Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Making milk the most versatile food

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food, regional foods, cheese, memoirs

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had really fine cheese. I guess I'm not much of a foodie, and I very seldom attend the sort of party where I'd be served something snootier than pizza and soda pop. The cheese I put in my sandwiches is typically packaged Cheddar or Jack cheese that we buy by the block, a pound or two at a time. The typical American eats thirty pounds of cheese yearly. I figure I come in closer to half that.

Therefore, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge by Gordon Edgar took me to entirely new territory, a land of milk producers going into a "value added" trade, of the network of relationships and trust (or its lack) that flows through a retail establishment and keeps it going, of handmade (the cutesy word is "artisanal") food products that can cost from $10 to $40 per pound, of patrons who budget for their cheese purchases the way so many of us budget mortgage payments.

The author backed into the cheese business, much the way most "soul mate" professions are entered. Few indeed are they who grow up saying, "I want to be a brain surgeon," attain it, and love it all their lives. Many more look back and say they can't really understand how they got into this or that field, but are sure glad it worked out that way.

The style of this memoir is engaging, a synergy of "life of a former punk rocker" and riffs on the ins and outs of the cheese business. Each chapter ends with a short discussion of two cheeses, and I confess I never heard of any of them except Roquefort, the name-controlled French blue cheese that can only be produced by the molds and bacteria of certain caves…and any number of aging rooms that were inoculated with stolen microorganisms, but whose products cannot, by law, be called "Roquefort". But of others with names like Hopeful Tomme (by Sweet Grass Dairy) or Explorateur, a triple-cream Brie, the names are just a string of letters on the page. Oh, yeah, there is Cheddar in one blurb, but of course it is Montgomery Cheddar, quite a bit tastier (and I believe the author when he says so) than the much, much cheaper factory Cheddar I'm used to.

Mr. Edgar comes across as a great drinking buddy, someone I'd undoubtedly like immensely were we to meet, as long as we don't discuss politics. It is a pleasant surprise that, while he remarks on the conservatism of many of his dairy farmer friends, he does not put them down. He recognizes that political viewpoint frequently is a product of one's environment, and his rampant punk liberalism simply would wither in a farm setting. But I would not trot out my Reagan-Bush-Bush sympathies in his presence.

He is a natural storyteller, and if you buy cheese from him, you'll likely get a bit of a story along the way, and maybe learn something about your expected repast. He has learned what to tell and what not to tell. Not everyone can handle the story of rennet, as told in the chapter "Rennet, What's in It?" (an enzyme extracted from calf stomachs - see, I told you). Rennet, and its many substitutes, particularly those that cater to vegetarians, have a lot to do with the way a cheese will turn out. But rennet and all coagulants are mainly acidic substances that make the milk protein, and some or most of the fat, curdle out into a semisolid mass that is further processed into various cheeses.

A bigger taste determinant is the type of milk used: cow, goat or sheep, and whether it is whole or part skim, plus pasteurized or raw. But the biggest taste contribution comes from the microorganisms, whether mold or bacteria, and frequently both in sequence. It is the bugs that distinguish a Brie from a Gouda, a Cheddar from a Jack, Swiss from Mozzarella (I didn't check whether the milk is the same, but there'd be a difference anyway, and it might be interesting to use Gouda bugs on a different milk. I reckon someone's made the experiment already).

I hope I learned a few things. Perhaps I'll even risk an extra couple of shekels at the "real" cheese section of the store and learn a new taste or two.

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