Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tragedy for Cheese Makers in Italy

The quake struck the Emilia Romagna region 30 miles north of Bologna
Millions of dollars worth of cheese ruined

Our hearts go out to the people of northern Italy for their terrifying experience with the earthquake Sunday, May 20.

At this time, 4500 people are displaced, many are injured and at least 7 are dead.  Architecture which has endured for centuries is rubble.

This clock tower later came completely down during an aftershock.  (Source:  Reuters)
 AFP Photo / Pierre Teyssot
(Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

Our sympathy is for everyone involved, of course.  However, because we are cheese makers, we identify in particular with the producers of Parmesan and Grana Padano cheese.  That area of Italy, north of Bologna, is the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Parmesan and part of the PDO for Grana Padano.  (That means it is the only place in the world where Parmesan can be labelled as such.)

Photo by Giuseppe Cacase, AFP, Getty Images

During the earthquake and the aftershocks, thousands of wheels of cheese fell from their shelves in the warehouses of the area with millions of dollars worth of damages.  It is estimated that 10% of Parmesan production and at least 2% of Grana Padano production has been impacted.

Oriano Caretti looks at the overturned shelves with Parmesan wheels in his Parmesan cheese factory in San Giovanni in Persiceto, Italy, Monday, May 21, 2012.  (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

There were 10 damaged warehouses with 300,000 wheels of Parmesan-Reggiano and 100,000 wheels of Grana Padano in them.  (Each wheel weighs an average of 88 pounds.)  Half of them are estimated to be at least a partial loss.  It represents the work of 7 companies for 2 years.

Photo by Giuseppe Cacase, AFP, Getty Images

Some of the wheels are being salvaged and moved to other warehouses, and some will be sold for grating and for packaged foods, but that will be only a fraction of their full value as aged Parmesan-Reggiano.

Photo by Giuseppe Cacase, AFP, Getty Images

From Reuters:

"We've lost two years of work," said Lorenza Caretti, whose family runs the Sant' Angelo cheese cooperative in the town of San Giovanni in Persiceto.

"We may be able to sell some of it for use in melted cheese products but that has only 20 percent of the value of the real thing," she said by telephone.

She said 22,000 wheels of hard cheese fell over in their warehouse during the quake.

"We still can't see the floor in many places," she said. "We will be lucky if we can somehow save half of it."

Production of milk used for cheese making in the area was also affected because many cows died in the collapse of stables or were left traumatized by the quake and its aftershocks, affecting the output and quality of milk.

The day after the earthquake, and now, after all they have lost, cheese makers in the area are making cheese.  They have no choice, because the milk keeps coming. 

Supporting the Cheese Makers

Ricki (our Cheese Queen) had a good idea- If they could market and sell the damaged cheese as Earthquake Cheese, we could buy it as a way of supporting the cheese makers from that area.

Before the Earthquake

Photo credit: J.P. Lon

If you are interested in the process of making Parmesan and Grana Padano, there is a delightful segment in Cheese Slices by Will Studd (a series of videos) about making it.  These large wheels of cheese are made in over 500 small dairies, each of which makes an average of only 10 per day.  They are then aged in warehouses operated by a consortia (since 1955).  They are aged for different lengths of time up to 30 months.  While aging, they are turned and rubbed by large robots controlled by computer. 

It's an unusual system and it's difficult to describe, so I found the post below which I think captures the feel of how they make Parmesan:

Justin Watt in India during his trip around the world
A taste of Parma
By Justin Watt at Justinsomnia
July 11,2010

Note: Justin is one of those fascinating people who seems to do everything in life you wish you could do (like travel around the world).  He has a great blog (Justinsomnia) where he explores ideas about food, travel, technology and the outdoors.

Parma started out as a whim. I mean, when people think about visiting Italy they usually think: Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Milan—not Parma. But while looking at the cities between Florence and France, I thought to myself, “Hey we like Parmesan and Prosciutto, let’s go to Parma!” At least I figured we’d get to taste some cheese.

In the end we spent four nights at the friendly, family-owned Camping Arizona, we visited each of the Musei del Cibo (the incredible, I-can’t-believe-they-actually-exist “Museums of Food”: Parmesan, Prosciutto, Salami, and Tomato) and we discovered something even better than prosciutto: culatello. Though we never ended up in the city of Parma itself, we fell in love with the countryside. And it’s where, I can say with confidence, that I finally started to feel comfortable driving with a stick-shift.

This is Parmesan country

The real gem of our trip to Parma was visiting C.P.L., a working caseificio, one of over 400 independent “cheese factories” within the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium. Each makes what we commonly refer to as Parmesan: the famous hard Italian cheese that comes in 40kg (88lbs) wheels and fractions thereof (not the stuff that comes in green cylinders labeled “Kraft”).

