Lessons in Cheese Part 2: Fresh Cheese
by Robert J. Aguilera
There is a tale that cheese mongers enjoy telling to explain the birth, or discovery, of cheese:
An ancient Middle Eastern nomad was going out on a long journey on horseback with a dried sheep stomach filled with a ration of milk. After a few hours, he noticed that the ration of milk in the skin had begun to separate into yellow-green liquid and spongy white flakes. After mustering the courage and trying this tepid soup of curds and whey, the journeyman found that it wasn't that bad. In fact, it was good enough that he wanted to eat it again and share these new flavors and textures with others.
No one knows how long it took to develop the separate curd from whey that we know as cheese today, but we know that it couldn't have happened without a few more brave and hungry souls. So why did this separation in the milk happen? Simply put, naturally occurring lactose-eating bacteria present in milk and an enzyme (like those that live in our stomach and digest our food) called rennin were still present and active in the dried stomach skin that the journeyman carried. The journeyman was on horseback, so a jostling motion was in play with the horse's movement. Rather than milk separating due to spoiling, this agitation, along with the leftover enzyme, created a cleaner, more pleasing separation.
In reality, fresh cheese was born from man's chance discovery and ultimate understanding of the ingredients, process, agitation and resulting flavors. Fresh cheese may be a simple process, but today's cheese makers employ extensive knowledge and understanding of this process to develop unique, fresh creations. This category includes farmer's cheese, fromage blanc, fresh curd, ricotta, chevre, mozzarella, queijo and queso fresco and labne (yogurt cheese), to name a few. They are all created differently, and each has a unique flavor, with texture being the most defining characteristic. Fresh cheeses alone are pleasing, but their ability to enhance other dishes makes them indispensable in any serious cooks' kitchen. These cheeses are often taken for granted because they are so readily accessible, but if you seek out the best possible cheeses in this style, you will appreciate the hard work and thought that goes into creating them.
Here in Massachusetts, we endure long and cold winters. By March, we begin to look toward warmer days and our food interests turn to menu items with fresher flavors. Thankfully, as you are craving a salad of spring lettuces with fresh goat cheese, these cheeses are available in our area and are ready to satisfy.
Just like vegetables, cheese is a seasonal food, with the flavors and textures influenced by the season in which the milk was collected. In the spring, through the remaining snow, new grass begins to grow along with budding branches, leaves and new plant life. This becomes the diet of the dairy animals that produce delicately flavored spring cheese. When selecting fresh cheeses, remember those made in our corner of the world.
Cheese making is a lot like bread making: Just as the amount of kneading affects the texture of the bread, the coagulating method used to separate curds and whey in part determines the final texture of a fresh cheese. A natural, long separation creates a delicate, cloudy texture, whereas an aggressive, quick coagulation can create a dense, elastic, cake-like texture.
To create a delicate, cloudy and creamy-textured cheese, a patient maker is required.The goal is to encourage the curds to "knit" together by adding start cultures that will eat lactose, create lactic acid and bond the solids over a long period of time. This is the closest to what nature would do in modern cheese making.
De Nuages is a brand-new fresh cheese from Shy Brothers Farm in Westport, Massachusetts. The name translates to "the clouds," but no cloud ever tasted like this heavenly cheese. The texture of this cheese is thick and creamy, with fine milk protein granules that are reminiscent of homemade ricotta.
To achieve this texture, after their "nutty flavored" Ayrshire cow milk is pasteurized, a small amount of calf rennet and cultures are added. A long acidification process then slowly separates the curd from the whey. This practice helps the natural bacteria separate the solids slowly, creating the complex texture. It also leaves the cheese open to interpretation when pairing, as the cheese is equally complex in flavor. There are aggressive floral, nutty and maritime herb flavors that result from cows grazing close to the Atlantic Ocean. Simply pair this cheese with spring onions, rhubarb chutney, asparagus and artichokes, or use it as a substitute for ricotta in prepared dishes like lasagna.
