Monthly Archives: June 2010

That Cheddar Tang: Fiscalini Farms

Fiscalini Cloth-wrapped Cheddar

Fiscalini Cloth-wrapped Cheddar

It wasn’t until I visited Fiscalini Farms one swelteringly hot, fine Modesto spring day that I truly understood the cheddar tang. There at Fiscalini, I witnessed the act that gives cheddar its sharpness, its spicy character, its oomph.

People often ask what makes cheddar sharp. Although we’re used to sheep and goat’s milk cheeses like Mahon or Panteleo getting spicy and more tangy with age, many popular cow’s milk cheeses like Comté, Fontina, or Joe Mato’s St. George, develop a sweeter, deeper buttery character when ripening.

So why is Cheddar, also a cow’s milk cheese, so punchy?

Let me tell you a little story about Cheddar.

After driving to two incorrect Fiscalini addresses – first, the family home where the smiling owner pointed a blushing Kirstin in the correct direction, second, to the Fiscalini dairy where a man holding a large baby bottle to feed new calves also pointed me in the right direction (always forward, never straight)- my visiting grandmother Oma and I arrived at Fiscalini cheese, late. Lucky for us, cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez took pity on an excited cheese geek with worse directional skills than a toddler driving a Big Wheel, and her grandmother who had only ever purchased cheapie cheddars at the supermarket. Although we missed the initial cheese curdling, we were in time to watch the “Cheddaring” process.

Making Cheddar- Lactic Acid Magic

After adding rennet and separating the curds from the whey, the cheesemaker cuts the curds into flat, long sheets and stacks them one on top of each other. Then, he leaves them to sit. As the sheets sit, the lactose (milk sugar) converts to lactic acid.

Throughout the cheesemaking process and ripening, lactose turns to lactic acid. It helps provoke curd and whey separation, and the sugar conversion makes it easier for lactose-intolerant folk to digest aged cheeses – less sugar is left to bother tummies.

In the case of cheddar, lactic conversion is swiftly encouraged within the first hours of cheesemaking. When stacked and left to sit in a room temperature room prior to salting, the sweet sugars in the milk turn sharp sooner. That tanginess in your cheddar? That’s lactic acid, inspired.

After the stacked curds have hung out, kicked back, relaxed, acidified sufficiently, the cheesemakers cut the sheets once more into “fingers” (what Wisconsin calls cheese curds). They stir the fingers around and salt them. A lot. Then they take the curds and press them into molds.

Pressing huge wheels of cheddar is a lot of work, and if your grandmother is with you, she will tell the cheesemakers over and over again how strong they are. Note: after a little exposure to making cheddar, this cheese fiend has decided artisan cheddar is romantic not because of its connection to years of beautiful tradition, but because of the passion it requires from someone about to lift a hundred or so pounds of cheese curds one to three times a day for the rest of their life.

Next, the wheels are left to age, and are flipped every day as they mature.

Fiscalini Farms doesn’t often give tours, but if the rare chanse arises to see Mariano Gonzalez in action, take it. Cheddaring, and Gonzalez at work are cool things to see. Bonus? If you bring your grandmother, she’ll leave understanding why artisan cheese is worth more than the bright orange, rubbery cheddar at the supermarket and may have some waiting for you next time you visit. It’s possible. Unfortunately, she will also leave slightly dissapointed because she forgot to ask if the cheesemaker’s assistant was single. For you, she says. Sigh. So, seek out Fiscalini bandage-wrapped Cheddar at a cheese shop near you. They take immaculate care of their animals, and their cheddar is one of the best in the country.

What are your favorite domestic cheddars?

Bellwether Farms: Sheep’s Milk Heaven

San Andreas in action.

San Andreas in action.

With visions of fluffy lambs jumping over wheels of golden cheese stacked on Sonoma’s emerald hills, a friend and I drove with happy hearts to visit Bellwether Farms. Cheesemaker Liam Callahan doesn’t normally give tours- his facilities aren’t currently set up for handling visitors- so this was a very special ocassion. Plus, it was birthing season for the sheep and we were hoping to catch sight of the babies.

