"We're making cheese now if you want to watch again," called my neighbor from the doorway. "And mama has to fix some new rennet you may like to see how we do that."
Making cheese is like making bread: The feel — the liou, as they say here in Andalusia — has to be just right. And I was well on my way to the achievement of a proper queso de cabra or Andaluz goat's milk cheese, white as sun-bleached sheets. I'd mastered the liou of the consistency reasonably well but only while relying on commercially prepared rennet. My neighbors Juana and Maria, however, made their own cheese "starter", and I was anxious to learn how. Here, for any of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers who are interested, is a summary of the age-old lesson I was recently taught here in Spain.
The first step in making any type of cheese is to curdle the milk. Many agents for this purpose exist, and the texture of the finished product is determined to a great extent by which one is used. Traditionally, Andalusian goat's milk cheese — just like many others — is curdled with a natural product called rennet.
To produce rennet, the stomach is removed from a freshly killed suckling kid or lamb which has eaten no grass or other solid food. The organ's opening is tied securely and the stomach is rolled in ashes to coat it well. It's then hung to dry away from the direct sun, generally from the roof beams of a thatched cottage or in the shade of a grape arbor, but any warm, moisture-free, well-aired place is adequate. When the sac has dried thoroughly, the milk within will have been reduced to a brown powder.
At cheese making time, a small amount of the powder (a little less than 1/4 teaspoonful) is pulverized in a mortar, mixed with enough water to make a paste, and then thinned slightly with more water. That smidgen of powdered rennet — diluted with about 3/4 cup of liquid in all — will start about 12 two-pound cheeses each made with eight quarts of barely warm goat's milk and one tablespoon of the thickening solution. If the curd turns out too soft or too hard, the amount of rennet is increased or decreased to correct the consistency. (Although methods vary considerably from one area to another, most Andaluz cheese makers prefer a firm mixture. You probably will too. Let experience be your guide.)
Homemade rennet yields a superior cheese, unfortunately, at a relatively high price (equal to the value of the young animal which must be slaughtered to obtain the agent). That's why more and more Andalusian cheese now is being made with commercial rennet, which — used according to the manufacturer's directions — will produce a curd of the desired consistency
Our Andaluz neighbors make one to three two-pound cheeses each day (depending on the season and the amount of milk available), and here's the recipe they use:
For each round of the above weight, heat eight quarts of goat's milk to 86 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Liquid fresh from the morning milking, kept in metal containers, will probably be warm enough without heating. In any case, the fluid should be as fresh as possible (and it must never be boiled).
Add to the warmed milk about one tablespoon of homemade liquid rennet or a corresponding amount of the commercial powdered product. Blend in the thickening agent and leave the mixture to coagulate for 15 to 30 minutes. The curdling process is complete once the milk retains its shape when the container is tilted. You can then stir the curd to break it up, and spoon off or drain away the whey (which is saved and used later to make a second type of cheese). The stirring should be done fairly promptly once the makings have set, since coagulated milk takes on an unpleasant tart taste if allowed to stand too long.
When most of the whey has been removed, the curd is shaped into rounds. This is done on a plank wide enough and long enough to hold several two–pound cheeses. The portions of the board on which the molds stand are carved with a simple design — a crisscross, perhaps — and a drain track surrounds each patterned area and leads to the edge of the plank (where a container is placed to catch the whey).
The mold for a round is a belt approximately five inches wide and a yard long, woven of esparto grass fibers. This strap is curled to the desired diameter, placed on the plank over a carved section, and the curd is poured in and pressed with the hands to force out more whey. As the cheese begins to take shape, the belt is tightened if necessary to produce the right thickness. (The finished round should be about two inches deep and eight inches across.)
