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Great Milk Makes Great Cheese

Without milk, there would be no cheese.  Milk is a fascinating and complex liquid and to know it is to comprehend the gist of cheese.

Through my experience with the cheesemaking community, I have had an incredible opportunity to observe among the most ancient rhythms of humankind – the birth of an animal, the abundance of milk which ensues and the symbiotic relationship that has existed between people and their livestock for countless millennia.

In cheese, I see the ultimate product of the connection: preserving and concentrating vital nutrients in times of lots in a tasty, long-lasting and portable food.

Archaeological evidence suggests sheep were the first milk-producing animals domesticated by about 8000 BC with cows and goats following. Early cheesemaking is shrouded in pre-recorded history, but there is proof of cheesemaking tools as far back as 7000 years ago.

Shepherding was one of the first service professions, as communities pooled their animals, sending them to graze in the hills, preserving close-in land for agriculture. In many cases, shepherds were also the cheesemakers also, making and aging cheese and tending animals in distant pastures and returning to villages in the autumn with cheeses to sustain through the wintertime.

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Over time, the production of the vital food was elevated to an art form, with regional specialties emerging as animal breeds established themselves and flourished in certain regions based on geography and climate – a true expression of terroir, a French term that connotes specificity of place.

Milk Types

The three most frequent milk resources for cheese are cow, goat, and sheep, though water buffalo, yak, reindeer and other unusual milk may also be utilized. The flavor profile, fat and protein content of each milk varies, as does the preferred environment of each breed.

Milk is an average of 87 percent water, which separates from the suspended solids – proteins and fat – during cheese production. Excess liquid is drained off as whey. On average, it takes 10 pounds of cow’s milk to make 1 pound of cheese. Richer, more concentrated sheep’s milk requires six pounds of milk to produce 1 pound of cheese.

Cows

Cows prefer cooler, northern climates and prosper in temperate, high-moisture environments. They are the largest statue of the 3 main dairy animals and produce the most milk volume per animal. The ubiquitous black and white cow, the Dutch Holstein, was bred to be a champion milker, producing up to six gallons of milk every day.

Goats

Goats can withstand hotter, more arid surroundings and are notoriously finicky about rain – they don’t like it! Goats browse, meaning they enjoy a variety of shrubs, woody plants, weeds, and vines. Prized cheesemaking breeds vary in size and milk production – from the large Alpine, Nubian, and La Mancha into the tiny Nigerian Dwarf.

Sheep

Sheep are really hardy and are well established throughout the arid plains of Spain, southern Italy, Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean. They also thrive in the cool, moist areas of northern Europe, though the most famous sheep milk cheeses come from the warmer climates.

Goat – Fresh chèvre (look for a locally produced variety, if possible) or a ripened (rinded) cheese like Bucheron or Humboldt Fog. Serve these bright, tangy and yummy cheeses with a crisp, acidic white wine like Sauvignon or Pinot Blanc.

Sheep – Ossau Iraty or Manchego, two excellent sheep cheeses from France and Spain respectively. If you’re fortunate enough to have a local sheep creamery, do provide their cheeses a go! Rich and savory, sheep milk cheeses pair perfectly with fruity, smooth reds like Zinfandel or Syrah.

Cow – Fontina or Gruyere are two traditional cow’s milk cheeses which reflect the traditional buttery, sweet notes characteristic of cow’s milk. Beverage pairing options are quite versatile – like with lower-tanning reds or even bold, spicy white wines.

As you’re tasting, note particular aromas, flavors and texture characteristics. Which are your favourite flavor profiles? Which cheeses do you enjoy most? Knowing your favorites will allow you to determine what other kinds of cheeses you’ll likely appreciate. Happy Savoring!

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