A traditional copper kettle for making Parmesan cheese next to a modern one at the Museo del Parmigiano-Reggiano in Soragna

Inside a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory

Milk arrives at the factory twice a day. The evening milk is left out overnight to allow the cream to rise to the surface. The cream is removed in the early morning to make butter (long-time readers might recall my previous post: The King of Butter), and then the “skimmed-milk” is combined with the morning’s whole, full-fat milk to make that day’s cheese: about 1,200 liters (317 gal) in each conical copper kettle.

Using a spinatura to cut the curd into rice-sized pieces

The cheese maker monitors the temperature and checks the curds

A portion of the whey from the previous day’s cheese making acts as the starter culture (kind of like bread making). Every day some whey is reserved for this purpose, while the excess goes to the pigs used to make prosciutto. This is not only a happy-accident—the DOC regulations for Prosciutto di Parma stipulate that the pigs must be fed whey and other waste products from the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Whey being reserved as a starter for the next day's cheese

After being cooked, the entire 90kg (198 lbs) mass of cheese curds is lifted out of its whey by hand with a giant cheese cloth. It’s immediately cut in half, forming two 45kg (99 lbs) “twins,” each of which will become a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Cutting the 90kg (198 lbs) mass of cheese curds into “twins”

The twins draining

Lo-tech cheese presses

Once the wheels have dried for several days, they are moved to the brining tanks, where they float in salt-saturated water for more than 3 weeks. After that they are brought to the aging room, where they hang out for a minimum of one year, losing about 5kg (11 lbs) of mass in the process.

At that point each wheel of cheese is inspected, primarily by sound, to determine if it deserves the name Parmigiano-Reggiano. Some cheese can be sold shortly after this point. We tasted some 18 month Parmesan and found it to be rather bland, like a weak Emmental. However, the cheese that’s been aged at least 22 months (what most people know as Parmigiano-Reggiano) was something else: moist, tangy, and almost fruity. What a difference those 4 months make.

Wheels floating in the brining tanks

Cheese branded (inspected and approved) and aging

Lots of cheese

Lots and lots of cheese

The finished product

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hastings Farm in Suffield, Connecticut

Lauren Hastings
Some farms just make it look easy... 

Did you ever notice how some dairy farms are so beautiful, you can't believe anyone actually works there?

Hastings Farm is like that and it appears to be run efficiently by little invisible elves.  Of course, the elves are, in reality, the Hastings family and they have worked very hard for many generations.

Megan and her sister, Lauren are currently taking over the reins from their parents (and it appears that there will be future generations, as well, because Megan has two kids, 12 and 13 and Lauren has three kids, 6, 4 and 6 months).
Lauren's daughter, Samantha in the bo room

They recently re-did their website with all the information you might want about their farm and their products and a very active Facebook page, as well.  Megan Hastings told us,

"About 12 years ago someone gave me a 30 Minute Mozzarella Kit because we had a dairy farm and thought I could use it.  That's how it all started......  In August (2011) we began bottling our own milk and making yogurt.  Cheese has been a little bit of a transition - my minimum batch is 20 gallons!" 

We asked Megan what her future cheese plans were and she answered,

"This is a bad question to ask me, I want to make them all.  I love cheese!!!  Yogurt!!!  Ice cream!!!  Basically, I love all dairy products except milk, I don't drink it but I love anything made from it.  Next will probably be Feta and I want to start having fresh Mozzarella on the weekends.  Greek yogurt is my best seller and in the last 6 days I have used 90 gallons of milk for yogurt. AHHHH scary good!"

The pasteurizer was delivered before the make room was finished.
The Hastings Farm is fairly large, by New England standards.  They have 270 acres of land and over 300 cows, plus a small herd of beef cows.

In their popular farm store, they sell cream-top milk (un-homogenized) plain and flavored, yogurt (plain and Greek-style in several different flavors), yogurt dips (four flavors) and at least six different flavors of soft cheese (with more to come).

The Hastings also sell a wide variety of Cabot cheeses and butter.  You can buy all this at their farm store, plus all different cuts of beef, dog bones, organic free-range eggs, honey, maple syrup, jams & jellies, pickles, goat's milk soap & lotions and hand knitted items.  You will also find them at the farmer's markets in Suffield and East Granby.

If you bring any type of group, their farm tours are very well organized.  They provide activities including:

Butter making
Ice cream making
Feeding the cows or calves
Craft projects
Pumpkin painting (fall)
Cows make more than milk (an interesting look at other things cows make)
Good clean fun (soap making)
Nature walk
Hay rides (call for availability, weather permitting)

There are take-away packets and all the barns are handicapped accessible. They will even help Scout groups earn their badges!

The first chicken born

It all looks easy, but it should be noted that this is a New England farm, so there is the "other" season:

Hastings Farm
472 Hill Street, Suffield, CT 06078
1 mile from the turn off Mountain Road (Route 168)
(860) 668-7524


Store open daily 8:00am-6:30pm


Monday, May 14, 2012

Manchego with Dannon Nicholes

Dannon Nicholes stretching 30 Minute Mozzarella
No, that isn't Dannon stretching Manchego, but it sure is a cute picture, don't you think?

Dannon Nicholes started making cheese less than 1 year ago!  We have always said it's easy, but Dannon's rise to the top can only be described as meteoric.

