After only one taste of some deliciously nutty Amish swiss cheese, I wanted to know whether cheesemaking had to be left to the experts or if I could set out on my own. So I stopped in at Jack Phillips' Lancaster County Swiss Cheese Company near Bird-in-Hand, Pa.
When I arrived, Phillips was pumping partly skimmed milk into old-fashioned copper kettles. As I watched, looking through the picture window in the adjacent cheese store, he added the starter, which is responsible for the flavor, body, texture and -- most important -- the holes in his sweet, metallic-tasting cheese. After he added the rennet, made from the curdling enzymes that occur naturally in the stomachs of unweaned animals, Phillips left his vats, which hold 350 gallons each, and strolled over to chat. As we talked, local Amish walked in and out, dressed in their traditional plain dress, and bought the freshly aged cheese from Amish salesgirls.
"Id'd bet that some of the best cheese in the world comes from Vermont and New York," Phillips said. "And there's as much difference between those two cheddars as there is between Reblochon and Beaumont, just a few villages away from each other in France. It's just that the European cheese industry started earlier on their local cheese farms. Our country went full speed ahead into cheesemaking only after the beginning of the age of mechanization. It didn't take long for small cheesemakers to give up as the industry went from individuals to cooperatives and moved westward to Wisconsin.
"There aren't too many small cheesemakers like us left, only two in this area that I know of," Phillips said as we walked down the steps into the huge room with the 12 copper kettles, thick with the sweet smell of heated milk. Originally over this cheesemaking factory in 1973 because he knew the Amish demand fresh cheese such as schmierkase, a form of cottage cheese often homemade. Phillips' milk comes from the surrounding farms.
Phillips' swiss (though not necessarily the swiss coming from larger firms) starts from raw milk. The starter and cultures kill off any harmful bacteria within the 60 days the federal government requires unpasteurized cheese to be aged before it can be sold.
As i bit into some sample cheese, Phillips introduced Norman Stolzfus, one of his helpers, a bearded, overalled Amishman, and Roland Berthoud, his Swiss cheesemaker. Berthoud takes some Amish swiss cheese home to Switzerland every year. "My village likes our cheese better than their own. Ours is a little bit softer and creamier," he said.
Phillips proceeded to cut the curd with a swiss cheese harp, a hand-held instrument whose strings, resembling a musical harp's strings, provide the cutting edges. "I do this for about 10 minutes to cup up the curds into the size of wheat corns," he said. Gradually the particles of curd broke apart into small pieces. Then Phillips set the automatic stirrer at minutes.
Phillips said the most significant problem in making cheese is handling the bacterial cultures. "That's why I think anyone who makes cheese at home, other than simple curd cheese, is crazy."
When Phillips' new-formed curds reached the right degree of dryness, he directed his men to wrap them in cheesecloth and press them into a mold. The workers continue to turn the cloth packages for 24 hours, releasing still more whey and firming the cheese.
"The difference between making cheddar and what you're seeing right now is in the cheddaring process," said Phillips. "But you'll have to go to Vermont or New York to see the real thing."
That trip wasn't possible just then, but I chatted with Bob Haseltine, of Grafton (Vt.) Village Cheese by phone.
"Vermont cheddar is probably the best in the country because Vermont has better cows and we use the freshest raw milk possible," Haseltine declared. He makes about 450,000 pounds of cheese a year and is adamant about not increasing production.
"This is the best we want to do," he said.
Cheddar cheese originated in Cheddar, a village in somersetshire in the west of England, but this whole milk cheese family has branched out to include longhorn, Monterey jack, colby, cracker barrel and even so-called "American" cheese. The difference in the preparation of cheddar and swiss cheese is in the cheddaring process. whereas Phillips wraps up his curds in cheesecloth, cheddar cheese makers stack the long slabs of curd, or "cheddar" them, to release the whey. The bacteria in the stacked curd starts to develop acidity, crunchiness and the general flavor characteristic of cheddar cheese.
Confronted with clothwrapped future swiss cheeses, contemplating those trays of curds quietly cheddaring in Vermont, it was inevitable that my thoughts would turn to that best-known of U.S. cheeses -- rubbery American process.
"I'll probably blow up the American cheese market in Washington but I'll tell you what it really is," Phillips said. "Basically American cheese is the melting pot cheese of America. Primarily made from cheddar which for one reason or another is unacceptable, it's melted down and then poured into two- to three-pound molds before it is sliced. In the trade we call these cheeses which can't make it 'grinders.' A whole industry has grown up around grinders, including American process cheese and Velveeta. In our factory we take the end pieces of swiss cheese without the holes, melt it down and sell it as processed swiss 'fondue.'"
I left Phillips as he checked on yesterday's cheese sitting in the brine in a nearby cold room, appreciating why making cured cheese is better left to specialists. But I was still eager to make uncured curd cheese. So I snooped a bit around the Washington area.
Cesare Mazzocchi of Italia Delicatessen in Silver Spring, I learned, was not satisfied with the commercial mozzarella sold in this country. He remembered how his mother in Naples made her own curd cheese from buffalo milk and then melted it down to mozzarella. He went to Philadelphia to learn how to make fresh, whole milk mozzarella. "I buy the curd cheese instead of making it myself because it takes too much time and too much milk (a half-gallon) for just one pound of cheese," he said, with a Neapolitan flourish.
