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How (not) to Make Cheese.

By Kaila Topping, Phase I Fellow

Since moving to the mountain this past spring, I have done so many things I never thought I’d have the chance to do. Some experiences are fun and rewarding, like brewing beer or learning the subtleties of cow herding- while others, like cleaning out a composting toilet, I could do without. With each of these new experiences,I find myself learning the most from my mistakes, which is perfectly exemplified in the story of my cheese making ordeal.

The story begins in an unassuming way- two people, myself and Lola, imaging all the ways to use our milk supply. Neither of us had attempted making a hard cheese before, but with proper instructions and good intentions, how much could go wrong? So much. The answer to that question is so much could go wrong. So, as an act of good faith and to prevent you from future struggles in cheese making, let me tell you how not to make cheese.

Step 1. Find some farm fresh milk, preferably from a local farm.

At this step, things were looking okay! We had all the misplaced confidence of novice cheese makers.

Step 2. Research your desired recipe. We took advantaged of AMI’s collection of cheese-making books which promised good results with relatively little struggle.

This is where some scrutiny should have been applied, especially when considering the time frame of making our cheese. P.S. Don’t start making cheese at 8 PM- you’ll be up all night.

Step 3. Figure out what the heck rennet is. Our rennet was found in the bottom of the freezer from past Fellows’ cheese making adventures (maybe not the freshest option).

Let me tell you- rennet is not from a savory place. It is found in the stomachs of ruminant animals- i.e. baby cow stomachs. As two vegetarian cheese makers, Lola and I decided to overlook this small detail.

Step 4. Start putting it all together! We (over)heated our milk and added mesophilic starter (also found in the bottom of our freezer).

Let me stress one point- use good ingredients. That is, ingredients not found in the bottom of a freezer.

Step 5. Add your rennet. In our case, we doubled the amount of rennet the recipe called for. Maybe not our best decision, but surprisingly not our worst decision throughout this debacle.

This is how the milk thickens when rennet is added.

Step 6. Cut the curd that (hopefully) formed, reheat for some time, and strain your cheese in a cheesecloth.

Curds were supposed to form in about 45 minutes. Ours took over 8 hours (this probably should have been a red flag, but we forged ahead, regardless).

Step 7. Press your cheese then let it sit out to form a rind.

During the rind-forming process our cheese was inundated with black flies buzzing throughout the lodge. In hindsight, this was a crucial step in our demise.

Beautiful, right?

Step 8. Wrap the cheese in cheesecloth and lather with butter.

This was one of the most fun steps, and I’d like to think little went wrong here.

Step 9. Find a home for your cheese to age. We chose the AMI root cellar for its cool temperature and high humidity (both conditions necessary for aging our cheese).

Lola and I ignored some big issues in the root cellar. Namely the presence of insects, mold, and mice. All three of these factors played a role in the death of our cheese.

Step 10. Realize your cheese is not thriving in its current home. Start to panic.

Lola assured me some mold was normal, but I was shaken up. Our cheese looked FUNKY. It also had bite marks and small worms throughout the cheese.

Our moldy cheese right before it was thrown away.

Step 11. Come to the hard realization that your cheese is unsalvageable. Compost it with sadness.

As if the death of our cheese wasn’t hard enough, there was one final nail in the coffin. Our mountain home is currently being terrorized by an abundance of skunks, one of which removed our cheese from the compost and ate the entire thing.

While I tell you of all the things that went awry in this process, Lola and I are more ready than ever to make more cheese. In each of our missteps, we learned important lessons of what (not) to do, and figured out how to avoid those mistakes in the future. Trying new things might not always go as planned, but in the end, I know we’ll always find a whey to make a bad situation a gouda one.

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