For whatever reason- my alarm clock not going off, highway 101 construction on the way to Petaluma, or us kind of getting “lost,” we were late. The result? We missed the frolicking baby sheep but experienced one of the best cheese tours of our lives.

Thanks to Callahan, who took time out of his busy Friday to answer my 1,001 questions during cheese production, we were able to see (and understand) how they make their small batches of San Andreas and their coveted sheep’s milk basket ricotta. Thank you so much for the tour Liam, and I hope “It’s Not You it’s Brie” readers enjoy the following photo tour of this traditional, family run creamery. Behind the scenes photos are taken by my cheesemaker tour photographer, Molly, who also captured the cuteness on the “Redwood Hill Kids, Come Home with Me” excursion.

The milking barn- After the magic happens in the fields, this is where the cheese starts.

The milking barn- After the magic happens in the fields, this is where the cheese starts.

Cutting the San Andreas curds under a holy glowing cheese light.

Cutting the San Andreas curds under a holy glowing cheese light.

Stirring to help separate the whey (liquids) from the curds (solid proteins).

Stirring to help separate the whey (liquids) from the curds (solid proteins).

Draining the curds and whey from the cheese cauldron.

Draining the curds and whey from the cheese cauldron.

Scooping the curds from the mixture to drain in small perforated baskets.

Scooping the curds from the mixture to drain in small perforated baskets.

The curds for the San Andreas are removed and the whey is funneled into a large cauldron to be made into ricotta.

The curds for the San Andreas are removed and the whey is funneled into a large cauldron to be made into ricotta.

Callahan deftly flipping the draining San Andreas to ensure even moisture loss and distribution.

Callahan deftly flipping the draining San Andreas to ensure even moisture loss and distribution.

After draining in a temperature controlled room for a few days, the San Andreas are transferred to an aging room. These wheels are San Andreas pepapto, a sheep's milk pecorino style cheeses flecked with peppercorns.

After draining in a temperature controlled room for a few days, the San Andreas are transferred to an aging room. These wheels are San Andreas pepapto, a sheep's milk pecorino style cheeses flecked with peppercorns.

BellwetherPepato10

Cheesemites, always respected for their good taste, like San Andreas too, but Callahan only lets them play in one corner so they'll leave the other cheeses alone. Cheesemites are what makes the canteloupe rind-textured rind of Mimolette.

Cheesemites, always respected for their good taste, like to munch on older wheels of San Andreas. Callahan keeps them at bay by letting them play in one corner so they'll leave the other wheels alone. Cheesemites nibbles are what forms the cantaloupe-textured rind of Mimolette.

What’s the best cheese tour you’ve been on? Any favorite cheese places you like to visit in your area?

Cheese Busy & Links du Fromage

DomaineLabet

Drinking Domaine Labet in a vineyard always helps to calm busy cheese nerves.

Been busy, but still thinking of you!

Here’s a little update on the cheese haps, and then, Links du Fromage:

In the past two weeks. I’ve visited Bellwether and Fiscalini cheesemakers, both of which are generally closed to tours, so I’ll post some inside info and photos soon. I learned a tremendous amount from visiting both farms, and I think you’ll like hearing the low-down too.

I’m teaching a rosé and cheese pairing class at the San Francisco Cheese School this Wednesday and have a Wine and Cheese Pairing basics course there coming up in August. Next week, I’ll head to my favorite beer bar for an excursion in cheese and beer pairing and will write about my findings. I’ve also been working, typing, editing, re-editing, pitching, interviewing and querying for possible cheese articles (which is quite the humbling experience). I’ve learned a lot these past couple of weeks and am looking forward to sharing it with you in the future. I just need an hour or two to sit down to do so!

In the meantime, I’ve been reading some great articles and blog posts lately. I hope you enjoy them too.

Lastly, “It’s Not You, it’s Brie” got mentioned in the latest Culture magazine. Thank you!

Notes from a Diary Anti-trust Meeting in Upstate New York, Green State Fair.

New Uplands Cheese, Cheese Underground.

Washington State Cheese (ohhh…. oozy buttery goodness), Gordonzola.

Cheese and the Art of Waiting, Know Whey.