The people of Andalusia, of course, make cheese molds of esparto grass because the material is readily available and works well for the purpose. The traditional belt of woven vegetable fiber, however, might be successfully replaced by one of fine plastic or cloth screen, with two or three layers of the substitute material stitched together to form the proper mesh. Or the plank-and-belt method could be replaced entirely by any mold with suitable drainage, such as a round, low, flat-bottomed basket lined with cheesecloth or gauze. (In the U.S. and Canada, firm cheese is usually made in some type of weighted press which applies higher pressure than the device described here. — MOTHER.)
Whether you use esparto grass belts or some other molds, the method of making Andaluz cheese is the same: each round is rubbed with coarse sea salt after the initial pressing and left to drain for an hour or so. It's then turned over, pressed again with the hands, salted, and left to drain further. The turning, pressing, and salting are repeated two or three times, until the cheese is firm enough to be unbelted and lifted in the hands. When the curd passes this test, it can be placed in the form once again and left to drip into a container for 24 hours.
The following day, again rub each side of the cheese with coarse salt and brush off all excess grains. Then put the round in an airy place — on a wicker shelf, for instance — so that all sides may dry. If you must set the wheel on a plate, turn it often and pour off any accumulation of whey.
The cheese is ready to eat immediately but will be better after it has aged at least three days. It should be used within a couple of weeks if it is to be consumed fresh. Throughout this period the round should be exposed to the air. If the wheel is put into a plastic bag or a covered plastic bowl, it will sweat and mold and small worms will appear. A properly aired round, however, will gradually dry and after two or three weeks will acquire a yellowish color. At that point it's either used immediately or treated for preservation.
Cheese making is just part of the morning's work around here, and the entire process of curdling and molding shouldn't take more than three or four hours. As I said before, though, the skill is all in the feel. The amount of rennet needed, the time required for curdling and draining, or any part of the process can vary from one locale to another. Almost any aspect of geography or climate — altitude, temperature, air pressure, or whatever — can cause slight alterations in the recipe. Fortunately, failures are seldom inedible, they just aren't as good as the successes.
In southern Spain, the supply of goat's milk begins to dry up in August and September, and gradually decreases until it disappears. Then mating season rolls around and there's sport in the meadows. The resulting kids are born from late March into May. From fall mating to late-spring weaning, there's no fresh goat milk here at all, and thus no fresh cheese. (This cycle is natural to goats when the buck runs with the herd. Dairy owners who have their does bred on a staggered schedule won't experience such a drastic cutoff but milk production will still fall during the winter. — MOTHER.)
The milkless period is a serious matter in Andalusia, since many country families live in areas where fresh meat is largely unavailable and, thus, depend on goat cheese (along with preserved meats, beans, and eggs) for a large part of their protein supply. New World homesteaders and commune members who are working toward self–sufficiency often follow much the same pattern of eating, and such folks can perhaps learn from their Andaluz brothers and sisters of the land how to preserve cheese — without refrigeration — to broaden a diet during the winter months.
Although the techniques may vary slightly from place to place, two basic methods of aging queso de cabra seem to prevail and each has its firm adherents. There is general agreement on one point, however: Very fresh cheese retains too much internal moisture to cure properly, and can't be treated for storage. The processes I'm about to describe should be started only when the rounds are amarillo (dried and yellowed). That stage is usually reached by a cheese after two weeks to a month of aging, the exact time depends on drying conditions.
One technique of preservation is to rub each cheese with olive oil — or oil and a handful of paprika — and leave it for three days. It's then treated again in the same way and left another three days, after which it's rubbed once more and left to stand a week, rubbed and left two weeks, then rubbed a last time and stored for at least two months.
A simpler but more expensive process is to stack the desired number of cheeses, cover them completely in olive oil, and leave them undisturbed for at least two months. Or — as an alternative to submersion — the rounds can be piled and only partially covered in oil. For five or six cheeses, for instance, the preserving liquid can be poured into the container to surround one or two. The wheels must then be shuffled once or twice a week to assure that each is adequately soaked for proper aging. This system uses less oil — an economic consideration — but the results are considered less good than when the cheeses are completely covered.
