Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Pint for Cheddar

What comes to mind when I say, "pint and Cheddar"?

No doubt a pint of amber ale. It is, after all, an excellent, potable accompaniment to a hunk of farmhouse Cheddar.

But there's another kind of pint that a traditional, British cheesemaker might think of, a pint starter.

Typically--and hopefully--pints close, not start, a day in the dairy. A drink in the pub after a day of full-on, physical cheesemaking (or even cheesemongering) is just what you need.

For some cheesemakers, however, usually the farmstead ones in the U.K., pints also start the day. In this case, I'm talking about pints of starter cultures.

Starter cultures are one of the very few ingredients that go into making cheese. The others, besides milk, are salt and rennet. Each of these basic components play an integral role in turning perishable liquid milk into a solid food substance that can potentially keep for years and still taste like something would want to eat and pay good money for.

Starter cultures are harmless bacteria that are added to the milk to convert lactose, the sugar in milk, into lactic acid. Unpasteurized milk can do this on its own, without the addition of starter cultures, but results are unpredictable. By using specific lactic acid bacteria that have a proven track record of producing good-quality cheese and that behave in predictable ways (e.g., how quickly they will acidify the milk, how they will fare at particular temperatures, how they will tolerate salt, and how they will influence the final taste & texture of the cheese), cheesemakers can maintain more control of their craft.

Control, however, isn't always a good thing. Nuance, depth, and terroir can be lost when cheesemakers rely on freeze-dried packet starters, usually made in laboratories in the Netherlands or Denmark. As mentioned above, their use increases the chance of a well-made cheese, but these bacteria, isolated in a lab, have very little to do with the area in which the cheese originated.

To get a cheese to speak of place and tradition rather than of a modern, controlled factory, some daring folks in the cheese world continue to use pint starters. They look like old-fashioned, home-delivered pints of milk (see the photo above), but inside them, along with the pasteurized, semi-skim milk, are active strains of bacteria that are native to the place in which the cheese is made, or that have been used for generations in that area.

It takes skill, faith, and commitment to use pint starters. First, you have to hunt down a source for them. As far as I know, there's only one supplier in the U.K, Barber's. It's thanks to this cheese-making family in Somerset that pint starters continue to exist at all. Once the frozen pints have been ordered and safely shipped to your farm (not always a guarantee, especially if you live far away from Somerset, say on an island in Scotland) you must store them properly, i.e., frozen, until you are ready to use them. This takes planning. Whereas users of freeze-dried starter cultures can just tear open a foil packet at the moment they are ready to add the starter to a vat of warm milk, the folks who use pint starters have to thaw the pint the day before making a batch of cheese. When thawed, the contents are poured into a specific amount of pasteurized milk (to have a neutral environment for the bacteria to grow). Then the cheesemaker has to incubate the stew of bacteria overnight at a controlled temperature (see photo above for the space age-looking container in which Westcombe Dairy in Somerset incubate the starter). The next morning the right amount of the frothy starter has to be added to the vat of milk for cheesemaking to begin. The stuff that's added looks and tastes like yogurt. I've tried it before and have had it with my cereal for breakfast, as Mary Quicke does every morning. Yum!

But the resulting cheese tastes even better.

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