I found it not that time-consuming. Soon I had dripped my whey into curd cheese, melted down the curd into mozzarella, tossed it with pasta one day, served it cold with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil sliced tomatoes and fresh basil another and oozed through mozzarella in carrozza a third.
FRESH CHEESE WITH HERBS Makes about 4 cups 1/2 gallon whole milk 1 rennet tablet (See note) 1 shallot or 1 scallion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 2 tablespoons chopped chives 2 tablespoons freshly chopped basil or tarragon Chopped olives (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste Heavy or sour cream or yogurt as desired
1. Bring the milk to wrist temperature on medium low heat. (If it is to hot the rennet will not work.) Dissolve the rennet in 2 tablespoons of cold water and add it to the milk. Stir well to mix and remove from the heat. Let stand covered with a large plate or towel until well curdled, about a half hour, then cut with a knife to let the whey escape.
2. When the separation is very visible, spoon the curds into a colander lined with a cheesecloth. Let stand overnight or at least 12 hours. You will lose about 8 cups of whey.
3. If you desire a smooth consistency whirl the cheese in the blender or food processor. Add the herbs and seasonings to taste (use your imagination, tastebuds and what is in your refrigerator). Let steep well before serving, adding heavy or sour cream or yogurt or a mixture to taste.
Each day you hold the cheese in the refrigerator there will be additional separation, with the curd becoming dryer. Just remove the whey and add creams to taste.
Note: Rennet tablets are sold at many drugstores or as plain junket tablets in the pudding section of grocery stores.
ITALIA'S WHOLE MILK MOZZARELLA CHEESE Makes 3 or 4 1/2-pound or 3/4-pound cheeses 3 quarts water 1/4 cup salt or to taste 2 pounds curd cheese (See recipe below)
1. Cut the curd into 1-inch strips. The store-bought curd, made from unhomogenized milk, will have a tighter consistency that will make a tighter mozzarella. Homemade curd cheese made from homogenized milk produces a dryer, less stringy mozzarella.
2. Heat the water to boiling, and add the salt.
3. Place your cheese in the sink in a large pan. Using a saucepan, take some hot water from the big container and cover the curd cheese with it. Turn the cheese gently with a spoon. It will start to string. When the water cools to the touch, replace most of it with more hot water. The cheese will continue to soften and string. Continue stirring the cheese to loosen it up and make it stringier. With the spoon pull it until it becomes as thin as a veil. Repeat, using more hot water and stirring if necessary.
4. Then put on rubber gloves and take a ball of cheese in your hands. (This step will be easier with the bought curd than with homemade.) First rinse the cheese under cold running water. Then squeeze it, shaping into balls about the size of large plums. Or make boccincini (mouthful) sizes. Return the cheese to the brine, cover with a towel, let sit for at least 30 minutes and then eat when the whim hits you.
5. Next day, if the cheese is still around, refrigerate it in the brine. It will keep about one week.
CURD CHEESE Makes about 2 pounds 1 gallon whole milk (unhomogenized if you can find it) 1/3 cup white vinegar 2 rennet tablets
Heat the milk to body temperature, about 90 degrees. Add the vinegar and then the rennet dissolved in 2 tablespoons water. Mix quickly. Keep at 90 degrees for 30 minutes. Let sit off heat for 30 minutes more.
Place the cheese in a cheese cloth in a Chinese colander or merely hang over a bowl to catch the whey. Let the whey drip off and the curd solidify at least a half-hour, more if needed for it to become a solid mass. Then proceed as above.
Alternatively you can buy curd cheese from the Italian Store in Arlington and Italia in Silver Spring. The cost will be quite different, however. By making the cheese yourself it will cost you $1.75 or so for a gallon of milk as opposed to the $2.95 a pound for the curd cheese. Fresh whole milk mozzarella costs $3.25 to $3.85 a pound in the specialty stores like Italia, the Italian Store, and Vace in Washington. Starting from scratch it will cost you about $1 a pound if you count all costs, and the job will take less time than going out to buy the curd cheese!
I'm persuaded that cheddar cheese is best left to the experts, but I can't bear not to share this old recipe just in case you happen to have your own cows.
CHEDDAR CHEESE An 18th century English recipe
Take the milk of 12 cows in the morning and the evening cream of 12 cows (24 milkings must be used: 12 morning milks and 12 panfuls set the night before, so the cream will have risen in time to add to the morning milk), and put to it three spoonsful of rennet, and when it is come [i.e. the curd] break it, and whey it, and when it is well wheyed break it again, and work into the curd three pounds of fresh butter, and put it in your press, and turn it in the press for an hour, or more, and change the cloth and wash them every time you change them; you may put wet cloths at first on to them, but towards the last put two or three fine dry cloths to them. Let it lie 30 or 40 hours in the press, according to the thickness of the cheese; then take it out and wash it in whey, and lay it in a dry cloth till it is dry, then lay it on your shelf, and turn it often.