How do I prepare raw milk cheese? A recipe for cheesemaking
Affineur Walo reveals to Mirijam the secrets of the perfect flower meadow cheese with natural raw milk. The basic recipe is simple, like baking a cake. The great art is the fine tuning and an optimal network, in which everyone gives his best with joy.
…But read for yourself:
I am on my way back from a symposium in Munich, two days about fine food and drink. It is a beautiful Sunday morning in May; the sun is dazzling, the road is clear, the meadows are lush, and the cows are in the fields. Then my phone wakes me up from my daydreams. Mirijam, my copywriter, calls excitedly. She has been commissioned by a food magazine to write an article and would like to do it with me.
The topic was ‘How do I produce the perfect flower meadow cheese with untreated raw milk?’ Typical Mirijam – the topic captivated her (it is about food, after all) and she knew who to get the knowledge she was missing from.
I had planned a few quiet days, but I could not let her down. Besides, it was about my favourite subject.
The goal of the text was that everyone would be able to produce the perfect flower meadow cheese after reading it. Mirijam was a little unsure whether she could really give away the production secret of the perfect flower meadow cheese? I said, ‘If it’s just that – no problem. But you have to write the article yourself.’
But how does a text about flower meadow cheese come into being? Our journey could have taken place in this way or something similar:
First was the meadow...
On Tuesday she stood in front of me, with green hair and bright eyes hidden behind huge glasses. She was inquisitive, nervous, and wanted to go right away. We drove past a few pastures until, at a pasture with about 20 cows, I stopped and got out.
The cows were munching on grass and flowers with relish, enjoying the sun. Mirijam’s face became more and more questioning. I told her, ‘Take some pictures and try to capture what you see.’
I did not tell her anything more; I let her get back into the car and she probably thought now we were going to the cheese dairy. After all, she wanted to know all the factory secrets. But at the next crossroads I turned off and we ended up on a farm – a big farm with 40 cows and a huge barn. Again, I got out and asked her to follow me. She was already becoming restless, wanting to go to the cheese dairy. But I had other plans.
In the barn, the farmer was preparing the milking harness. He was working very carefully; the dishes were scrupulously clean, the milk cans were shining. Again, I asked my copywriter to take a few photos. Then we went into the barn above the stable – a large, almost empty room. At the very back it still had some hay from last summer and some bales of straw.
Mirijam was running out of patience... after all, she was all about cheese production secrets, not about cows, milking, barns, hay, and straw.
I just laughed, got back in the car, and said to her, ‘Enough for today. Tomorrow morning, 4:30 a.m., we will go on.’ She looked at me incredulously and probably thought I was just wasting her time. But she had to write this article and was dependent on me 😉.
... then the milk was...
At 4:30 the following morning, it was still dark. We drove off, again past the pasture with the cows. Mirijam was already afraid that I would stop again.
This time, I did not – but I turned onto the farm again. The farmer had just finished milking and was filling milk into the milk cans. He put these in his car and drove off, with us following behind. Mirijam asked me curiously where we were going now. I answered that we were following the farmer to the cheese dairy.
She braced herself for a longer drive, but after five minutes the cheese dairy appeared. I told her that the shorter the transport, the better the milk.
Her face lit up: she was finally learning the secrets of production.
We got out and watched as the farmer unload his milk cans. Then we briefly greeted the cheesemaker; he had little time, because the next farmer was already in sight. We went to change, put on overshoes, washed our hands – and now we were allowed into the production rooms.
Mirijam was amazed at how small they were. Everything was practically accessible with one step. In the centre was a large copper kettle that was half full. The milk that came in ran through many pipes. Machines were working and making quite a racket.
I explained to her that the cheesemaker first takes a sample of the milk, which he later analyses and freezes. The sample is kept in case there are any flaws in the cheese in a few months’ time; in that case, he can analyse which farmer supplied bad milk. It is particularly important in cheese production that there are no antibiotics in the milk.
The fresh milk first passes through a sieve and from there into the centrifuge, where part of the cream is spun out of the milk. Then the milk goes on to the half-full copper kettle.
Mirijam was amazed at how easy it was, and she asked me if the milk needed any further treatment. I said ‘No – as you saw, this milk comes from cows that get grass and hay. It is already perfect. Only if the cows get fermented grass (silage), then we must add some extra steps. Because in this case the milk must be cleaned of harmful bacteria, by bactofugation or microfiltration. But with this, the milk becomes so pure that it has no taste any more. In most cases, the milk is then pasteurized – heated to 72°C. In the case of flower meadow cheese, we do not need this; only for semi-hard cheese is part of the milk heated to 68°C, and for hard cheese we can omit this altogether.
The copper kettle filled slowly; the temperature was exactly 32°C. The cheesemaker took a kettle and poured in something that looked like yogurt, stirred it briefly and poured the whole thing into the milk.
Mirijam asked in amazement what he was doing. I explained to her that these were the starter cultures that the cheesemaker had put on the day before. They are like sour yogurt, and the starter cultures’ lactic acid bacteria are responsible for the flavour and ripening of the cheese. The lactic acid bacteria that we use are only available in Switzerland. They come from Agroscope, the central laboratory that produces the cultures for all Swiss cheeses, and are then mixed with the cheese dairies’ own cultures. In other words, each cheese dairy has a secret recipe.
