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An Introduction To Natural Cheesemaking

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Cheeses on wood. Photo by Kelly Brown

In Natural Cheesemaking we work with nature, instead of against nature, to make cheese. By using a starter that we make at home, harnessing the rich microbial ecology in raw milk, and honouring traditional cheesemaking methods, we can create cheeses that are more healthy, delicious and complex in flavour.

Cheesemaking should be a simple and natural process. But anyone who’s made cheese according to the standard approach will attest that cheese is no longer created according to any natural considerations. First milk is pasteurised, standardised and homogenised, then monocultures of microorganisms are added back to replace the life taken away by pasteurisation. Genetically modified enzymes are then mixed into milk to cause it to curdle, and the curds left to drain in plastic forms. And all the while cheesemakers need to keep everything sterile to assure that their sensitive laboratory raised cultures aren’t contaminated by rogue microorganisms.

Raw Milk Has Microbes

Until recently, raw milk was believed to be sterile when it left the udder or breast. New research into the human microbiome has shown that there may be hundreds of species of symbiotic microorganisms passed along in milk from mother to infant; and the sugars provided by the milk may feed the infant’s microbes as much as the infant. These commensal (meaning eating at the same table) microorganisms are now understood to be essential to the health and welfare of infants and adults, and they seem to play an important role in our digestive health, skin health, organ function, and immune response.

Raw milk is not inherently dangerous. It is the way it’s produced and handled that can make it unsafe. Raw milk is collected from multiple farms, some of which keep animals in confinement. Thousands of animals’ milk from two days of milking are mixed together in a tanker truck, then all tanker truck milk is mixed together at the processing plant. Such milk (now old) cannot be safely used for raw milk cheesemaking and must be pasteurised.

But raw milk produced conscientiously from healthy animals kept outside on healthy pasture managed with a rotational grazing system and used while still fresh (preferably still warm from the udder), can create cheese that’s very safe to eat.

Milk’s microbes can be trusted because they’re meant to be there. And the fermentation that happens in a traditional cheesemaking practice seems to create a sort of immune system that protects the milk, in perhaps the same way that beneficial microbes helps to protect an infant.

You can make raw milk cheese naturally in clean but not necessarily sterile conditions, and the cheeses won’t show signs of microbiological contamination because the cultures that grow in them are strong and biodiverse and capable of controlling unwanted microbiological developments.

All over the world, cheesemakers are restricted from making cheese in what should be a very natural process. Home cheesemakers as well are discouraged from taking up a natural approach to the craft, for access to the best possible material for making cheese – raw milk that’s still warm from the udder – is illegal to purchase in most jurisdictions. What other artisans or agriculturalists are restricted from having the best possible material for their craft?

Evidence of the effectiveness and purposefulness of raw milk’s microbes can be seen atop a bucketful of whey leftover from natural cheesemaking. It will grow an intricately wrinkled layer of fine white fungus of a species known as Geotrichum candidum, native to raw milk. And no matter how long the whey is left out – weeks, months – the Geotrichum seems to protect the whey (and raw milk) against the development of unwanted bacteria and fungi, and will never show signs of contamination.

How Do You Make Cheese Naturally?

There are two simple home made starters that can be the foundation of a safe and effective natural cheesemaking practice – Clabber and Kefir.

Clabber (see recipe) is a delicious fermented milk not unlike yogurt, but much easier to make. The clabber can be kept, much like a sourdough starter, by regularly feeding it fresh milk. A well-tended clabber culture can be used as a source of a diversity of microorganisms to help you make a diversity of cheeses.

If you don’t have access to raw milk, Kefir culture, a symbiosis of bacteria, fungi and yeasts that live together in touchable colonies known as kefir grains, can also be used for dairy fermenting or cheesemaking. This kefir culture, when added to pasteurized milk, effectively unpasteurises it.

