So you've baked your own bread, fermented your own kimchi — how about making your own mozzarella? Here's a primer on how to make cheese at home with raw milk from the expert, David Asher.
BY CINDA CHAVICH
David Asher draws the blade slowly through a big pot of jiggly warm junket, the product of raw milk softly coagulated with kefir grains and rennet.
Cutting this curd, and releasing the whey that it holds, is a universal step in making almost every cheese, from Camembert to cheddar. But for Asher, teaching these traditional cheesemaking skills is more than an educational event, it’s stirring the pot of a food revolution.
“I’m a guerilla cheese maker – I make cheese illegally,” he tells the group of 20 students packed into a room at Nourish restaurant for an afternoon session of The Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking.
“I’ve been making cheese for 10 years, but I am making it underground. I can’t sell it - I give it away and share it with friends.”
What’s illegal about Asher’s cheese is the raw materials – the raw, unpasteurized milk from his own organic farm and others on Salt Spring Island. He’s among a growing group of food activists who believe that denying consumers access to fresh raw milk (it’s illegal to buy or sell raw milk in Canada), is a symptom of a food system gone wrong.
Asher’s new book, The Art of Natural Cheesemaking, is a kind of cheesemaker’s manifesto – arguing that making raw milk cheese is one step along the road to food sovereignty. Like naturally-fermented kimchi and kraut, backyard chickens or DIY kombucha, it’s all part of the growing movement to put food production back in the hands of the people.
“Industry and science hijacked cheesemaking from the artisans and farmers some 150 years ago, and since then, few new styles of cheese have been created,” he writes, “yet during that time, hundreds, possibly thousands, of unique cheeses have been lost.”
“Cheese comes from the land and is one of our most celebrated foods,” he adds, “yet its current production methods are environmentally destructive, corporately controlled, and chemically dependent.”
Asher says pasteurization strips fresh milk of all of the natural cultures that create great cheeses, and that making natural cheese is just one of the DIY skills that is part of a healthy sustainable food system.
But even if you’re not ready to take on Big Dairy, learning how to make fresh cheese at home is both fascinating and fun.
And there’s no doubt that by following Asher’s traditional cheesemaking methods, you can make some very delicious artisan cheeses. Whether you’re keen to create your own clothbound cheddar, bloomy Brie, aged Alpine Tomme, or just a quick ricotta, all of the detailed instructions are laid out in his beautifully-illustrated and comprehensive guide.
Asher urges students in his cheesemaking courses to go cross border shopping for raw milk – each person can legally bring 20 kg of milk, cheese or dairy products into Canada, including legal raw milk. Otherwise, he says, start with very fresh, local pasteurized milk that’s been inoculated with a milk kefir grains, the live culture used to make the fermented, probiotic milk beverage called kefir. The kefir, he says, repopulates the milk with “a diverse community of bacteria, yeast and fungi” that’s required for cheesemaking, eliminating the need to use commercially-produced freeze-dried cultures.
If this all sounds terribly complex, never fear. The cheesemaking learning curve can be a steep as you want to make it. And the easiest place to start is culturing a little crème fraiche and yogurt, or making a batch of paneer, sweet ricotta or fresh mozzarella.
My first foray into cheesemaking was the hot-potato experience of kneading hot curds into fresh balls of mozzarella with Ella Kinloch of Make Cheese Inc., a mail order home cheesemaking business based in Calgary. She sells cheesemaking kits and supplies through her website, makecheese.ca, including rennet, commercial cultures, waxes and molds, with video tutorials and recipes to get you started.
There are other sources of cheesemaking supplies, including Glengarry Cheesemaking in Ontario (glengarrycheesemaking.on.ca). Lifestyle Markets sell organic milk, kefir and yogurt cultures, and rennet.
Kefir grains multiply and keep indefinitely. Like a sourdough starter, a kefir culture needs to be fed and used regularly, so if you know someone who’s making kefir, they’ll probably share their starter.
But Asher’s book eschews commercial kits, and gives step-by-step advice to create your own cultures, even how to grow blue mold for blue cheese and harvest rennet. You’ll also find tips for improvising with everyday household equipment, including fashioning a cheese press with plastic buckets and making a draining table using a bamboo sushi mat. You can use a temperature- and humidity-controlled refrigeration unit (even a wine fridge) to age your cheeses, or rig up a mini-cave in a sealed plastic bin in a cold root cellar or refrigerator.
Making cheese is all a bit of a science experiment but a thrill when it works. I’ve cultured beautiful crème fraiche in 24 hours on the kitchen counter, made mason jars of spritzy, probiotic milk kefir to drink, and quick ricotta with nothing more than a gallon of milk, a little fresh lemon juice and a bit of cheesecloth.
Chevre and mozzarella are easy to make at home. But once you start with these simple fresh cheeses - so perfect to serve alongside summer fruits - you may get hooked on cheesemaking and delve deeper into the art and science of it.
Cheesemaking is also a great skill to cultivate if you have a small farm or access to fresh cow, goat, sheep (or if you’re very lucky, water buffalo) milk. It’s the traditional way to make sure no fresh milk goes to waste, and the whey leftover from the cheesemaking process can be used to feed farm animals, water plants, make biscuits and borscht, even start more cheese.
Asher is a bit of a celebrity in the world of natural cheese, and he lives right in our back yard. When I met him, he was off to the U.S. and then to Australia to spread the radical word of raw milk cheesemaking, but you may find him setting up another of his travelling cheese schools in the city again soon.
“The methods described herein challenge the beliefs of the conventional cheesemaking paradigm,” Asher writes in his breakthrough book. “I will show you how to take back your cheese.”
So much political power in a creamy pot of curd.
Cheesmaking is pretty simple – it all starts with a few standard steps, then a particular culture and aging process, to turn milk into a wide variety of young, creamy, bloomy, nutty, stinky, or dry cheeses.
It takes little more than a scoop of natural yogurt or kefir, added to milk, to ferment a new batch on the kitchen counter.
When I made my first batch of fresh ricotta I started with goat milk, heated it up with a little buttermilk and lemon juice, and almost instantly had sweet, delicate curds. After just an hour draining in a cheesecloth-lined sieve in the refrigerator, it was a soft but solid cheese that I served with blueberries for breakfast, and cut into cubes to drizzle with olive oil and sea salt for snacks. Mixed with fresh herbs or garlic, this lovely “fromage blanc” becomes your own Boursin.
You get about half a kilo of fresh cheese from four litres of milk, so it’s a bargain, too. Mozzarella and other pasta filata stretched cheeses are especially fun to make - once you feel that curd magically turn from a jiggly mass to a delicate round of cheese in your hands, it’s addictive.
Visit David Asher’s website, theblacksheepschool.com, to learn more about his new book, and upcoming cheesemaking classes, or contact him to organize a workshop. You may find other cheesemaking classes and workshops in town, too – the Fairfield Gonzales Community Centre has hosted Gabrioloa Island-based artisan cheesemaker Paula Maddison for a series of her cheesemaking classes (www.maddacres.ca). Or look to Ella Kinloch’s website, makecheese.ca, for supplies and vidio tutorials to inspire your home cheesemaking adventures.
This feature originally appeared in YAM magazine