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Finding The Right Analogy

Are You The Captain of Your Vat?

Volume 132, No. 6, Friday, January 2, 2009

Cheesemaking is without doubt one of the most multi-dimensional crafts that someone can learn.

Perhaps that’s what makes it so astonishing when we find a new cheese maker who has apparently mastered the craft very quickly.

But it is far more rare to find in these new entrants to what I have implied is a challenging craft an entrant who two, three or five years down the road hasn’t had some event which has challenged their confidence. Cheesemaking is not a canned course in how to.

The very famous Cheese Schools in the world, such as those provided by the Germans and Swiss, would require as long as an eight-year apprenticeship, combining practical and university grade study. Such courses are rare these days and don’t exist in the USA.

The University of Wisconsin provides in its Master Cheesemaker Program years of product-specific study and guidance before a cheese maker is awarded the title of Master.

Why such long periods of learning? Because it takes at least that long to experience the myriad of circumstances that can occur as part of the art of practicing cheesemaking, because it is not an exact science. Not in one week, one month or one year will a cheese maker experience the full spectrum of challenge that will come his or her way.

These challenges will come in many forms and the incomplete list would include, weather and how it affects the animals and consequently the milk, drought to excessive rain for animals grazed, in a drought there is no feed, possibly a shortage of water, the animals are under stress and the milk reflects it.

During wet periods grass and pastured feed can become infested with molds and fungi, some can produce inhibitory substances which will retard cultures and make cheesemaking difficult. Milk quality goes down and small adjustments are made to the make procedure to compensate.

Where the animals are confined and feed is brought in from outside the immediate area climate also impacts the quality of feed but the impact maybe delayed. The cheese maker can get caught unaware. Not only do components change in milk but the quality of the components changes, making the resulting cheese different, not always able to put a finger on the difference so to speak, just different.

Which brings me back to the topic of analogy, one that I find best describes the cheese maker’s role in a cheese factory for me is sailing. Tacking this way, tacking that way, small adjustment in culture level, small adjustment in set temperature, small adjustment in calcium level, small adjustment in rennet level, small adjustment in cut size, and small adjustment in the cook and so on and so on.

The cheese maker is the captain of the vat, guiding his cheese to the same outcome day in day out, making sure it meets the same specification every time, when the fat is going up in late lactation milk the cheese maker is sacrificing moisture in his cheese to compensate and keep his body right. The more experienced he or she is the more automatic it becomes, that is becoming a master.

What the Master knows is that the make procedure for his cheese is a flexible thing, assuming his tools are in good shape, the vat calibrated correctly, the thermometer is correct, the clock is reliable etc. but what he really knows is where that line is that he is trying to keep as closely to as possible.

In the case of the sailor it is usually a line charted on a map, a line that is tacked across, back and forth maybe a thousand times to reach a destination. But for the cheese maker there is no hard line on a chart, just a set of parameters or targets on a make sheet, decided on by who and why, some consultant? When make procedures are written for a cheese maker to execute they are guidelines around which subtle changes need to be made as things change.

A common mistake for new cheese makers is forgetting, not understanding, failing to recognize that the need for a change is seldom permanent. Let’s take Chevre as an example. In the summer as solids levels fall the cheese make is speeding up. If good records such as pH at the time the curd is bagged are not kept the cheese maker might miss this speeding up. Then suddenly the cheese is different, the level of whey on top is greatly increased (this should have been a sign earlier), the curd is different, my phone rings.

“I know we’ve had this issue before, what did we do about it last time?”

The processes to assess the problem are fairly standard, ask the usual questions, how much culture are you using, what have the pH’s been like, what is your current incubation temperature, how much rennet, etc. Some of these parameters are fairly locked in such as rennet but time, temperature and rate of acidification are all very interactive and interdependent.

The lesson, if you head off on one tack it is not forever, you need to read the signs and trim your sails/process and tack back the other way, back towards the ideal line, one that if you know where it is you will never be to far from so how do we do this?
Good cheese makers are those who develop good systems which produce good products all the time, without the drama. Again we can use chevre as the example.

The incubation time should be relatively constant throughout the year. That should be checked every time before a vat is bagged off, the result recorded on a make sheet. There should be a process of observation, what did the curd look like before it was removed from the vat, these comments should be noted on the make sheet.

The make sheet should contain the target parameters so that whoever is making the cheese will know if the result is normal or not, e.g. how deep was the whey layer on the top of the curd. Then the operator will be able to provide a comment in the comment section if there is anything abnormal.

Don’t be rigid, get in touch with your cheese, know your inner cheese, being intimate with your process is the key to navigating your way through constant change, a very big challenge for new cheese makers and an equally big challenge for the seasoned cheese maker who is experiencing something new.

Remember the earlier discussion about training, it may take a lifetime and even then like the sailor not every bay is explored nor has every challenge crossed the bows of your cheese vat. Cheesemaking is part science and part art, you are a practitioner of your art, you are not an engineer where 1 + 1 = 2 every time. You’re like the sailor who can feel the wind but can’t see the current, he just knows it’s there.

Here’s wishing you all a wonderful and successful 2009 in the vat.

Neville McNaughton, president of Cheez Sorce, St. Louis, MO, has many years of experience manufacturing dairy products in both New Zealand and US. He has been a judge at several cheese competitions. Neville will be writing a regular column in Cheese Reporter and will take any questions regarding cheese manufacture. You can reach him at neville@cheezsorce.comjumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn. org

Other Neville McNaughton Columns
Cheese Contests
Designing A Farmstead Cheese Operation
Judges Recognize High Art in Cheesemaking
Cutting the Curd
One Day Analysis - Beyond Being Legal
The Shape of Cheese
Adding the Extra Column
Pasta Filata Cheese
Very Hard Cheese
Hard Cheese with Eyes
Gouda, Edam And Other Washed Curd Cheese

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit Dan Strongin
Visit John Umhoefer