The kefir culture can be gifted from a friend or bought online. Once you have the culture you need to feed it every day with fresh or pastuerised milk. If you need to rest your culture it will be ok in the fridge for up to a week. The recipe is about a tablespoon of culture for two cups of milk. Before you feed it, strain off the kefir (which looks like drinking yoghurt) and that is what you use as your starter culture.

A quarter cup (60 ml) of clabber or cultured kefir per four litres of milk can be used as a starter culture to make all varieties of cheese.

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Clockwise from top left: Straining milk kefir culture; Kefir grains; Draining curd; Cream; Geotrichum on whey; Clabber. Photos by Kelly Brown

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Recipe: Clabber Culture

When raw milk is left at room temperature it doesn’t go bad – it goes different. Unlike pasteurised milk, which must be kept refrigerated, raw milk ferments naturally as a result of a community of beneficial microorganisms that is meant to be in milk. Leave one cup (240 ml) of fresh raw milk out at ambient temperature in a covered jar, and the milk will ferment in between two and four days as the milk’s indigenous microorganisms transform the lactose into lactic acid. As the milk becomes more and more acidic, it will curdle. That curdled milk is clabber.

Take a small amount (5 ml) of that first batch of clabber and mix it into another cup (240 ml) of fresh raw milk and leave that milk out to ferment. The second batch of clabber will turn faster and be more delicious than the last. This is because you have now added an active starter culture to the milk that causes the fermentation to happen more quickly. The rapid acidification prevents the growth of unwanted microbes and pathogenic bacteria. The growth of salmonella, listeria, and e.coli, for example are known to be controlled by acidity.

If this clabber culture is fed on a daily basis it will ferment safely, predictably and deliciously (and even show raw milk’s native Geotrichum candidum fungus growing on top). If you can’t feed your clabber daily, you can leave it in the refrigerator for up to a week. When your next get your raw milk you can feed that clabber again and use the week-old starter for making your cheeses with the fresh milk.

Interestingly, though raw milk is needed to start a clabber culture, once the culture is fermenting it can be fed pasteurised milk. So long as that pasteurised milk is fresh (preferably less than two days old) the clabber will taste good and can be used as a starter for a batch of natural pasteurised milk cheese.

Recipe: Skyr (Cream Cheese)

Skyr is a simple fresh cheese can be made by draining clabber in cloth. Skyr was made traditionally in Iceland and many other northern European countries (also known as Quark in Germany, and Tvarog in Russia).

A bucket of fresh, whole, unhomogenised cows’ milk (pasteurised or raw) is left out to ferment with an added active starter culture (1/4 cup clabber or kefir per four litres of milk). After about 24 hours at room temperature (less in warmer weather) the milk will thicken and separate into two distinct layers: a cr.me fraiche-like layer on top, and a skimmed milk curd down below (you should see the fluffy white growth of Geotrichum candidum atop the cream). If the milk is still liquid below wait a bit longer.

If you like, skim off the cream to make cultured butter (see Sm.r recipe). Then take the curds underneath and drain them through a cheesecloth-lined colander. Have a vessel underneath to collect the whey. Leave to drain overnight and by morning your Skyr will be ready to eat with fresh fruit or granola for breakfast. The whey will be an excellent fertiliser for your garden.

Recipe: Smør (Cultured Butter)

When making Skyr, the fermented cream can be skimmed off the top of the custard-like curd by hand and churned into butter (Sm.r, pronounced SMEE-oorr). You can also use pastuerised store-bought cream. Put the thickened cream into a jar (but only fill it halfway), and shake it till you make it: the butter should separate out within 2-10 minutes. Drain the butter from its buttermilk (another delicious by-product) and knead it to remove any excess. Then add 2% salt by weight (until the butter tastes just right), and let the salt pull any residual moisture out.

David Asher works to reestablish natural cheesemaking methods in cheesemaking cultures around the world, offering workshops with dairy farmers, cheesemakers and cheese lovers from British Columbia to Tasmania. He is currently planning a 2019 workshop tour to Australia.

Find out about his upcoming classes at www.theblacksheepschool.com  @theblacksheepschool

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