Last January, Dannon was our guest blogger with one of his great posts - Making Parmesan with Dannon Nicholes from his blog, Dannon's Big Cheese.  (He recently ran a poll asking folks to vote for which cheese he should make next and it was a tie between traditional Cheddar and Provolone.)

One of the secrets to Dannon's amazing success as a cheese maker is his habit of recording everything in his cheese journal (see the second picture in his post below).  He never has to wonder what he did to make one cheese so good and one not so good.  It's all right there in his notebook. 

Regarding Manchego:  Our technical advisor, Jim Wallace has written a detailed recipe for this cheese (called Hispanico when it's made with cow's milk and Iberico when it's made with a mix of cow, goat and sheep milk).  No matter what kind of milk you use, this is a great cheese to make at home- easy, fast aging and oh, so delicious!  Thanks, Dannon.

Spanish Cheese, Manchego
By Dannon Nicholes at Dannon's Big Cheese

So, after making my first hard cheese, Farmhouse Cheddar, I looked for a hard cheese I could make that did not need to take very long to age.  For those who know me well, I have little patience and so it has been really hard for me not to cut open my cheddar and see how it tastes.  So, I found one.  This is a Spanish cheese and it is called Manchego.  It is traditionally made from sheep milk but I used cow since I do not have access to sheep.  I was quite excited to try it since I lived in Spain for two years and enjoyed several of the cheeses there.

First, there are several types of Manchego. There is Manchego Fresco (fresh) which can be aged anywhere from a couple of days up to 2 weeks, Manchego Curado (Cured) aged three to six months and then, there is Manchego Viejo (old) which is aged at least one year.

Ingredients with my ever faithful cheese journal

 So, first the ingredient list:

    2 gallons 2% milk
    1 packet mesopholic starter
    1 packet thermophilic starter
    1/2 tsp calcium chloride
    1/2 tsp rennet diluted in 1/4 cup water
    2 lbs canning salt or cheese salt
    1 gallon water

-I first added the milk and heated it to 86°F.

-After reaching this temperature, I turned off the heat and put in the calcium chloride mixed it up really well and then I put in both cultures.  Then I let it set for 45 minutes off the heat (I was using a double boiler).

-Next, I added the diluted rennet and stirred (checking the temperature and making sure it was staying at 86°F.)  When it dipped, I put it back on the heat.  I then let this set, covered, for 30 minutes.

Clean break of the curds

 -After getting a clean break, I cut the curds in to 1/2 inch cubes, then let it all set for 5 more minutes.

-Next came a new part for me and before I started I did not realize I had to sit there for 30 minutes stirring the curds with a whisk, gently changing the 1/2 inch cubes into little rice size curds.  For me it looked a lot like cottage cheese at first.

The curds while I stirred them

The curds near the end of the 30 minutes

-Now I heated the curds slowly to 104°F (increasing 2° every couple of minutes) stirring gently.

-Then, I let the curds set for 5 minutes.

-I then poured off the whey (keeping it to make whey ricotta out of it) and ladled the curds into a cheesecloth lined mold.

Pouring off the whey but still capturing any curds that sneak through

The curds after pouring off most of the whey

-Next, I pressed the bricks with the same crude press I used last time using 1 brick for every 5 lbs of pressure I needed.

-First 15 lbs for 15 minutes, then taking cheese out, flip it over and then back into the press.

-Repeat this 3 times but on the third time use 35 lbs (7 bricks) for 6 hours.

Manchego in mold after being pressed

Cheese out of mold, after being pressed

-Next, I created a salt brine solution by using 2 lbs of salt and 1 gallon of water.  I soaked the cheese in this brine for 6 hours at 55°F.

-After the 6 hours, I cut the brick of cheese in half, so that I can eat one as a Fresco and hopefully the other as a Curado.

-Now I coated both bricks of cheese (I estimate that each one was around 1lb so 2 lbs in total, but I need to get a food scale soon so I will know exactly) in olive oil.
For those who have been to Spain or know anything about the Spanish, they use olive oil for everything.  I was often told contradictory things that olive oil can do; for example, if you have a dry scalp use olive oil, if you have dandruff use olive oil, if you want to gain weight use olive oil, if you want to lose weight use olive oil, etc...  So in my mind, using the olive oil is what makes it very Spanish.

Me coating the Manchego in olive oil

So, that is it for this adventure and I am quite satisfied.  I did have some troubles at the beginning keeping the water at 86°F because it kept wanting to be a little higher.  I will have to figure out an easy way of keeping the temperature steady.  I am really excited to try this cheese in the next few days.  We will see if I can wait til the weekend before I break into it.

Now, I just need to flip it every day and rub off any mold that grows with some salt water.  Sometime soon I need to make some more cheddar because at work we will be having a chili cook-off and I want to bring my own cheese to put on top of it.

My cheese fridge in my basement.  The ones on the top row are my Farmhouse Cheddars coated in red wax and my Manchego below that is coated in olive oil.