Cheese: Go Make Some

Ah!! A whole week has gone by. I’m ashamed. I was trying to flesh this post out with a little history and exciting content, but it’s already 7 pages long as is. That’s without pictures. I’m posting this one today and an accompaniment about goat milk and cheese tomorrow. Just to give your eyes a break.

Not to continue gushing about the Philly Science Festival, but I went to a Philly Science Festival event called “The Artisanal Microbe: Cheese.” It was hosted at DiBruno Brothers in Center City which, by the way, has become quite epic. I was all like “whoa!” (Time for some pics pulled from their website)

Uhhh epic.



The event was a quick, simple walk through of how cheese is made. There was less focus on the microbe than I had hoped but, nevertheless, it was fascinating. The presenters were Al and Catherine Renzi, owners of Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs and expert cheese makers. It was emceed by Tenaya Darlington of Madame Fromage fame.

The Renzi's

Attendees were invited to try 3 cheeses, two of which came from DiBruno’s and one from Yellow Springs. We weren’t told what they were.

That beer is the Science Festival beer brewed by Yard's Brewery - E=MC Beered.

Tenaya started the night by asking if anyone knew what spice was in the Renzi’s cheese. Lucky for you, I recorded the lecture and pulled this from the beginning:

Tenaya: Anyone know what the spice is in that cheese? That very delicious yellow cheese?

Awkward silence. Think, “no one did the reading.”

Tenaya: Oh come on, champion tasters. Didn’t you taste something there that you recognized?

Tentative Man: Clove…?

Tenaya: Clove, there’s one guess.

Mumbler: mumblemublemumble

Tenaya: Oh, did you say love?? Love is the spice. That’s very good.

Sprinkle a lil of this in your morning Cocoa and I can guarantee you'll have an interesting day.

How’s that for adorable?

I’ll tell you what the cheeses were later. First a little bit about Yellow Springs.

Catherine and Al bought the 150-year-old dairy farm in 2001 with a conservation easement to keep it from being further developed. Their conservation focus was preservation of the environment and reestablishing native habitats. They cleared out the invasive plants and alien plants and found as many native plants as possible as replacements.

The Renzi’s didn’t buy the farm with the explicit intension of making cheese, but to pay homage to it’s roots as a dairy farm, they purchased two goats and began milking them and making their own raw cheeses. They had no fancy equipment and made the cheese in their kitchen. Al emphasized that the raw cheese they made and ate never got them sick. The first cheese they made was chévre.

Some of the Renzi's Nubian goats.

Now, they have 16 does and 30 baby goats (which Al called this year’s “crop”) and only make goat’s milk cheeses. Al is a microbiologist by trade, so he brought some special skills to the table when it came to cheese making. In addition, the Renzi’s have landscape services and native plant propagation and sales, which grew from a need for plants on their own property. The farm is open to the public to tour as long as you call ahead. They also have several open houses between May and September.

Let’s talk about how a semi-soft cheese is made. What I’m writing should be considered a concise, basic overview. That doesn’t mean I’m not sitting here with 4 pages of typed, shorthand notes. Brace yourselves…

Making good cheese “starts with the babies.” In this case, the baby goats. The most important part of cheese making is having healthy animals that produce fresh, untainted milk.

Holy baby Nubian goat, Batman!!!

And a video of Nubian goats playing. Because, really, why wouldn’t I?

Getting the goats to produce quality milk requires quality goat food; a combination of pasture, hay, and organic grains. The milk changes throughout the seasons because of what the goat is eating. For example, they are eating a lot of spring grass and alfalfa, which produces different milk from the fall. The spring milk is heavier, thicker, and richer because there’s more fat and protein in it. When the Renzi’s make cheese they have to adjust it to the lactation cycle of their goats. The cheese reflects the weather, the seasons, daylight, temperatures, and the environment it’s created in.

A Cheese for All Seasons, by Me and Fotolia.

Goats have two teats. That’s two less than cows, but apparently goats are still difficult to milk by hand. Al didn’t go into detail as to why and I sort of regret not asking. It seems like the kind of thing you’d want to know for Jeopardy or to show off on a date. Then again, why are you talking to your date about milking goats? Oddball.

