Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Milk Maid

Tommorow is the summer finale of Cheese Boot Camp at Red, White & Bleu Wine Shop--until January 2012. We will taste how the milk source affects the flavor of the cheese. Not to be sexest by using the milk maid comparison, I couldn't help but to think of Michelle Bachmann's hats-off to submissive wives. Despite the milk maid imagery, two factors play an important role in the final flavor of a cheese: the breed of animal and the land on which it munches. We will ignore cheeses crafted from the milk of "exotic" animals, such as reindeer, yak, and camels. The animals we will focus on are cows, sheep, goats, and water buffalo.

We won't be using any processed cheese. We learned in the Cheddar Whiz class that mass-market "cheese food" is a process of cooking curd and mixing it with various preservatives, fats, flavorings, colorings, and water. In turn, "processed" cheese is reconstituted in blocks, slices, or wedges and then shrink-wrapped in plastic, only to be flooded in refrigerator cases at your local grocery. Rather than using prepackaged cheese, we will be tasting real cheese--good cheese--made from milk, starter cultures, rennet, and occasionally a natural coloring or a mold culture.

The key to this course will be the flights of cheese and how they are ordered.  Three flights will be organized with a sampling of three different milk styles within each flight: goat, sheep, and milk. Each cheese flight will vary by cheese style. So the first flight will consist of only soft or soft-ripened cheeses--one made from goat's milk, one from cow's, and one from sheep's milk. Got it? This is a great way to taste the variation of flavor derived from milk type. A cylindrical mound of goat fluff brought on by Cherry Glen, tasted against a soft, creamy sheep's milk by Boschetto and a delicate, soft-ripened Fromage d'Affinois cow's milk cheese is an eye-opening experience. Here's why.

Cow's milk is not as concentrated as sheep or goat. Cows produce more milk than sheep or goats, but not proportionally more milk. Only 13% of cow's milk is solid, the rest is water. Cow's milk does contain vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, which is an orange or yellowish substance--think carrots. Thus, cow's milk is off-white or ivory-colored and darker in the summer months when the cows are digesting more beta-carotene from the pasture fodder.

Sheep's milk is more hearty and concentrated, comparable to the animal itself, which can survive in sparser conditions than cows. Ewe's milk contains up to 20% solids with more fat and protein than cow's milk. Since cheesemaking is a process of concentrating milk (through dehydration)--ewe's milk is one step closer to the end goal: cheese. Sheep's milk is pure white.

Even hardier than sheep, goat's are known to be the ultimate diners. What won't a goat eat? Despite this belief, the goats that produce many of the world's most famous cheeses graze in lush green pastures and sport a mellow temperament. Goats produce the most milk proportionate to their body weight. They birth their babies in mid-late winter lactate for at least 10 months, but don't make it out to pasture until spring or summer. Goat's milk has slightly less the same fat and protein content as sheep's milk.

These rules are very generic and many factors play into the ultimate flavor and fat content of the milk, like lactation cycles and time of day of milk collection, and seasonal animal diets. Overall, it's often said that goat's milk is best for drinking, cow's milk makes the best butter, and sheep's milk the best cheese. In the end, Pierre Androuet sums it up in the Guide du Fromage, "Every region has its own special magic which chemistry and technology have thus far been unable to duplicate. The character, subtlety and perfection of a cheese attest to centuries of refinement in individual cheese-making methods within limited geographical areas sometimes no larger than a few fields. Vegetations, climate, rainfall, subsoil, and breed all contribute to the production of a cheese which is unique and inimitable."

It will be interesting after tomorrow if I can say cow's milk cheese is sweeter, or sheep's is richer, etc. I will type those conclusions soon.

Flight One (Soft Cheeses):
Cherry Glen Monocacy Ash Maryland Goat's milk
Boschetto Al Tartufo Spain Sheep's milk
Fromage d'Affinois France Cow's milk
Wine Pairings: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Tuscan Sangiovese, Ribera del Duero Tempranillo

Flight Two (Hard Cheeses):
Cabra Buenalba Spain Goat's milk
Grand Old Man Pecorino Spain Sheep's milk
Meadow Creek Virginia Cow's milk
Wine Pairings: California Barbera, Austrian Pinot Noir, Alsatian Pinot Blanc

Flight Three (Blue Cheeses):
Valdeon Spain Goat's milk
Roquefort France Sheep's milk
Cashel Ireland Cow's milk
Wine Pairings: Beaujolais Cru, Sauternes