By Cinda Chavich | Photos by Kelly Brown
David Asher draws the blade slowly through a big pot of jiggly warm junket, the product of raw milk softly coagulated with kefir grains and rennet. Cutting this curd, and releasing the whey that it holds, is a universal step in making almost every cheese, from Camembert to cheddar. But for Asher, teaching these traditional cheesemaking skills is more than an educational event; it’s stirring the pot of a food revolution.
“I’m a guerrilla cheesemaker — I make cheese illegally,” he tells the group of 20 students packed into a room at Nourish restaurant for an afternoon session of The Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking.
“I’ve been making cheese for 10 years, but I am making it underground. I can’t sell it — I give it away and share it with friends.”
What’s illegal about Asher’s cheese is the raw material — the raw, unpasteurized milk from his own organic farm and others on Salt Spring Island. He’s among a growing group of food activists who believe that denying consumers access to fresh raw milk (it’s illegal to buy or sell raw milk in Canada) is a symptom of a food system gone wrong.
Asher’s new book The Art of Natural Cheesemaking is a kind of cheesemaker’s manifesto, arguing that making raw-milk cheese is one step along the road to food sovereignty. Like naturally fermented kimchi and kraut, backyard chickens or DIY kombucha, it’s all part of the growing movement to put food production back in the hands of the people.
“Industry and science hijacked cheesemaking from the artisans and farmers some 150 years ago, and since then, few new styles of cheese have been created,” Asher writes, “yet during that time, hundreds, possibly thousands, of unique cheeses have been lost.
“Cheese comes from the land and is one of our most celebrated foods,” he adds, “yet its current production methods are environmentally destructive, corporately controlled, and chemically dependent.”
Asher says pasteurization strips fresh milk of all the natural cultures that create great cheeses, and that making natural cheese is just one of the DIY skills that is part of a healthy sustainable food system.
But even if you’re not ready to take on Big Dairy, learning how to make fresh cheese at home is both fascinating and fun.
The Cheesemaking Curve
Asher urges students in his cheesemaking courses to go cross-border shopping for raw milk — each person can legally bring 20 kilograms of milk, cheese or dairy products into Canada, including legal raw milk. Otherwise, he says, start with very fresh, local pasteurized milk that’s been inoculated with milk kefir grains, the live culture used to make the fermented probiotic milk beverage called kefir. The kefir, he says, repopulates the milk with “a diverse community of bacteria, yeast and fungi” that’s required for cheesemaking, eliminating the need to use commercially produced freeze-dried cultures.
The cheesemaking learning curve can be as steep as you want to make it. And the easiest place to start is culturing a little crème fraîche and yogurt, or making a batch of paneer, sweet ricotta or fresh mozzarella.
My first foray into cheesemaking was kneading hot curds into fresh balls of mozzarella with Ella Kinloch of Make Cheese Inc., a mail-order home-cheesemaking business based in Calgary. She sells cheesemaking kits and supplies through makecheese.ca, including rennet, commercial cultures, waxes and molds, with video tutorials and recipes. There are other sources of cheesemaking supplies, including Glengarry Cheesemaking in Ontario (glengarrycheesemaking.on.ca). Lifestyle Markets sells organic milk, kefir and yogurt cultures, and rennet.
David Asher’s book eschews commercial kits and gives step-by-step advice for creating your own cultures, even how to grow blue mold for blue cheese and how to harvest rennet. You’ll also find tips for improvising with everyday household equipment, including fashioning a cheese press with plastic buckets.
Making cheese is a bit of a science experiment, but it’s a thrill when it works. I’ve cultured beautiful crème fraîche in 24 hours on the kitchen counter, made mason jars of spritzy probiotic milk kefir to drink, and quick ricotta with nothing more than a gallon of milk, a little fresh lemon juice and a bit of cheesecloth.
Chevre and mozzarella are easy to make at home. But once you start with these simple fresh cheeses — so perfect to serve alongside summer fruits — you may get hooked and delve deeper into the art and science of it.
Cheesemaking is also a great skill to cultivate if you have a small farm or access to fresh cow, goat, sheep or, if you’re lucky, water buffalo milk. It’s the traditional way to ensure no fresh milk goes to waste, and the whey left over from the cheesemaking process can be used to feed farm animals, water plants, make biscuits and borscht, or even start more cheese.
Asher is a bit of a celebrity in the world of natural cheese, and he lives right in our backyard. When I met him, he was off to the U.S. and then to Australia to spread the radical word of raw-milk cheesemaking, but you may find him setting up another of his travelling cheese schools in the city again soon.
“The methods described herein challenge the beliefs of the conventional cheesemaking paradigm,” Asher writes in his breakthrough book. “I will show you how to take back your cheese.” So much political power in a creamy pot of curd.
• 1 gallon (4 L) milk — and almost any milk will do!
• 1⁄2 cup (120 mL) vinegar (or 1 cup [240 mL] lemon juice, or 1⁄2 gallon [2 L] yogurt or kefir)
• 1 tablespoon (15 mL) salt (optional)
• 2-gallon (8-L) capacity heavy-bottomed pot
• Wooden spoon
• Medium-sized wire strainer
• Steel colander
• Large bowl
• Homemade cheese press—two matching yogurt containers, one with holes punched through from the inside with a skewer
Time Frame: 2 hours
Yield: Makes about 11⁄2 pounds (700 g) cheese
Bring the milk to a boil over medium-high heat. Be sure to stir the pot nonstop as the milk warms to prevent its scorching on the bottom; tthe more time you spend stirring, the less time you’ll spend scouring! As well, stirring promotes presence of mind and keeps you focused on the milk, which may boil over if forgotten.
Let the milk rest by cooling it in its pot for a minute or two. Letting the milk settle will slow its movement and help ensure good curd formation. Pour in the vinegar or lemon juice, and gently stir the pot once or twice to ensure an even mixing of the acid. Do not overstir; the paneer curds are sensitive when they’re fresh and can break apart if overhandled. Watch as the curds separate from the whey. Let the curds settle for 5 minutes. As they cool, the curds will continue to come together. As they become firm, they will be more easily strained from the pot.
Carefully strain the curds: With a wire-mesh strainer, scoop out the curds from the pot, and place them to drain in a colander resting atop a bowl that will catch the warm whey. Pouring the whole pot through the colander is not recommended, as the violent mixing that results can make it difficult for the cheese to drain. Add spices or salt (optional). If you wish to flavour your paneer or queso fresco, consider adding various herbs or spices to the curds before they are pressed. Now is also the best time to add salt.
Press the curds (optional): Transfer the paneer curds from the colander into a form while they are still warm, and place the cheese-filled form atop a draining rack. Fill up the follower with hot whey, and place atop the form to press the curds firm. The paneer is ready as soon as the curd has cooled. It can be taken out of the form and used right away, or refrigerated in a covered container for up to 1 week. Paneer, unlike other cheeses, can also be frozen.