June 2009 personal blog post

Had a very nice experience making cheese at Prairie Fruits Farm on Thursday. I’m near Chicago, and Prairie Fruits, of Champaign, is Illinois’ first farmstead cheese operation.

Leslie Cooperband agreed some time ago to provide me a chance to get my hands into some curd. In my eight years at Dairy Foods magazine, I had visited several artisan and farmstead cheese makers in addition to the large dairy plants I often wrote about, but I had not yet been able to just go make cheese. As a homebrewer, and a cheese enthusiast, I really wanted to try it.

Brief background: Prairie Fruits raises Nubian, LaManchas and mixed goats. Due to the size and topography of the farm, the goats rotationally graze on pasture–quite unusual for goats. The four-year-old operation is dedicated to diversity, so there are also orchards (apples, pears, and peaches), berries, laying hens, and guinea fowl. The cheeses include fresh and aged goat cheeses, and recently, some sheeps milk cheeses made with locally-procured sheeps milk.

Prairie Fruits sells mostly through farmers markets, its cheese is also used by restaurants and sold in midwest cheese shops. They also host farm dinners.

Took me about two hours to drive from Chicago, so when I arrived, the first batch of milk was already in one of the two pastuerizers. The plan was to do two batches–one goat and one sheeps milk, and to make 3 cheeses from them. Leslie introduced me to the other cheesemakers and assistants–Elisa, Molly and Emma.

The clean, warm milk smell is I think, the same whether you are in an artisan cheese room or in the pasteurizer room of a giant plant that bottles millions of gallons of milk a week. PF’s cheeseroom, is small, no windows, new, and clean–all business.

After helping to handpack some of the previous day’s chevre, I soon found myself donning an apron and boots, to help hand ladle curd from the fist vat. The first cheese would be made from uncut curd ladled directly from the top of the curd bed. Leslie demonstrated the gentle technique needed to get the curd into the molds without breaking it up much. I did my best, noting that with brewing we need to avoid hot-side aeration of the wort, or unfinshed beer, so we handle that liquid as little and as gingerly as possible. Kind of similar.

Once the required number of molds were filled, Leslie cut the remaining curd for the next cheese. OK, I had read about making two different cheeses from one make, and now I had a better understanding of what that meant.

Earlier on, the sheeps milk had been brought to the cheese room in stainless cans, and gently poured into the second vat. The cheesemakers had painstakingly prepared the starter and rennet for the batches and pitched when ready–very similar to pitching yeast at the end of the brewing process, once the wort has been quickly cooled to room temperature. But with cheesemaking, it’s the start of the process, in that sense, it’s like the mashing of the grains in brewing.

Leslie and Molly had me touch the sheeps milk curd to see that difference in the fat content, and therefore the texture. Once the curd had set, Molly took the knife to it, explaining that she would first cut the curd to the size of hazelnuts and then let it rest before a second cut would reduce it to the size of rice grains. Again, I had heard about curd cut that small, but had never helped do it. It takes some determination and patience.

I pitched in with some of the cleaning, which took me back a few years to a part-time job I held for a while at a brew-on-premise, a place where patrons make their own beer with some help from the staff.

Leslie and I broke for lunch around 2 p.m.–the rest of the crew had earlier. After a fresh-baked bagel and chervre, Leslie asked if I was drained, or wanted to go back for more. “Yes and yes,” I replied. Truth is, I was pretty tired. As advertised, cheesemaking is hard work, followed by scrubbing, cleaning, sanitation, and more hard work. Wearing a heavy apron, rubber boots, working in a warm humid environment–it reminded me of the craft brewers I know, and how hard they work to coax beer from grains.

I drove home tired and satisfied, thinking about beer and cheese pairings, and hoping to work with Leslie on a beer and cheese farm dinner some time and the future. Thanks again to Prairie Fruits for affording me this great experience!

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