Sunday, October 25, 2009

And now...Raw Milk!

The news comes from across the valley: over in Tapawera, there's a dairy farm--or WAS a dairy farm, as the farmer couple finally had enough, sold their stock (or most of it) for a pretty penny, and are now sitting back letting old age do its worst. BUT NOT EXACTLY, because they kept enough cows to sell milk as, you know, a hobby; just to keep their hands in. So they still have their delivery truck, and now, a couple of times a week, you can order raw, quasi-(i.e., uncertified)organic, straight-from-the-cow milk for $1 A LITER! That's about US$3 per gallon, for you Imperial holdovers.

What is it like, tasting milk that's hours old, pristine? Well, understand that the milk in New Zealand is already pretty good. Even the cheapest milk tastes faintly of grass, and generally of goodness. God knows there's enough grass around here that milk-from-grass is all there is. That said, I can't claim to have a head-snapping, eye-rolling reaction to the taste. However, one word in the job description stands out: "raw." Yes, there's a lot of hoo-hah about the supposed health benefits of raw milk--best left aside, which is where I'll leave them. But the main thing is: raw milk is what you make cheese out of. Pasteurization cripples the whole process. Raw milk is the doorway to the whole world of (ahem) cheese culture. So now, we're taking weekly delivery on 15 or 20 liters, mainly to sate the cheese maw.

This is a HUGE development--I mean the availability of cheesemaking literature. When I first looked into it, twenty or thirty years ago, cheese books were exclusively about cheese EATING, not cheese MAKING. And now, in the 21st Century, without underground connections of any kind, you can get any number of books that casually toss out recipes for Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Cheddar. It's like getting a pass code to a completely secret section of the cook's playground.

We're not the only ones with access to this magic stuff, and so cheesemaking is sweeping Lloyd Valley. Little wheels of Gouda are popping up in one pantry after another. Krys made all her mistakes on her first batch of "Pyrenees" cheese and, having decided not to risk aging it, opened it to find a pretty nice simulacrum of ricotta salata: entirely edible and entirely gratifying. Now she's moved on to a proper batch of the Pyrenees, now in process on the shelf; a velvety, light cream cheese; and Haloumi that's a salty but entirely viable replacement for the $50/kilo stuff. And, speaking of ricotta, the whey that comes off the initial cheesemaking makes for the loveliest, lightest ricotta I've had--and I've struggled for years with Lynn Kasper's recipe for ricotta straight from the milk which, God love her, stubbornly resists the most painstaking execution with a hard, rubbery product. Not so the used whey: it makes half as much per gallon, but jeez, it's used, fercryinoutloud!

So, ricotta with chard or spinach on pasta; ricotta as a sandwich spread with even mediocre hothouse tomatoes; ricotta in ravioli with asparagus; ricotta spooned up as a refreshing light snack: MmmMM.

But even after making ricotta, the whey isn't entirely depleted. Chilled down, retaining just the little bit of acid from ricotta-making, it's an amazingly refreshing drink for a hot day, rocketing up my personal chart to the point where it threatens my fealty to iced tea.

And then it turns into pork! ...the whey, that is: the new pig will happily take down all the whey we can turn out, pre- or post-ricotta. Life is good.

Looking for a nice tidy closer here? Sorry, but--fresh cheeses excepted--cheese takes a while. The Pyrenees MIGHT be ready for the family visitation next Feb/Mar., and we all know what "aged" Cheddar and Parmesan mean in calendar time. (Think about what this long feedback time means to the learning process--"Was this the batch with a teaspoon or a tablespoon of salt?", etc. Turns out that there's a good reason for apprenticeships: learning from someone else's mistakes.) So it's going to be a while before any of it comes off the shelf. Watch this space.

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