Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Pint for Cheddar

What comes to mind when I say, "pint and Cheddar"?

No doubt a pint of amber ale. It is, after all, an excellent, potable accompaniment to a hunk of farmhouse Cheddar.

But there's another kind of pint that a traditional, British cheesemaker might think of, a pint starter.

Typically--and hopefully--pints close, not start, a day in the dairy. A drink in the pub after a day of full-on, physical cheesemaking (or even cheesemongering) is just what you need.

For some cheesemakers, however, usually the farmstead ones in the U.K., pints also start the day. In this case, I'm talking about pints of starter cultures.

Starter cultures are one of the very few ingredients that go into making cheese. The others, besides milk, are salt and rennet. Each of these basic components play an integral role in turning perishable liquid milk into a solid food substance that can potentially keep for years and still taste like something would want to eat and pay good money for.

Starter cultures are harmless bacteria that are added to the milk to convert lactose, the sugar in milk, into lactic acid. Unpasteurized milk can do this on its own, without the addition of starter cultures, but results are unpredictable. By using specific lactic acid bacteria that have a proven track record of producing good-quality cheese and that behave in predictable ways (e.g., how quickly they will acidify the milk, how they will fare at particular temperatures, how they will tolerate salt, and how they will influence the final taste & texture of the cheese), cheesemakers can maintain more control of their craft.

Control, however, isn't always a good thing. Nuance, depth, and terroir can be lost when cheesemakers rely on freeze-dried packet starters, usually made in laboratories in the Netherlands or Denmark. As mentioned above, their use increases the chance of a well-made cheese, but these bacteria, isolated in a lab, have very little to do with the area in which the cheese originated.

To get a cheese to speak of place and tradition rather than of a modern, controlled factory, some daring folks in the cheese world continue to use pint starters. They look like old-fashioned, home-delivered pints of milk (see the photo above), but inside them, along with the pasteurized, semi-skim milk, are active strains of bacteria that are native to the place in which the cheese is made, or that have been used for generations in that area.

It takes skill, faith, and commitment to use pint starters. First, you have to hunt down a source for them. As far as I know, there's only one supplier in the U.K, Barber's. It's thanks to this cheese-making family in Somerset that pint starters continue to exist at all. Once the frozen pints have been ordered and safely shipped to your farm (not always a guarantee, especially if you live far away from Somerset, say on an island in Scotland) you must store them properly, i.e., frozen, until you are ready to use them. This takes planning. Whereas users of freeze-dried starter cultures can just tear open a foil packet at the moment they are ready to add the starter to a vat of warm milk, the folks who use pint starters have to thaw the pint the day before making a batch of cheese. When thawed, the contents are poured into a specific amount of pasteurized milk (to have a neutral environment for the bacteria to grow). Then the cheesemaker has to incubate the stew of bacteria overnight at a controlled temperature (see photo above for the space age-looking container in which Westcombe Dairy in Somerset incubate the starter). The next morning the right amount of the frothy starter has to be added to the vat of milk for cheesemaking to begin. The stuff that's added looks and tastes like yogurt. I've tried it before and have had it with my cereal for breakfast, as Mary Quicke does every morning. Yum!

But the resulting cheese tastes even better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taking Care of Cheddar

If the season for Cheddar is now upon us, then it's also time to take proper care of that hunk of semi-hard cheese you've just bought and brought home with you. (If you haven't done that yet, then go do it now, and buy some Honeycrisp apples, while you're at it!)

And how does one take care of Cheddar, you may wonder.

You're not alone in asking this question. I get it frequently--about cheese in general, not just Cheddar--when working behind the cheese counter.

My typical advice to customers, especially the ones at Neal's Yard Dairy, is to store their precious parcels of cheese in a cool, damp spot (not hard to come by in England!), e.g., in a garage, by a window, or in a wine cellar. These areas are preferable to the refrigerator because cheese prefers temperatures that range from 45 to 60 degrees F and a relative humidity of 80 percent or more. The fridge can't offer that. It's too cold and dry.

Keeping cheese in your basement or garage isn't always feasible or practical. In that case, the fridge will have to do. To my customers who shake their heads when asked if they've got a consistently cool or damp place at home, I tell them to keep their cheeses in the veggie drawer of their fridge, nicely wrapped in the special cheese paper I've given them. This is the most humid spot in the ice box.

