conflict with the ecology of the land. Cheese comes from the land and is one of our most celebrated foods; yet its current production methods are environmentally destructive, corporately controlled, and chemically dependent. In its eating we are not celebrating the traditions of agriculture but rather pasteurization, stainless-steel production, biotechnology, and corporate culture. [...] We need a more radical cheesemaking, a more natural approach to the medium of milk.
After a good rant about the problems with lab-grown cultures (dependency on corporations, weakness of the bacterial strains, etc etc) he settles in to tell us how we can make cheese without them, using wild fermentation.
Now, I thought that to make cheese like that, you'd need to use raw milk.  And raw milk, as you may know, is increasingly hard to get hold of in Australia - especially if you don't have a car to trek out to a friendly (and less than law-abiding) farm.  But this is where Asher is an utter genius, because he's discovered that you can use pasteurised milk if you inoculate it with a bit of kefir.

Kefir is a cultured milk product, think "fizzy yoghurt drink" and you're not far off.  It's created through the actions of a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) that looks a bit like the "bubbles" in bubble tea, but are actually pearl-like clusters of beneficial micro-organisms.  So they live in your milk, and breed, and your milk ends up having a bacterial colony which just happens to more or less mimic the healthy bacteria that live in raw milk when it's fresh from the cow.  Including, most importantly, the ones that make delicious cheese.  For example, if you leave kefir to ferment too long, it gets a wrinkly white skin on top.  This is actually a colony of Brevibacterium linens, which is the same bacteria that makes the white rind on camembert.

So the gist of all this is: you don't need to fiddle around with keeping weak-ass industrial cultures in your freezer, sterilizing your whole kitchen, and freaking out about rogue bacteria messing up your cheeses.  You milk will turn to cheese with just a little prodding in the right direction.  It knows how – that's what happens in a calf's stomach after all, the action of the rennet there curdling the mother cow's milk to make it more digestible.  And your kefir-inoculated milk will have its own immune system, a strong colony of healthy bacteria that will be better able fight off any unwanted intruders if your kitchen has the odd spore floating around in it (and what kitchen doesn't?).  The resulting cheese will have more character and less dependence on industrial food systems. Sounds good to me!

It's no surprise that I'm suddenly way keener to try making cheese. It's gone from seeming like a considerable drama, to something no more complicated than the sourdough and veggie ferments I already have bubbling away. I haven't actually got around to it yet, but I suspect this will happen quite soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you want to buy the book, here it is on Booktopia which is my preferred non-evil, Australian-owned online bookstore.  (No affiliate link there, just a happy customer.)  Of course you can get it from most other good bookstores too, or if you're local please feel free to swing by my house sometime and peruse it over a cuppa.