Another local option: Foxboro Cheese Company Fromage Blanc, from Foxboro, Massachusetts, is an equally lovely example of excellent, creamy fresh cheese. Also made from Ayreshire cow milk, it is more velvety-cream in texture with a delicate, sweet flavor. Traditionally, fromage blanc truly relies on available bacteria in the milk and time to form. There usually is no addition of rennet or acid to help the separation. It is not uncommon for this cheese to separate over a period of 12 hours or more. With a longer separation time, you create a creamier, luscious product. Foxboro Cheese Company helps the separation by adding a culture that assists the available bacteria in their process. This is an excellent cheese to pair with jam, strawberries, brioche toast and melon, sparkling white wines, as well as Saison and Belgian-style beers.
To create a dryer, but spreadable-textured fresh cheese, acidification cultures are added, as well as a higher concentration of coagulant. Westfield Farm in Hubbardston makes its fresh chevre by using a vegetable-based coagulant. The result is a rich, fresh goat cheese with hints of citrus in its flavor, but no residual liquid. This smooth texture makes it ideal for pairing with green leaf salads, herbs, dried cranberries and nuts.
Two other local options: Crystal Brook Farm's fresh chevre, from Sterling. Their herd of Alpine and Saanen goats produce an equally smooth fresh goat cheese. And Valley View Farm's fresh chevre from Topsfield. Pair these cheeses with wheat beers as well as dry white and rosé wines this spring.
In making mozzarella, the addition of citric acid to the culture and coagulant mixture strengthens the bonds of the eventual curd, and provides flexibility that allows for the curd to be stretched. Fiore Di Nonno Mozzarella, from Somerville, would be my first choice for this fresh style. Created from her grandfather Joe's recipe, Lourdes's mozzarella is a high-moisture, soft, stretchy texture that is essential in salad or on any pizza this spring. This mozzarella is hand-stretched in small batches, which keeps the texture in the right balance. Remember this cheese for the summer when heirloom tomatoes are ready. Another local option: Mozzarella House, in Everett. Maria Cubellis's hand-stretched recipe is governed by the Italian adherence to mozzarella freshness. In Italy, you eat mozzarella that was made the day you buy it.
Pairing mozzarella with Sangiovese red wines is a must, and it pairs well with pilsner beers.
Queijo Fresco is a fresh cheese, originally from Portugal. Portuguese people have made Massachusetts their home since the time of colonization. Queijo Fresco is characterized by the use of generous amounts of coagulant and salt. Traditionally, this style, as well as Queso Fresco, was made using acids like vinegar, flower and plant blossoms and lemon juice rather than animal rennet. The high amount of coagulant used is what creates the dense, elastic, cakey texture that it is known for today. Along with flavoring and preserving the cheese, salt guides more liquid away from the interior of a cheese wheel. This activity also contributes to the characteristic cakey texture of Queijo Fresco, although current interpretations of this style range from bouncy like mozzarella to almost as dry as feta. Rennet is usually the coagulant used by most commercial Queijo makers today.
Jumilla Cheese, in Lancaster, makes a Queijo Fresco that has more bounce in its texture and an earthy, salted-butter flavor. It is a terrific cheese to crumble and melt on savory meat dishes, or cut into pieces that will be smothered in caramel or chocolate. Another local option: Manny's Dairy Farm Portuguese Fresh Cheese, also from Lancaster.
Please pair this style with pale ales and porter beers, as well as Gruner Veltliner and Verdejo white wines this spring. Along with trying the creations from the makers mentioned, I encourage you to try to make these fresh cheese styles at home. Simple recipes for all of these cheeses are widely available online. Make sure that the milk you use is only pasteurized and not ultra-pasteurized, as the latter is incapable of forming curds. If a recipe for one of these cheeses calls for heavy cream, any will do. Even an ultra-pasteurized version will do fine as you are only interested in the fat from the heavy cream. Of course, finding a source for raw milk would be the best scenario for cheese making.
Once you have tried to make your own fresh cheese, your appreciation for what it takes to make cheese will grow by leaps and bounds. And as you begin to understand the process of cheese making, you will begin to ask yourself, "What other cheeses could I make?" and "What reason would I have to make aged cheese if I can make fresh cheese every day?" Well, we know they were created for a reason, but let's regroup for that discussion next time. Now go cheese!
Robert J. Aguilera learned about cheeses while working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then at Farmsteadinc in Providence, Rhode Island. He now distributes cheese making and packaging supplies to cheesemakers across the United States. ‘I hope to continue to help the cheese landscape in America in any way I can.' Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.