What is Artisan Cheese?
What does "artisan" mean? Is it just a marketing ploy?
If anyone knows cheese, it’s Ray Rumiano, our co-founder. As a 4th generation co-owner of Rumiano Cheese Company and General Manager of Board at Home, cheese may very well have been his first word. Want to know what artisan cheese is all about? Ray’s just the guy to fill us in. Our latest blog post is direct from Ray and breaks it all down.
After growing up in the cheese industry and spending copious amounts of time in the aging cellar, I decided to learn the craft of cheese making. Armed with a recipe for an obscure Basque cheese, my copy of “Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking” (shoutout to Gianaclis Caldwell), a friend, and a vision, I made my first batch of cheese. Through this process, I developed a love for these artisan cheeses that Board at Home believes in. Artisan cheesemakers aren’t just businesses. They are people. They are families. They are the pioneers and rebels in a world of commodities. The cheeses they make are based on the intention of doing the right thing by the land, the animals, and society. The commitment to craft and care shows in the result with exceptional cheeses.
What is "artisan"?
Before getting into the “how”, let’s talk about the “what”. What is “artisan” cheese? Is it a marketing buzzword? Is it a sign of high quality or does it refer to cheese made in someone’s bathtub? There are plenty of nuances to the word and its use in food marketing, beyond a sales pitch.
Since 1983, the American Cheese Society, or ACS, has advocated, educated, and promoted the artisan and farmstead cheese industry throughout the United States, becoming an authority within the biz. The ACS defines artisan cheese as:
Cheeses produced primarily by hand in small batches, with a focus on traditional processes. Traditional processes include very little mechanization.
When I explain this concept in Virtual Tastings, I use the term “hands in the vat”. I'm referring to the cheesemaker using their hands in the cheesemaking vat, utilizing their senses, intuition, and experience during the making process. The hands are they key tool in the process, alongside knowledge of traditional methodology and process. Artisan is not a marketing ploy, but a mindset.
Now that we understand the definition of "artisan" cheesemaking, let’s take a look at the actual process. Below, you’ll find images of my cheesemaking experience to visually guide you through the process. My hopes are that you’ll come away appreciating these artisan cheeses in a new light, understanding the research, effort, and passion that goes into each artisan’s unique product.
Milk is the first step in cheese making. Milk’s properties can vary based on the feed of the animal, seasonality, or even if the animal has been stressed. Many artisan cheesemakers can sense these variations in their milk, but for consistency, use lab equipment to measure properties such as fat/protein/lactose content, pH, and if antibiotics are present. This helps with developing consistency in the end result.
Below, you'll see some of the tools used for testing the milk. For this batch of cheese (I named the cheese Lupine), I used an organic grass-fed Jersey cow's milk from a family owned dairy in Tomales, CA area.
The fresh milk is pumped into the large stainless steel vat at the beginning stages of the making process. Traditionally, these vats were made of copper or even wood. Some cheeses, such as Gruyère, still must be made in copper vats if they are to be called Gruyère.
Pasteurization is the heating of milk to kill and restrict the growth of "bad bacteria", prior to adding the “good bacteria'' (a.k.a.: cultures) into the milk. It also creates a “blank canvas” of the milk, developing consistency throughout the cheese makes.
Cheeses that are not pasteurized are called “raw”, and can have a variety of nuanced flavors due to the existence of microbes only found in the bioregion of the cheesemaker’s creamery. Board at Home offers a couple examples of raw milk cheeses in collections like (No) Picnic in the Park and Highway 1. More on raw milk cheeses in a later post.
After pasteurization, we add our cultures. Cultures are yeasts, molds, and/or bacteria that we add into the milk based on our goal result. Cultures are developed by “culture houses” and are commercially produced. Some cheesemakers produce their own cultures, which is a true testament to their skillsets and dedication to their craft. Self-made cultures can be inconsistent but produce complex cheeses full of nuance.
Once introduced to the milk, these microbes “wake up” and begin converting lactose into lactic acid. This is known as fermentation. This is just the beginning for these little microbes, as they will play a part in developing flavors and aromas of the cheeses, through the make and aging process.
Cups of pre-measured freeze dried cultures prepping for a nice swim in the freshly pasteurized milk. (No, those aren’t Dippin’ Dots!)
Once the cultures have fermented the lactose and the pH is within the range that we are looking for, we add our rennet, which curdles the milk. Rennet can be sourced from animals, developed in labs (microbial), or even produced using a variety of thistle plant. Lupine used animal based rennet to coagluate the milk.
This is my favorite part of the cheese making process. After adding the rennet, milk magically goes from liquid to solid – a sort of “milk Jello”. This is the process of coagulation. Yes, it’s similar to what occurs to old milk in the fridge.
