Three things I learned last week about the world of cheese: 1) the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know; 2) cheese pees; and 3) cheese can have nipples.

I garnered these extremely important bits of vital information as hundreds of cheesemakers and industry experts from around the globe descended on Madison, Wis., for the International Cheese Technology Exposition. All you had to do was stand in one place at the Alliant Center at any given time to hear at least three different languages being spoken, all in the name of cheese. Ah .. just think if I could speak French or Italian – I could have learned even more!

Thursday’s 2010 World Champions Awards Banquet was especially moving – as cheesemakers from around the world flew in to Wisconsin to claim their gold, silver and bronze medals. The table of Swiss cheesemakers sitting next to me – all dressed in traditional Swiss clothing – seemed to have a VERY good time, whooping it up whenever a Swiss cheesemaker took the stage for an award.

Later, I was privileged to be part of a cheesemaking seminar with French Cheesemaker Ivan Larcher and Mateo Kehler, of Jasper Hill in Vermont. Ivan and Mateo taught us the science, chemistry and art of making Munster cheese from the Alsace region of France. All of the assumptions we had about making cheese in the U.S. were challenged – everything from cooking and cutting the curd, to sanitizing our surroundings, to aging cheese once it’s out of the mold.

Much of the course was extremely technical, with flip charts on acidity evolution, aging bacteria and coagulation gradients. While the 12 cheesemakers in attendance – two of them Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers – soaked up the knowledge like sponges, my eyes pretty much glazed over. But I did learn two things: cheese can pee, and if aged incorrectly, cheese can develop nipples.

This highly technical information actually came up earlier in the week, as several cheesemakers gathered at a local cheesemaker’s home, talked shop, and drank a large amount of Lake Louie beer. I learned that Cheese pee comes from big wheels of Swiss, when crafted with too much acidity, actually crack during the aging process. They “weep” or “pee” Swiss cheese juice, and in a day or two, can fill half a glass with such pee. Apparently it tastes pretty good. I brought up the idea of marketing cheese pee, but was greeted with completely blank stares and the advice to have another beer. Oh well.

Cheese nipples are another story. Apparently when cheese is drained improperly during the aging process, it can actually form little buds of moisture on the rind, which Ivan, with a completely straight face, deems “cheese nipples.” I googled “cheese nipples”, hoping to learn more, but actually learned WAY more than I wanted to about Welsh film makers who made a shoot-em-up short film called “Operation Cheese Nipples.” Catchy theme music, though. That’s nine minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Think I’ll go back to learning about cheese.

3 thoughts on “The More You Know

  1. Its good to have someone as experience as Mateo and Ivan explain some of these concepts to Wisconsin cheesemakers. It was a much needed breath of fresh air.

    The whole issue of the overuse and abuse of chlorine, and our perpetual war on bacteria, is very pertinant. In many ways, the failures of Germ Theory to protect us from bad germs, lies at the heart of the current raw milk debate. By waging a continual war on bacteria, we are only ensuring that the bad ones have a place to grow, once we've “wiped the slate clean” on the microbial level and created space for them.

    It is not much unlike the conventional farmer who tills in the earth every year to plant his corn and soy crops, only to find himself in a perpetual battle with noxious weeds. So he sprays roundup, buys the latest GMO technology for round-up ready corn, etc, etc… and drives himself into bankrupcy because he can't keep up.

    If the farmer were instead to work with nature, rather than against it, plant a perenial polyculture and build his soil fertility, he will find over time that the good plants have crowded out the bad ones, and that spraying roundup and other pesticides and herbicides is not only unneccessary, but unwanted.

    We are looking at the same issue on the microbial level. We have to encourage micro-biological diversity, rather than be afraid of it. All the science and technology we can afford to fund, is no substitue for the billions of years of evolution bacteria have. As you say, the more we understand, the more we realize that we don't understand.

    As far as the technical approach to cheesemaking, the workshop was incredibly informative for me, and shone a lot of light on how the process of acidification and drainage of the curd are related to the way the cheese ages. The principles they talked about are applicable to many varieties and styles of cheese, not merely Alsatian Muenster-style.

  2. That sounds like an amazing conference, and obviously cheesemakers who've attended came away with an abundance of knowledge. I found Bill Anderson's comments about raw-milk and the war on bacteria fascinating too. LIke the thought of cheese nipples or pee, the idea of granting harmful milk bacteria immunity never crossed my head. But obviously, it's an important issue and I have a lot to learn. Cheeseunderground raw-milk and chlorine bacteria post?

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