Posts Tagged ‘Toma’

I grew up eating Kraft singles. Probably many of you did, too. Tidy orange squares in tidy individual plastic wrappers. We called it cheese, but it was, and is, a total head fake: processed, dyed orange to look like Cheddar, and the first slice I ever ate tasted just exactly like the last slice I ever ate.

It did for you too?

Okay, now focus on the pretty picture above. That isn’t pretend. I took it last week at a farm in Lawrenceville, NJ. The sky really was impossibly blue, the sun really did shine and warm, and the cows really did politely moo. I thought I was just going to learn how this farm makes cheese. Silly me.

Kraft singles, reality TV that isn’t, Botox. CNN. it’s getting harder and harder to know when something’s real and when we’re being put on. It’s making us jaded, but even worse than that, it’s making us settle for less.

Today we’re going to look at something real. Are you in?

Boots and crocs to wear in the cheesemaking rooms.

Organic artisanal cheese, made in small batches, by hand.

Cherry Grove Farm’s head cheesemaker is also the farm manager, Kelly Harding. Sam assists, Ron interns, and Natalie makes the goat cheese. I came to talk to Sam and Ron during what they call the spring flush, when the grass is high and the cows produce the most milk. Cheese made here, from grass-fed cows, is more wholesome than average cheese; it’s full of omega-3 fatty acids which are great for your heart, and it’s higher in unsaturated fat and lower in cholesterol. (Sam tells me customer reaction to this news: ‘Wait, wait, wait…it tastes better AND it’s better for me?’) In the spring the grass is also high in beta-carotene; cheese produced now will have a yellow tint, while cheese made much later in the year, when the cows eat hay, will be whiter.

Boots on, hands washed, into the room with the big vat.

We’re making Toma, a tangy, raw milk cheese. into the 400 +/- gallons of milk goes rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk, turning it into Miss Muffett’s curds and whey.

This gets mixed,

the curds are cut with a curd screen,

after which they ‘knit’ for twenty minutes. The whey is drained off to be fed to the appreciative pigs that roam Cherry Grove’s tree line. When it’s ready—and Sam says much of knowing when is intuitive, determined by feel—then the curd is cut into portions:

and set into brine-soaked cheesecloth that’s placed inside cheese molds. The molds have small drainage holes at their bases, and the brine helps to form the rind.

The curds are pressed for three hours…

but they’re unmolded and inverted every half hour during this time. The below shot was taken after the first press. Looks like a cake wrapped in homemade fondant, but it smells sweet and a little salty.

Tomas are brined the following morning and need ‘affinage,’ or finishing, so I’ll have to wait until it’s wrapped up and hits the shelves to try the final product.

Right around here, when Sam inverts the cheese and I pull up a stool, I get some good back story.

Sam’s a CIA grad who burned the proverbial candle at both ends in restaurant kitchens before deciding to give cheesemaking a try. He’s been with Cherry Grove for two years and loves it. I always do a double take when someone says he loves his job. Did one here too. But he really meant it.

The man gets up at 4a excited about the day ahead, has much less stress, and says he sleeps better than he ever has. He is also almost entirely a locavore, eating Cherry Grove fresh produce along with their fresh eggs, lamb, beef and pork (see ‘appreciative pigs’, above). Sam cans and freezes produce as well.

When the cows stop lactating from mid-December to mid-March, Sam loves (there’s that word again) going to farmers’ markets with Cherry Grove’s wares in tow. He gets to meet old/loyal customers and new/curious customers, and they get to ask questions and shake the hand of the guy who made the incredible Brie they’ve been smearing on Ritz crackers all year.

Ron, most amiable intern, calls himself a ‘recovering chemist’ with a specialty in milk. He always said he wanted to retire a farmer; bored and burned out sitting in a cube, he figured he’d get a jump on it now. A month in, he says he’s happier waking up at the crack of dawn to work for no pay than he ever was in corporate America. I should mention that at the end of a very physical day at Cherry Grove he drives the hour home to tend to his own 3/4 acre, on which grows a garden, a handful of fruit trees, goats, and chickens. And he loves it—all of it.

These two guys worked like demons at their jobs and went home every night dissatisfied, not knowing exactly what they had accomplished. Then they got up again the next morning and did it again. Show of hands for who understands that feeling.

Here the three of us get into an animated discussion about terroir. Your great-great-grandmother probably didn’t call it that or even have a name for this idea, probably because it was so natural that it wasn’t necessary. Terroir is the ancient notion that food cultivated in a certain place, with that place’s peculiarities of sun, soil, and rain, makes that food unique. All national cuisines were built on this, America’s included, but we got away from it in the middle of the last century. We’re starting to get reacquainted, slowly, and I think we’re the better for it.

At Cherry Grove, terroir is a way of life—every 4 o’clock, rainy Tuesday, drowsy August. It’s business as usual, same as for your great-great-grandmother peeling wild apples over a bowl so she could feed the scraps to the pigs. The pork from her farm had a different flavor than the pork at her brother’s place in Ohio; the confluence of her climate with the work of her own hands made it different, even if it was the same breed of pig. That was a point of pride for her.

Similarly, when it comes to cheesemaking at Cherry Grove, no two batches are ever exactly the same. Yesterday’s milk is today’s cheese, made from whatever the girls, the soil, and the weather offered that day. The character and texture of the cheese will vary slightly, the way handmade wine or olive oil will. That’s a good thing, I think, in an increasingly homogenized world. Cherry Grove’s cheese bears its own stamp of identity, right down to the combination of diverse kinds of cows’ milk.

Next we visit the three cheese ‘caves’. They’re rooms kept at a certain temperature and humidity, based on whatever’s best for whatever cheese. Serving as a cool incubator, the unripe, ‘green’ cheese lives there until it’s ready to eat. The smell in the caves is salty, tangy, earthy.

Here’s Brie, young and sweet. Next it will be wrapped in waxy paper, creating a micro-climate inside which it can ripen further.

Here are Somersets getting good and moldy,

and Tomas, buttery yellow when youngest, and getting orangey as they age.

Full Nettle Jack. Flecked with bits of green nettles, the name is not just clever, but surprisingly apropos. Dark, earthy, moody—this a cheese that, if it had a thing for movies, actually would go for Kubrick. It’s complex and wonderful.

Cheese, like wine, or olive oil, or a person, for that matter, is the product of environment—stormy or sunny, dry or saturating, stressed out in an open-cube farm or stress-less looking out over an open-pasture farm. And when it comes to that person, it makes a difference knowing he isn’t just auto-piloting through his days, but instead is crafting something, every day, with pride, something that has its own unique character and texture. And behind the scenes, without even necessarily knowing it, he’s doing the same thing for himself.

Your great-great-grandmother knew exactly what she put out into the world every day and was proud of it. She would have laughed at the idea of Botox—what woman who knows what she’s made of needs that? She didn’t settle for fake. She didn’t have to. Neither do we.


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