In a nutshell, negatively charged “hairs” on the outside of proteins (technically known as casein proteins) are “clipped” off by the enzymes, which allows the proteins to stick together. This creates the backbone of cheese’s structure. There are numerous types of coagulation methods, such as acid coagulation, but we won’t cover that here. That's enough science talk, here's a handy .gif of the process:
5. Cutting and cooking
Once coagulation is achieved, we cut the mass of “milk Jello”, turning it into small portions known as curd. Depending on the variety of cheese being made, the cheesemaker will cut the curd smaller or larger. For example, Parmigiano Reggiano curd is cut into very small pieces known as grana which translates to “grain” in Italian. This ensures the appropriate amount of moisture is expelled from the curd. Other cheeses, such as a Brie, might be cut into very large pieces to retain moisture.
Here's what cutting the curd looks like. The stainless steel blades are called curd knives, extending to the bottom of the vat. Often times, cheesemakers will hand cut curd with very large knives (cue Crocodile Dundee). It's quite difficult to hand cut curd in consistent sizes, so I opt for the easy way.
After cutting, we “cook" the curd in the leftover liquid. This liquid is the whey and contains mostly water and protein. Simply put, we make a warm broth of whey and soak the curds, causing them to release moisture and “tighten” up. You can see the progression with the images below (yes, my hands are clean!).
A curd shortly after cutting, at the beginning stages of cooking. The curd is very fragile at this point, splitting upon pressure.
A curd mass after cooking for a period of time. Moisture levels are decreased and the body surface has tightened.
6. Moulding and brining
Once the curd has achieved the desired moisture content and pH level, we know it’s ready to put into our moulds. Cheese moulds can come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from simple cheese cloth moulding methods to hand made wooden boxes with holes drilled in them. When the moulds are chock full of curd, we apply pressure to compact all those curds into a mass, while also expelling extra moisture.
After we’ve moulded, and pressed the curd, we remove the newly formed wheels of cheese and place them in a brine. This brine is a nearly saturated bath of salt and water and Calcium Chloride (CaCl). This brine helps add flavor to the cheese, but also helps prevent the further acidification (remember, those cultures are still fermenting lactose into lactic acid!) on the surface of the cheese.
Cheese wheel moulds, prepared for packing with curd. These moulds have "microperforations" that allow moisture (whey) to expell from the curds when pressure is added.
Wheels of cheese, freshly removed from the moulds. You can see the curd junctions where curds were forced together and consolidated.
Freshly pressed wheels, added to a tote of brine. These wheels will stay in the brine for many hours.
After brining, we remove the wheels and begin the aging process, or as the French say, “affinage”. Affinage requires its own entire post, so I’ll leave the highly technical detail for another time. In the most simple of terms, affinage (or aging) is about controlling the microbial activity on and within the cheese via environmental controls like humidity, air flow and temperature. Depending on the cheese variety, the aging room or "cave" will host different parameters and care-taking methods. Bloomy rinds (think brie or camembert) require a high humidity with light airflow to allow the Penicilium Candidum to grow on the outside. Then, the wheels are patted and turned often by the affineur.
Lupine went through a process called washing, where I introduced yeast and bacteria to the surface to develop a bacterially ripened rind. After the rind had developed to a point of satisfaction, I then modified the process and allowed the rind to dry through the rest of it’s aging process. I had the luxury of building a purpose-built cave in our aging cellar that allowed me to control the environment for the Lupine wheels while aging.
A wheel of Lupine about mid-way through the affinage process. Note the orange hues caused by the bacterial and yeast colonies. This is encouraged through the washing process.
The same wheel of Lupine at the end of it's affinage process. It's drier to the touch, and deeper in color. The colonies have developed a rind as intended.
After approximately 5 months of affinage, the cheese was ready to sample. This was a significant day. I was nervous, proud, and exhausted. The entire process, from milk to aged cheese was just about 6 months and not a second of it didn't come with worry that I'd ventured into a fool's errand. The real win was sharing the fruits of my stress-ridden labors with my friend and family. I'll let you decide if it was tasty or not.
This is just a glimps into the complexities of artisan cheesemaking (we didn't even get into my flawed recipe!). My journey was a challenge to my own perspectives of perfection, and a humbling learning experience where I developed a true appreciation for what our artisan cheesemakers do on a daily basis. I didn’t have the opportunity to continue honing my craft, but what I gained in perspective and appreciation was more valuable than cheese I could taste or sell. Appreciation for slow, intentionally made cheeses, created with passion and love.
If you can take anything from this post, let it be that the artisan cheesemaker is not just a marketing ploy. It's a dedication. It's a discipline that takes intuition, knowledge, and heart.
Support your local artisan cheesemaker.
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