Let me tell you a secret. Just as much as I love sausages and all kinds of charcuterie – plenty of evidence for that here on the blog – I love cheese. I’ve dug my way though countless cheese platters in France, and whenever I am in Strasbourg, a visit to La Cloche à Fromage is mandatory.
Making my own cheese has always been a dream for me, and I actually gave it an unsuccessful try more than a decade ago. It failed because I did not have the proper information.
When I began to cure my own sausages in the basement last year I dismissed the idea of making cheese because the room is not cold enough for ripening cheese. It was only two months ago when I learned that you can also mature cheese in boxes in a refrigerator. “What have I been missing all those years….”, I sighed and quickly ordered the necessary supply and began looking for a good introductory book about cheesemaking.
I decided to buy David Asher’s “The Art of Natural Cheesemaking” mainly because of its – sadly – unusual approach of not using any commercial starter and mould cultures. Not that I have any ideological problems with that. For my dry cured sausages I use a starter culture to make sure there are enough bacteria for converting nitrate into nitrite since I usually use only nitrate. Otherwise I consider the risk of harmful bacteria growth too big.
But Asher’s line of argumentation makes sense to me. Orginally cheese was made as a way to store perishable milk for a long time. The process relied on the microbial flora naturally present in the raw milk and also in the atmosphere. But of course not all bacteria and fungi are harmless, some can actually be pretty nasty. So in the 20th century industrial cheesemaking has embraced the philosophy to first sanitise everything and then inoculate pasteurised milk with the appropriate freeze-dried cultures. So far so good, but today even small scale procucers and hobbyists copy this approach, even though the risk is minimal if you have a trustworthy source of raw milk.
But even if you dont use raw milk, cheese can be made without commercial cultures, and this is perhaps the biggest revelation of this book. David Asher fully relies on kefir for his cheesemaking because it contains a wide spectrum of benefitial bacteria and yeasts. Kefir can be used to strengthen the natural microbial raw milk flora or to reintroduce many of the micro-organisms that have been killed by pasteurisation.
The printed version of the book as 320 pages. The design looks a bit hipsterish but after reading a couple pf pages it becomes clear that this book was written by someone with a deep and fundamental understanding of cheesemaking. Unfortunatlely the tone of the introductory section is a bit harsh in its criticism of the “sanitise and inoculate” concept. I have noticed that quite a few cheese making hobbyists felt offended to be sorted into the same drawer as “big dairy”, people who actively embrace this concept because the countless possibilities of combining starter cultures give them – in principle – the ability to recreate any kind of cheese on the planet.
Obviously, using just a dash of kefir in your milk limits this freedom to some extent. But even then there are plenty of variables left to tweak in cheesemaking so you still will be able to make a huge variety of different cheeses. It’s a bit like working with what nature gives you instead of designing everything from scratch.
The book gives a thorough overview of the basics of cheesemaking and the tools and ingredients needed, and also the requirements for ripening cheese are treated in depth. For the truly ambitious cheesemakers there is even a section that describes how to isolate rennet from a freshly slaughtered calf.
The following chapters are dedicated to the various types of cheese such as pasta filata, blue, washed rind, alpine etc., each including several recipes. Certainly also owing to the limitations of the kefir approach the cheese recipes rather are examples that can be adapted to personal preferences than they are encyclopedic. If you want to know what makes Munster different from Limburger or Comté different from Gruyère, you will not find the answer in this book.
I have to point out one design flaw of the cheese recipes: Even though the measures are always given both in the Imperial and metric systems, the metric amount of salt needed is always given in millilitres whereas anyone else in the word uses grams. This is of course caused by the infamous “tablespoon” volume measure that is common in non-metric recipes. With salt this is particularly tricky because depending on the grain size the same volume can contain quite different amounts of salt by weight. And it is the weight of the salt, not the volume, which ultimately determines how salty something is.
Long story short, there is actually an easily overread paragraph in the book where Asher says that a tablespoon equals 15 ml or 10 g salt. But not rembering this I converted the 15 ml with Wolfram Alpha which gave me 32.4 g which obviously is the weight of a solid 15 ml salt crystal. This did look a bit too much to me, so in my first experiments I used a bit less, but still I oversalted to some extent. So this might be a thing to reconsider in a future edition of the book.
Other than that, I am very happy with this book and can fully recommend it. Originally I intended to write this review alredy a few weeks ago, but then I decided to wait until my first own properly aged cheese is ready to try. This was yesterday.
It is a basic rennet curd cheese from a litre’s worth of pasteurised non-homogenised Alpine full fat milk that after draining, dry salting and air drying for a day I left untreated in my fridge “cave” for five weeks, apart from daily flipping. This was from a 3 litre batch set up with a bit of homemade kefir and liquid calf rennet that yielded three cheeses in total.
The cheese developed a rind of geotrichum candidum and penicillium candidum similar to Brie de Meaux with some spots of wild penicillium roqueforti on the bottom side. It turned out nice and creamy, slightly softer than brie with a very nice medium strong taste, only a bit on the salty side… (but not too much, actually)
So yes, this really works!
Note: I decided against a German version of this review because the book is not availbable in German. If your English is good enough to understand the book, you don’t need a German review anyway.