When it comes times to milk, the goats are hooked up to a special machine. Before milking begins, 2 or 3 millimeters are squeezed out to check the quality. They want to be certain the milk is clean with no infections or clots. The goat is put on the stand, hooked up to the machine, and a vacuum pump pulls the milk out of the teats and deposits it in a bucket. The milking process is preformed twice a day.

Originally, Al and Catherine milked the goats without the aid of stainless steel and sanitation equipment. Once they began commercializing, however, law required them to make their cheeses “safe for the public.” There were multiple regulatory hoops to jump through and by law, the milk has to be perfectly clean and sanitized.

Once the machine is finished and the goat is thoroughly annoyed, the milk is measured. It’s important to know the quality of the milk as well as the volume acquired from the herd. A good goat will give a gallon of milk a day. Once the milk has been weighed, it’s filtered to remove any debris or goat hair that may have fallen into the bucket. Another part of the quality control process.

Goat: WHOA! Come on guys, is this really necessary??

If a goat isn’t producing a gallon of milk after giving birth twice, it’s sent off to “greener pastures.” I didn’t ask.  It takes a lot of money and work to maintain goats. If the goat isn’t being a team player, she’s gotta go. The Renzi’s are running a business, after all.

Here, Al took a break to give us a little milk and nutrition info.

What is milk? About 87% of milk is water. The rest breaks up kind of like this: 4% fat, 4% protein, 5% sugar (lactose), and less than 1% minerals and trace elements like calcium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron. The composition of the milk varies from farm to farm. It will be different in other pastures because of the water involved as well as the quality of the grass and food the goat is ingesting. Catherine and Al live in Chester Springs, PA where there are lots of springs, wet areas, and creeks high in iron content. Some of the minerals in the water get into the goats either through drinking or eating and ends up in the cheese. Like wine, a lot of cheese flavor has to do with terroir.

Chester Springs, PA

Cheese is nutritious. I mean, duh. Apparently, the Renzi’s are often asked “Will I get fat if I eat cheese?” Well…if you eat a lot of anything you’re likely to become overweight. A 4oz piece of cheese will provide half your daily nutrition requirements of protein, fat, phosphorus, and other vitamins. It can be a nutritious part of your diet if you balance it well. Don’t overdo it. Like, don’t buy one of those honking blocks of cheese from BJ’s and eat it in one sitting. It doesn’t take a lot to be satisfied. Unless you’re stoned, in which case, that’s illegal, how dare you!

This is an inaccurate description of "moderation."

Al talked about lactose-intolerance. The cheese making process and is basically bacteria and enzymes pre-digesting the protein, fat, and minerals in milk. By the time the cheese is being eaten and digested by your own very special tummy, it’s been about 50% pre-digested and 90% of the lactose in the milk has been eliminated. The rest disappears during the aging process. Lactose-intolerance should not be an issue when eating cheese. Please, thank me now for saving you.

To finish up his nutrition talk, Al pointed out that France has the highest per capita cheese consumption but the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease as well as some of the longest lives around. So cheese can’t be all that bad for you. Healthy food (or all foods) in moderation.

Again, not "moderation."

Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the cheese making. It’s a simple process that’s been used for thousands of years. It has two steps: the fermentation step and the clotting (the curdling of the cheese and the creation of the curd) step. Lactic acid bacteria will convert the lactose to an acid, helping curdle the milk. You can see this happening if you have milk in the fridge that you’ve left there for too long.

Forgive me, I thought it was hilarious.

Rennet is added to the milk to further firm up the curd. Rennet, either animal or vegetable, are enzymes that break up the proteins and clot the milk. Catherine stopped Al to say that they only use vegetable rennet because they know there are vegetarians who eat their cheese.

Found in the gelatin section. Animal rennet.

One plant that produces vegetable rennet is called Goat’s Beard, which is grown on Yellow Springs farm since it’s local flora.

Goat's Beard

Before curdling the milk it must be pasteurized. (There much discussion about raw milk cheeses vs. pasteurized cheeses, but there wasn’t enough time to talk about it. It’s something I plan to look into). To sell fresh cheeses within a few days or weeks of making it, it’s required by law to be pasteurized.

The pasteurization machine is made up of a stainless steel vat, thermometers, and a chart recorder that keeps track of temperature.