30 minutes later, the vat is full of 6,000 litres of milk. The cheesemaker takes another kettle, pours a precisely measured yellow liquid into it and fills it up with water, then the whole thing is poured back into the milk. The agitator in the kettle slowly makes its rounds.
Suddenly, there is action. The cheesemaker stops the agitator and changes the blades for a device with fine wires that looks almost like a harp. The agitator stops and the cheesemaker invites us to coffee. We sit comfortably in the kitchen with coffee, jam, butter, and bread. Mirijam is a little confused because she does not understand what is happening.
The cheesemaker explains that the yellow liquid is rennet, an enzyme that is added to make the milk resemble curds. There are three types of rennet: animal, which is obtained from the stomachs of calves, goats or sheep, then vegetable or microbial, which is made from mushrooms.
We have used animal rennet today. The rennet is also a flavour carrier and since we want a strong cheese, this was our choice.
And what is with the weird harp in the milk? Quite simple: after about 20–30 minutes, the milk will be a solid jelly and with the harp, we will cut it into small pieces.
... then the curd...
The coffee break is finished, and we are back in the cheese dairy, standing at the vat. The cheesemaker checks the firmness of the milk with a ladle and his finger, waits a bit, checks again. I tell Mirijam she should also test. Hesitantly, she takes a finger and reaches under the milk and looks and feels how it breaks. Now the cheesemaker lets the motor run, and the harp starts to cut. (Mirijam has of course pulled her fingers out of the kettle beforehand 😊)
I explain to her that timing is crucial; if you start cutting too early or too late, then nothing will happen with the cheese.
The harp makes its rounds in the milk and the pieces become smaller and smaller. The cheesemaker goes to a large book and writes something in it. Mirijam asks again, curiously, what he is doing. He explains to her that he always writes down how much milk he processes, when the cultures are added, how long the rennet works, and so on, so that he can analyse how the smallest changes affect the cheese and thus optimise his production over the years.
The pieces in the curd are now about 0.5–1 cm in size. The cheesemaker stops the harp and exchanges it again for the stirring paddles. Now the stirring starts, and it slowly gets hot. The mass must be heated to 55°C. This is usual for hard cheese. With semi-hard cheeses, the mass is only heated to 34–44°C, so we heat some of the milk beforehand.
The cheesemaker has prepared the pressing moulds and now begins to pump the warm curd slowly into them. In the past, there were no pumps; the curd was lifted out with a net.
After about 30 minutes, the kettle is empty, and the moulds are filled. The cheese is then pressed for over two hours. During this time, the cheesemaker cleans the dairy and tidies up. After that, the cheeses are ready and can now go to a draining room, where the lactic acid bacteria can develop over a period of about eight hours and the pH value of the cheese will be reduced (i.e., the cheese will become more acidic). Since no more production is planned, the cheesemaker simply leaves the cheeses in the moulds and will then unpack them the next morning and place them in the salt bath.
... and only then was the cheese…
In the cellar, I show Mirijam the salt bath. The cheeses are cooled in here for 24 hours and absorb some salt. The harder the cheese, the longer it must be in the salt bath. Extra-hard cheese remains in the salt bath for at least 12 hours per kilogram of cheese; for Sbrinz, which weighs 30 kg, that makes 15 days. There it needs a large bath, so that the cheesemaker can produce every day.
After that it goes into the ripening cellar, which is cold (about 14°C) and very humid. The young cheeses are still light and are turned every day and rubbed with salt water, while the older ones have a nice brown colour and are rubbed less often. The even older ones are almost dark brown and only need to be washed and turned every two weeks. In the past, this was manual labour, but today there is a robot in the cellar. The brown colour on the cheese comes from another lactic acid bacterium, Brevibacterium linens.
I explained to Mirijam that the temperature is the decisive factor. The warmer the cellar, the more moisture the air can absorb and the less the cheese dries out. It stays nice and smooth and creamy. But beware: the warmer the cellar, the more often cheese defects come to the fore.
When the cheese is perfectly ripened, it is made ready for shipment. This part of the journey is often neglected, but it is especially important at this stage that the cheese is protected and does not dry out; this is achieved in cold storage at 5°C. Many cheesemakers now seal the cheeses with Natamycin E235, an antibiotic that prevents mould growth. This is not allowed in flower meadow cheese, nor are any other preservatives used.
You can easily check this yourself: it is enough to read the list of ingredients. As soon as there are E numbers in the list, you must be careful. In flower meadow cheese, the ingredients are only natural raw milk, natural starter cultures, rennet, and salt.
Small tip: if the enjoyment at home is to be perfect, then the cheese should not dry out in the refrigerator, so pack it airtight. Cheese is best enjoyed at room temperature, about 18°C.
And so, one collects info for a newspaper article.
Mirijam was satisfied and now had enough material for her text. But before she started writing, she turned around and asked me why I had dragged her to the meadow and the farmer the night before?
Quite simply, that is the secret of perfect cheese.
If the cows are treated badly, have no run and are unhappy, and your feed does not fit, then there will be nothing with the milk and the cheese.
The perfect cheese only exists when everyone in the chain, from the cow to the cheese counter, is happy and satisfied and gives their best with joy. That is exactly what it takes for cheese to taste like flower meadows.