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A New Experience 

I love cheese.  

Growing up in Sonoma Valley I have had a lot of opportunities to eat cheese.  My family would drive 15 minutes into Sonoma, go to Vella’s Cheese off the plaza, and I would beg for some small sample while my parents did the purchasing.  On the plaza and in Shone’s grocery store Sonoma Cheese Factory kept us in Colby, Pepper Jack, Habanero Cheese, Garlic Cheese, and plenty of others over the years.

My tastes run beyond California cheese, as well.  I sat with my father and uncle in the village of Cheddar, England, and had a firm ripe block of cheese straight from the source – and learned what real Cheddar tastes like.   My wife and I ate an unhealthy amount of smooth Gruyeres cheese in the little Swiss town of the same name, and toured the cheese factory nearby to see the process.  And I think I’ll never forget digging into the center of a life-changing Azeitao cheese with our port wine while sitting on the banks of the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. 

I’ve had a lot of cheeses in my life, but I have never actually made cheese.   Yesterday I finally did.

The desire to make cheese could come from a lot of different places. I suppose it could be for financial reasons.  Here in Japan cheese (called “Natural Cheese” in Japanese) is very expensive and still a luxury item.  For other people, maybe they want to make cheese to express their creativity and perhaps someday I’ll get there.  But for me, I wanted to make cheese to see the science in action.

For the past few years I have been really into reading about food science, especially from the pages of “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee.  One of the first chapters is on cheese, and he goes into (literally) microscopic detail on the how’s and why’s – fascinating stuff.  Eventually I figured that if people a thousand years ago could make cheese, why shouldn’t I give it a go?

Sunday morning I found myself up early, so I started making a simple ricotta.  The day before I had bought two liters of whole milk at the store, and it served its purpose just fine.  I added some acid (in the form of vinegar) heated it while stirring constantly, and after about ten minutes it clotted up and I could see the “curds and whey” for myself.

I separated the curds, dumped the whey, and started squeezing the moisture out of the curds.  It was my first time, and I think I may have squeezed out a little too much – the next time I’ll be a little more gentle because I prefer a moister ricotta.  

In the interest of science and comparison I also tried a recipe found online that described a five-minute ricotta in the microwave.  It worked out pretty well too, although I think the first batch I made would scale more easily to accommodate bigger batches.  

After completion and the cleanup I felt a bit of satisfaction – the kind that comes from creation.  We ate cheese for dinner, spread on good French bread with some herbs and salami.  The cheese was a pile of crumbles, a little dry, with a salty milky creaminess that balanced nicely with the flaky French bread. We branded the experiment a qualified success, with lots of improvement ideas for the next time. 

So what’s next?  My curiousity is piqued, so I’ll do more research into other types of cheese and how to make them, and think about whether I want to try aging cheese.  I have a decent place to age them – upstairs in our wine cellar – but I would have to give up some space dedicated to wine, and that would be a great sacrifice for an oenophile like myself.

So, great fun, and I’m looking forward to the next time to make more.  If I could just find someone with a goat or an ewe here in Japan…

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