I dispensed this advice numerous times throughout the working day at Neal's Yard Dairy, but I didn't know what happened to my customers' purchases once they got home at put them in the garage or fridge. Was one environment all that much better than the other?

I set up an experiment to find out. While at work late last November, I sliced three 250-gram (about half a pound) wedges of my favorite Cheddar, Montgomery's. I wrapped each one up in Neal's Yard Dairy's special cheese paper, a lightly waxed French paper, specifically designed for cheese, and then took them home with me. I put one wedge on the top shelf of the fridge, one in the veggie drawer, and one in a shoebox, which I placed atop a suitcase in the garage of the flat where I was staying, south of the Thames.

Once a week for four weeks, I examined the cheeses to see how they were faring in their respective spots. I did a visual inspection and then tasted them. I then dutifully took pictures of them together to document their progress (all of which were lost when my camera was stolen last December). After the first week, there wasn't much of a noticeable difference among them, but by the second week, the hunk in the veggie drawer had picked up off flavors. The veggie drawer next to it was storing some very ripe bananas, and the cheese absorbed the tropical odor. By the third week, the cheese in the garage had developed pin-dot circles of blue mold around the rind. By the third week, the cheeses had a new home in a flat north of the river, where the garage was replaced by a dank closet under the stairs, where my friends kept their wine and brooms.

By the fourth week, it was time to bring the cheeses to the shop and to have the experts taste the results of my experiment. The hands-down winner was the wedge kept in the garage and then the "cellar." A gifted American cheesemaker, who was helping during the busy Christmas season, remarked that it tasted as though it had just been cut from a wheel in the shop (once the superficial mold had been scraped off). The losers were the ones from the fridge. They had become unpleasantly waxy and dry. Surprisingly, the one from the veggie drawer was more dried out than the one from the top shelf. Both had stale, nasty flavors.

I learned from my experiment that the a cool, damp spot is infinitely preferable to the harsh environment of the fridge, provided that you can keep the cheese away from pets and pests. If you have to store your Cheddar in the fridge, keep it away from other food items that have strong smells and eat it quickly. In short, buy just the right amount of cheese so that you don't have to keep your cheese in the fridge for four weeks!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Cheddar Season

All of a sudden it happens. On an undetermined day in late September, rosy Jersey tomatoes, bouquets of basil, and plump balls of fresh mozzarella part ways. For the summer months they keep each other company on central display tables in specialty food markets. Their pert freshness speaks cool words to shoppers, "What could be more simple and satisfying on this hot and humid night than we three in an insalata caprese or in a bowl of spaghetti tossed with cubes of uncooked tomatoes and mozzarella and torn leaves of basil?" Not much, and off the trio fly from the display table, quickly replaced by workers in the produce and cheese departments.

As much as we want to prolong the carefree days of summer in the northeast, we must admit at some point that it's over. The crickets may still be chirping, the days warm and humid, and the garden still abundant with herbs and vegetables, but something has changed. The sun is no longer mercilessly hot. Instead it casts a warm glow, making everything look as attractive as a couple in love, sitting by an open fire. Its golden light catches very busy squirrels, scuttling about the leaves which are slowly changing color, collecting nuts. They can't deny it and nor can we. Summer's over and winter's coming.

Market managers break the news to us by changing the products on the display tables. "Autumn is here," they say, and they say it with apples and Cheddar cheese.

I've written before that I associate Cheddar with autumn, and I'm not alone. In the company of apples, the fruit inexplicably linked with the start of fall in the northeast, Cheddar signifies the end of light, summer cooking. Dishes take on toastier notes and a deep sweetness--think apple pie, roasted squash, beet salads, and stews with root vegetables. This hard cheese, which was traditionally made with the surplus of milk from spring and summer and was ready to eat in lean cold, months, fits perfectly with this flavor profile.

When will the apples and Cheddar disappear? Perhaps when we, at Sickles Market, run out of precious and delicious Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Or perhaps after Thanksgiving, when we'll have to admit that winter has arrived.

Which cheese will help us make that chilly transition?