A large version of the Renzi's machine.

The regulation “magic number” to properly pasteurize milk is 145 degrees. Heating the milk to 145 for 30 minutes technically kills all the potentially harmful bacteria. However, it also kills a lot of the beneficial, non-pathogenic bacteria. The end result is a clean slate since there aren’t many enzymes or bacteria left over. The type of bacteria re-added to the pasteurized milk depends on the type of cheese being made, which attributes to the acidulation rate and flavor. With raw milk, there’s no need to go through this process. Just warm the milk up, add your culture, and make your cheese.

Cheese culture. Click the picture to go to a cheese making website. It's nifty.

Another regulatory law is commercial cheese must age for 60 days. Theoretically, after 60 days any bad bacteria left will be gone. Al is skeptical that this is true, but it’s required by the state. Waddaya gonna do?

Once the milk has been pasteurized in the vat, a culture is added to recreate the bacteria. The cheese is designed from scratch. It’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but with cheese. The milk is stirred and after several hours of the culture incubating with the milk, curd will form. A soft cheese like chevre, however, sits overnight. That particular type of culture requires 24 hours to incubate.

It's funny because Cave of Time can be interpreted as the Aging Room. But I had to explain it to you so now it's not funny. Spoil sports.

The curd forms on the top of the vat. When there is a firm layer, it has to be cut into squares to release water, or whey. It’s mushy and soft and looks like it’s glistening.

Ewww, who cut the curd?? (waaaah waaaaaah)

After the curd is cut, the temperature is raised to expel more water from the cheese. It’s stirred for about an hour, called working the curds. Once the cheese is heated and expelling water, the curd gets denser and sinks to the bottom. There is a lot of water in cheese. Starting with 35 gallons of milk will have the end result of 25 gallons of water and about 10 pounds of cheese.

Curds and whey. This is a picture of some mozzarella my boyfriend was making. Goooo boyfriend!

When the curd has sunk, the whey is drained out. Al and Catherine drain it through a strainer so they catch any curd that’s trying to get away. The curd is scooped into molds that sit on a draining board. The molds are lined with cheesecloth so no curds escape while the cheese is draining. The cheesecloth also gives it a smooth rind.

The cheese is placed in a mold (which is sanitized), and a lid is put on it to press more whey out of the cheese. Fancy expensive presses are available, but Al prefers a cheaper method: he bought a bunch of paving stones from Home Depot, weighed them, decided how much weight he wanted to set on the cheese, and stacked them. He uses 15 pounds, give or take.

A homemade cheese press.

A fancy home cheese press.

The cheese sits for about an hour, then gets flipped to get the curd smooth and packed tight. The pavers are put back on and it sits till the next day. The pavers are removed and it rests for another day.

The cheese is put in the aging room. The room is temperature controlled at 50°, with 85% humidity. It’s brought down to room temperature before it’s worked with. After, it’s put in a brining solution, which is done for two reasons:

1. To bring out the flavors of the cheese

2. To expel more water.

A hard cheese will age better the more water that’s pulled out. It’s hard to salt cheese using dry salt, hence the really, really concentrated brine solution. The amount of time it spends in the brine depends on the size of the cheese.

From the brine, the cheese is moved to the aging room. The bacteria died away, but enzymes were released that have been breaking down the proteins and fats in a feat of continuous digestion. It’ll be completed while aging. The aging room is in a 150-year-old barn, so whatever is in that barn is unique to that aging room. The Renzi’s feel that this affects the cheeses, making each further unique to their farm; an important part of their cheese making philosophy.

A Portuguese aging room.

Cheese aging is not a static process. Two or three times a week, Al, Catherine, or one of their interns will turn the cheeses so the fat and protein stay in the center and evenly diffuse. If they don’t, it will sink to the bottom. After a few months of aging the cheese will go from a white color to a darker, yellowish hue.

Al and Catherine ended their presentation with a few photos they took during a trip to the Algor region of Italy. There they met a bunch of excellent cheese-makers with a basic method with their own efficient science. The milk is heated in a copper kettle over a wood fire. There was no stainless steel, and the press was homemade. Like Al, the cheese-makers used weights. So, indeed you can make great cheese without all the stainless steel and fancy equipment.

Kickin' it old school.

