Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making 100% Local Cheese

As we get ready for the next 7 Days 100% local challenge, I'm thinking through all the things that were difficult last time and trying to get ready for them.  Some things were really hard to let go of, like snacks (I eat more snacks than I realize).  Something were easier to let go of, like coffee.  Seely Farm's mint tea was so good it totally replaced coffee for me even after the challenge was over.  And some things seemed like they should not be so hard to do local, like bread and cheese.

Anyone who has been to the farmer's market, or New Seasons, knows that we have a lot of cheese in this town.  Portlanders love their cheese, especially creative cheeses from non-bovine animals.  Goat cheese. Sheep cheese.   I'm surprised someone doesn't make breast milk cheese here.  With all the cheesiness around here, I thought taking some time to track down 100% local cheese would just be a matter of a few phone calls.

Well, I was wrong.

Let's step back for a moment.  Cheese is basically pretty simple. You need milk.  You need an acid to make the milk curdle. You need to separate the curds from the whey.  You need to let it dry to some extent to firm up.  You do more or less of this depending on what kind of cheese you want to make.  If it's so simple, then why no 100% local?  I asked around at the farmer's market and got different reasons, but the answers were the same.  Cheese makers use imported enzymes because they are manufactured to produce consistent results.

One cheese maker clearly thought it was stupid not to use these enzymes in any case.

Other cheese makers though it would be fine to experiment with smaller batches.  For larger commercial production, the reliability of the manufactured enzymes was just too important.

So, if I wanted to have 100% local cheese for local week, I wasn't going to get it from a cheese maker.

(The good ladies at Heidi Ho Vegan Cheeses were very interested in taking on the challenge of making a 100% local vegan cheese.  The only problem was what kind of coagulant to use.  The coagulant they use now comes from plants that grow just off the coast...of Chile.)

To find out for myself if it could be done, I bought a cheese making book.  Found the simplest recipe in the book. And gave it a shot.

I made the Bondon.  With only 3 required ingredients, it seemed like a good place to start.

Whole Milk
Mesophilic Starter
Salt and herbs are optional.

Rennet traditionally made from the lining of a very young cow's stomach.  However, many people nowadays use vegetable rennet.  You buy it in a little bottle and use a very small amount to get the curds and whey to separate.  In the cheese book, there is a little side box that talks about vegetable rennet.  One of the sources for this is Stinging Nettles.  Conveniently, Stinging Nettles grow locally. I got some at Pastaworks on Hawthorne.  After crushing some of these stinging nettles through a garlic press, i got the one drop of liquid rennet I needed for the recipe.  I also got a tingly thumb for the next 3 days.

Mesophilic starter is another thing that helps the rennet separate the curds and the whey.  The book recommends you get this in little packets, but I thought there must be a better way.  That is when I found Dr. Fankhauser's cheese website.  Cultured buttermilk is a mesophilic starter!  Where ever the recipe asks for prepared mesophilic starter, you can substitute cultured buttermilk.  I grabbed some buttermilk at the store.

Now, my goal was to see if all these improvisations would work.  Would fresh pressed stinging nettle juice really act as rennet?  Would the cultured buttermilk really be a good starter?  24 hours later I found out the answer is YES.  They did work just fine for the Bondon cheese.  The cheese was a mild and spreadable.  Sort of like a cream cheese, but with a little tang like a farmhouse goat cheese.  One part I only added salt to. The other I added some garlic powder and dried herbs.  It was very good.

I have no reason to believe they would not work for other kinds of cheeses too.

Wait, What About the Buttermilk?
So, there is one catch in this and it is the cultured buttermilk.  Cultured buttermilk is not like normal buttermilk.  Normal buttermilk is basically the skim-milk-ish leftovers from making butter.  Cultured buttermilk is totally different.  It is milk that has a bunch of bacteria in it and is thick like a smoothy.  The bacteria is what you need for making cheese because it gets the milk to separate for the rennet.  Having cultured buttermilk is pretty important and is key to making local cheese.  So making it 100% local (like wild yeast sour dough starter) is a prerequisite for making 100% local cheese.

If you read any recipe for how to make buttermilk they all say to add buttermilk cultures to milk and that makes cultured buttermilk.  That's like saying if you want chocolate milk, add chocolate to milk. It doesn't really help.

Welcome to the Raw Milk Revolution
After looking for a while, the only recipe I could find for truly home made cultured buttermilk is on Dr. Fankhauser's Buttermilk page. If you scroll down to the section entitled "Making Cultured Buttermilk from Scratch" you will see the recipe.  The risky part is that making cultured buttermilk requires starting with raw milk.

Raw milk is not legal for commercial sale in many places.  The Campaign for Real Milk is one organization that is all about getting people to drink more unpasteurized milk.  They have a long list of Oregon dairy farms that sell raw milk, and many of them are right outside Portland.

Raw milk is something that I know little about and have heard mixed opinions about, so I decided to do some research.

The Food Poison Journal has a Raw Milk Scorecard for 2010.  Perhaps I'm being shallow, but if you are being tracked on a website called the "Food Poison Journal", that is not a good sign.

Overall, of the articles that I read, the case of the Hartmann Dairy in Minnesota seems a great example of the conundrum of raw milk.    In a nut shell, 4 (possibly 5) people got sick from the milk at Hartmann Farm.  Investigators know it was from the same farm because they used fancy scientific tests to isolate the bacterial DNA and wrote a report about the Hartmann case.  This resulted in the state of Minnesota placing an embargo on products from the farm.