(Olive oil — and most other vegetable oils of good quality — are so expensive in this part of the world that few of us could consider soaking whole cheeses in the Spanish way. Remember, also, that only unprocessed oils can be used to preserve food as Jo Ann describes. The refined products usually sold in the U.S. have lost their natural antioxidants and will become rancid if exposed to air at room temperature. A possible alternative: Old-timers used to keep some meats without refrigeration by packing them in a can of lard and placing the container in a cool storage area. The same idea might keep cheese from drying out or molding if you lack a cellar with ideal storage temperature and humidity. — MOTHER.)
The traditional container for curing cheese is a deep earthenware pot glazed on the inside. Nowadays, sturdy plastic pails are also used, with good results. (Since the cheese is covered with oil, it doesn't sweat and spoil as it does when the fresh product is kept in a plastic bag.) Either type of vessel is covered to keep out insects and cut down air contact.
Dried Andaluz cheeses which go into the pots in June and July are properly aged by fall. The cured rounds will keep for months, and those covered in olive oil will last "indefinitely", throughout the lean winter season and then some, or as long as they're likely to be needed. The product is slightly crumbly, and strong in flavor without being exactly sharp. Good as queso de cabra is fresh or slightly aged, the well-cured wheels are considered better still and are looked forward to by many families.
A third aging process is known but rarely used nowadays, though it still has a few devotees. The method is simple: The dried cheese is placed in wheat and covered on all sides by a layer of grain at least a foot or so thick. Usually the round is just shoved back into the winter wheat supply (although chaff — the residue from harvesting — is also used with similar results). After three or four months of curing, the cheese is truly sharp and piquant with a slightly nutty flavor.
Goat cheese is extremely versatile. Either a fresh or a well-aged round is best eaten raw in sandwiches or salads. A wheel that has dried somewhat and become a bit yellow after two to four weeks of airing, or one that has cured in oil for a short time, may be cooked with good results (but won't melt for use in sauces and fondues). Such a dried cheese is added to hot soups at the last minute, and is included in stuffings for eggplant or sweet peppers.
When at this same firm yellow stage, cheese is excellent fried (a use that's unknown in most parts of Andalusia but does turn up here and there). Slices about 1 /4 inch thick and three to four inches long are cut from the slightly aged round and cooked uncoated in half an inch of medium-hot olive oil which has just reached the smoking point. The pieces are added one or two at a time, so as not to disturb the temperature in the skillet. Sometimes, too, queso de cabra is cut in smaller bits which are dipped in egg batter and fried for use as appetizers. In either case, the surface of the finished morsels should be golden brown and the interior softly melted but not so liquid as to lose its shape. Another way (un-Spanish but delicious) to serve the aged cheese is to cut it in half-inch cubes, coat them with flour, and deep-fry them for use as croutons in salad or soup.
Both the method of making cheese and the way the finished product is used are tightly traditional within each Andaluz family and community. My neighbor Juana, for instance, firmly warns that a soft curd won't produce a decent texture, but other women use less rennet than she recommends and get good results.
Juana's sister Maria pales at the thought of curing the rounds with paprika, yet the cafe owner's mother does so with outstanding success. Louisa, who owns the store, wouldn't dream of wasting all that oil to cover a pot full of cheeses, while Eduarda simply won't be bothered with turning the wheels each week while they cure. No one in our village will even attempt to fry queso de cobra-what an outlandish idea!-yet 10 miles away it's a common practice.
"Tradition", then, is what one is used to and if Juana can ever be persuaded to fry her cheese, the dish will be "traditional" in no time at all.
The customs I've described belong to my own corner of Spain, but may open some further possibilities for all you folks who are just getting started with goats. Here's one more bit of Andaluz lore for good measure: If you can't locate your herd at milking time, just follow the direction of the wind. My neighbors say that the creatures amble along with the breeze until they reach a fence and that's where you'll find them waiting!
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