Al and Catherine took a few questions after the lecture. Some I’ve incorporated into what you just read. Here’s the rest:

What cheeses can you make easily at home? Chévre, ricotta (kinda time-consuming), mozzarella (there are plenty of easy recipes on the Internet. Here’s the one my boyfriend uses), and feta. New England Cheesemaking is a good company to check out for cheese-making kits and supplies.

What do you do with the whey? Whey can be fed to pigs or chickens, but the Renzi’s have no pigs or chickens, so they compost it. They put it back into the farm as fertilizer. Catherine (and Disney) call it the “farm’s circle of life.”

When do you put the flavor in the cheese (like spices)? For hard cheeses, the flavor goes in when the curd is scooped into the mold. There’s still a lot of whey so any additions get dispersed. With soft cheeses, like chevre, it’s usually mixed in at the end

How flexible is your cheese making? Can you be spontaneous with what you what to make and what flavors you include? Yes, although it depends on the type of milk being used (fall vs. spring, etc.) because it has an impact of the rate of acidification and taste. Now that they’re doing the cheese CSA they have to plan a little more. But if they feel like making a certain cheese that day, they can.

What do you do with moldy cheese? Cut off the mold and eat it. There are certain soft cheeses that will start getting funky and smell like ammonia. Then you trash ’em. Or compost them.

Can you use pygmy goats to make cheese? The breed of the goat isn’t the most important factor in making cheese. The quality of the cheese really depends on the quality of the milk, which depends on the wuality of what the goats eat. However, the act of breeding is important. I copied this quote because I thought it was interesting and awesome.

“The question is can you raise pygmy goats and get a half-gallon a day and make cheese, ya know, with little goats. There are some folks out there doing Nigerian dwarf goats and they seem to do…ok. Um, a lot of differences. Part of what makes the milk good is what the goat eats and clearly that would matter whatever breed it is. Part of what makes the goats good is genetics. I have excel spreadsheets and databases and online services and I check ’em out nose to tail in terms of getting the matings right and breeding the right does with the right bucks to try and bring through the qualities. So regardless of whether it’s a full bred Nubian like ours or a Nigerian dwarf, different lines in that breed will determine the milk quality. And it costs the saaaaame amount to feed every one of them. So we really can’t afford the time and the energy to have a goat that’s not a good producer. So I imagine that there can probably be a Nigerian dwarf line produce good milk but, umm, ya know…it’s like a sports team, ya know you have to know who’s playing which position and get the team together to get the performance and trade them out if not on your team. I could say it’s possible, but there’s a little more to it than it looks. Every goat that walks on the field is not a professional dairy goat. Many of them need a new career.”

Sorry, Lebrongoat. You just didn't make the cut.

And that was the end.

If you were wondering about it, these were the cheeses we tried.

The first was a Gouda Parmesan blend called Prima Donna. It’s qualities are as follows: caramel flavors and the fruitiness and nuttiness of the Parmesan. It’s a good cheese to pair with nutty beers. You can get it at DiBruno Brothers. I thought it tasted a little like cheddar.

Prima Donna cheese

The second was a blue – Valdeon from Spain. It was a little spicy with some black pepper. I’m not a super sophisticated cheese taster, but there was a white chocolate flavor in there too. It pairs well with sherry, playing up salty flavors with something sweet. You can also get it at DiBruno’s. We also sell it at Green Aisle.

Valdeon blue cheese

The third was the Yellow Springs cheese called Mellow Yellow. The spice in it is saffron. (You can grow saffron in PA. Wild right? It’s a spice usually used in Indian food and Spanish cooking). The cheese had a milky taste and with a hint of the saffron. It’s made in the fall. Saffron is a fall blooming crocus that blooms late in September after Labor Day and sometimes in October. The Renzi’s wait for saffron to bloom, harvest and dry it, and make that cheese.

Saffron. The red bits are harvested and dried and used.

May 7 and 8 and May 21 and 22 are open houses at the farm. There will be cheese and wine tasting, farm tours, and bird walks. Check it out.

So that’s that. Thanks for reading it all. Below are the picture links, in order, as always.

Keep eating and asking, my friends.


Photos, in order of appearance:





















8 thoughts on “Cheese: Go Make Some

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