Well, the Hartmanns strongly disagree.  Citing that none of the dairy or animals tested on the farm had any form of e.coli present, they feel like the state has done a bad job and hurt the reputation of the dairy.

The crux of the situation, in my mind, is summed up nicely in the article:
In many cases, says the fact sheet, only particular batches of product may have been contaminated. And because in many cases, perishable products have already been consumed, they aren't available for testing. 
This is the difficulty of the raw milk debate.  A couple people get sick.  The evidence is hard to find because of the perishable nature of the product.  The state does some tests.  The farms refute those tests.  It's hard to tell what the real situation is or what your risk as a general consumer is.

No one denies that raw milk has a chance to contain e.coli and other bad bacteria.  Maybe that chance is very, very small.  Maybe it is so small, that it does not bother some people.  I am normally up for a food adventure, and if it was only me, then this would probably not be an issue.  However, when it comes to my kids, I'd rather play it safe.  Health insurance is great, but I don't want to test it.

99% Local Cheese
So, this puts truly 100% local cultured buttermilk out of the question, and with it goes the option of 100% local cheese.  We'll have to settle for 99% local cheese, I guess.  Unless someone out there knows of a 100% local source for safe buttermilk in the Portland area, this case is closed.

I'll still be making cheese for local week.  It's pretty darn close to 100%.  But that is part of the project, right?  Find the gaps. Find ways to fill them.

Someone out there can safely make 100% local cultured buttermilk, I'm sure of it.  I just have to find them...


  1. hey Jason, congrats on making 99% local cheese!

    I was thinking about the e. coli factor that plays into the raw milk debate. I'm no doctor (or farmer, or scientist, or anything of any consequence when it comes to this debate) but it's my understanding that e. coli only lives in the intestines of cattle. and it only becomes a problem in terms of people ingesting it if the fecal matter of said cattle ends up mixed in with the meat we eat or the milk we drink. if the farm you get your raw milk from employs a strict health standard (i.e. the cattle aren't cramped together, walking around in their own poo), you would most likely run a much smaller risk of e. coli being a problem.

    this is all based on my limited readings of the subject matter, just some 100% local (to my brain) food for thought.

  2. Hey Chris. You're right. My understanding is that the e.coli and other bacterias come from cow poop and people only get sick from milk that has been "cross contaminated". I don't know the stats on how much raw milk is sold and what the percentage chance of getting sick is but I'm betting it's very small.

    From what I've read, it seems the key is to visit the dairy and see for yourself if they have good cow hygiene. If you feel comfortable with their practices and you trust that the batch you are buying has no cross-contamination issues, then go for it. JJust remember that contamination happens on a batch level, not a cow level. So one batch could be fine and another not. That is the problem in the Hartmann case. The contaminated batches were gone.

  3. I have a little background in microbiology and I have an interest in cheesemaking. I looked at Fankhauser's instructions for making the buttermilk culture from scratch, and I don't see much risk of food poisoning there.
    Most raw milk is really clean. If you can get a local dairy farmer producing it to show you their milking you might be a bit more confident in it.
    Fankhauser's process grows the bacteria in the sample through quite a few duplications before you even try it, so whatever is in there is going to be really prominent. If it's the buttermilk culture it should smell and taste pretty good, but if it's a food poisoning issue it's had enough time to grow that it should smell and taste pretty awful. Since you're only tasting a drop or two your exposure to the bacteria are pretty minimal. If you have any doubts, don't swallow, rinse your mouth out with salt water and/or brush your teeth, and throw the batch out. A healthy adult should have a comparable risk of food poisoning this way than eating leftovers, possibly less risk.

    1. Thanks for the perspective! This method would be a good one to test. Do you know of any ways to verify the results? Home testing kits or something?

  4. Thank you for your post, I found it by doing the same research as you. I am on a hunt for local cheese and I'm pretty sure it is out there because at the PSU farmers market there is a man there that sells his locally made goat cheese made from raw milk that his goats produce. It is possible that his ingredients aren't 100% local but I will stop by his stand this Saturday and find out.
    I'm surprised after doing your research that you are still afraid of using raw milk. For some reason people are terrified of raw milk here in the US, this makes me want to investigate the reasons why. It seems similar to other corrupt food legislation that has been put into place. We could even compare it to the fear created by our government regarding home births. Raw milk, like home births, have been used for hundreds of years in other countries and continues to be used all over Europe. It is unheard of in Italy, France, and other European countries to use anything else but raw milk for their cheeses. The only reason that it would be more safe to consume raw milk in Europe is because there are more laws regarding sanitation and consistent enforcement of these laws takes place on all of the dairy farms.
    It has been a year since your post. Have you discovered any local cheese farms since?

    1. Hi. All of the local cheese I found at the farmer's market used the farmers' own local milk, but it was the other ingredients that I found to be not local. Granted these ingredients represent a very very small percentage of the overall product, but I really wanted to learn about ALL the ingredients.

      I would certainly be interested in trying some raw mild cheese. I have read that it is much better than cheese made with pasteurized milk. I wouldn't characterize myself as "afraid" of it, just not really excited about it for myself.

      No, I haven't found any truly 100% local cheese. But I also haven't been looking that hard lately. Trying to cut down on cheese and other high fat foods in general. My bigger quest now is how to find a regular supply of affordable, sustainable local fish. Its the affordable part that is hardest with fish, I am finding. Any ideas?