A Tale of Two Cheeses: Part 2

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
~Winston Churchill

I’ve now made nearly two dozen different cheeses. When I started out, my only raw milk source was a five-hour round-trip drive, I was aging them in the veggie drawer of the fridge, and I was following the recipes to the letter.

I now have an aging fridge packed with cheeses, my raw milk source is at least in the ballpark, I’m creating my own recipes, and I may even spring for a pricey PH-tester. It’s been a long, fun road with a steep learning curve made in a relatively short time, which is what I say about pretty much everything in our adopted rural lifestyle.

But the best cheese I’ve made so far was the third one I attempted, and it started out as a smelly, rather disgusting potential disaster.

In our cheese-making class, we were strongly encouraged to take notes on our every hard cheese-making venture and being the diligent student I usually am, I do. This time was no exception.

“Has odd fishy odor” is at the top, middle and end of the third cheese’s entry. I was a bit reluctant to include the less-than-savory details as to why that might be.

First, a bit of background on my past experiences with stinky cheese. I am no expert, I can’t even call myself a true aficionado, but I’m more cheese-fearless than most, especially most Americans. After all, I did live in France for a while, and spent a few months in Corsica, where I met the only cheese that scared me off.

The Corsican cheese is quite popular and, being a sensitive traveler attracted to regional specialties, I was anxious to give it a try. I went to the farmers’ market, found the oldest, roughest-looking cheese-monger of all the vendors and marched right up to examine his wares. He looked like an ex-sailor with wrinkled, sun-burnt skin, black patterns on his forearms where I assume tattoos were once legible, and an easy-going, toothless grin. He eyed me as I pretended to know what I was doing. I glanced over his table and tried to make out the curious handwriting to learn what I might be able to pronounce well-enough to order.

My eyes went right to the group of words I was searching for – traditional Corsican cheese – how easy was that? I felt already triumphant. In my best French, I tell him I want that cheese, and he replies, “Avec ou sans habitants?” At that point I feel certain I saw a glimmering in his eyes. He points down to the sign below the ‘traditional Corsican cheese’ sign, which reads just as he has stated: “AVEC OU SANS HABITANTS.”

Instead of triumphant, I’m instantly befuddled. I had no idea what that meant, and the question so baffled me I thought I clearly did not understand. I said quite sincerely, “I don’t understand.” But, in retrospect, I think I kinda did, I just didn’t want to believe it. “With or without inhabitants,” it was clear and easy to understand even for a non-French-speaker.  This was not a linguistic block I was having, it was a reality check.

At that moment my market companion attempted to come to my rescue. She didn’t speak English, but understood my dilemma apparently without words exchanged, being French and rather snobbish about her cheeses. “Inhabitants …,” she repeated to my complete horror, “as in maggots.” After which she pinched up her nose slightly and gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head, like she was trying to reassure me – ”Don’t worry, on the mainland we don’t eat that sort of cheese.”

So, back to my Cheese No. 3. The first two times I followed two different farmstead cheese recipes to the letter, wrapped them to age, and made my notes, nice and clean, without any question of potential perfection in outcome. This third time I found a recipe online that was so vague in steps, measurements and temperatures, I had to wing it a bit for the first time.

To make matters worse, this particular day had a pronounced increase in kitchen traffic. After I’d muddled through the recipe and began the pressing process, Handy Hubby had a dramatic building challenge of the electrical variety that required him to tear into the wall in the vicinity of the press. He’d just been on the roof cleaning up mice nests, and they’d managed to chew through some of the wires, which he now had to replace. I wondered momentarily if that was something I should include in my notes. Nah, best forgotten, I decided.

But I could not forget, and what I’d hoped would be a quick in-and-out project around the press turned into an hour, going on who knew how many more. With Hubby going in and out, meant the dogs are following him. They think this is a game and don’t understand Hubby’s irritation as he curses the mice only under his breath … and … is sweating through his T-shirt. Right over the press!  

Finally, the straw to break this camel’s back – I glance over from the sink as Tori’s tail brushes over the press. Tori is our Dane-Mastiff and about 6 feet from nose to tail tip. In a flash I imagine it snake-like engulfing the entire cheese. “Stop, stop, oh my god, stop the pressing!”

I neither wanted to perceive myself as excessively anal nor offend Hubby’s already delicate mood any further, but my stomach was churning and my mind screaming at me for what I was allowing to happen to that poor cheese. I immediately disassembled the press, moved it to the office, and, with trepidation, examined the cheese, slowly unwrapping it from the muslin.

Just as I had suspected, dry-wall debris, dog hair, and who knew what other invisible entities had found their way onto the surface of Cheese No. 3. In a moment of panic and disgust, I nearly threw it in the garbage. Then I thought, no, wait, chill, this will be the perfect testing ground. I’ll continue to do everything wrong, according to all things science and sensibility, and see what happens.

So, I stopped following the vague directions and followed instinct instead. What would the Corsican cheese-monger have done, I repeated to myself as I decided not to wrap it, to leave it at room temperature uncovered for days, then put it in with the others to age in the drawer of the fridge.

Not only did it look completely different from the others, it also smelled completely different. The fishy smell had stabilized, mold started growing on the air-dried, uncovered rind, and the texture softened inside until it began to sort of pooch out around the middle like a chubby belly. I felt some encouragement then, thinking, “Might good cheeses be like good dogs and begin to resemble their masters?”

A couple weeks more and it began to look and smell so delicious the temptation was starting to weigh on me. It was becoming irresistible. On Christmas Eve, I could wait no longer. The vague directions said it would be ready in two months, but my instincts were saying, ”Dig in, woman!”

So I did, and it was delicious! I am now convinced the best cheese recipes were discovered quite by accident and our ancestors turn over in their graves every time we get squeamish over a few dog hairs or maggots. The only problem is, I have no idea how to imitate it.

Does anyone have any advice?

Cheese No. 3, aging for days on the kitchen table, but still maggot free!

Published on Apr 21, 2015

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