Australians are very much a people out of place, especially for those of us with European roots who find themselves living in the subtropics. I occasionally meet somebody undertaking the herculean effort of producing cool climate cheeses under our often steamy conditions. This often requires the purchasing of all sorts of delicate microbial cultures in the post, grown in distant laboratories, and demands the use of a specially modified refrigerator which can simulate the conditions of a cheese cave in the Swiss alps (until the power goes out). As the poorly paid actors in the infomercials say: There has to be a better way!
Milk is a metastable emulsion of fat and water, stabilised with a complex array of proteins. For dairy producing societies the fluctuations in output mean that often more milk is produced than can be consumed. Different cultures came up with different solutions to this problem, seeking ways to transform milk into denser products (which sometimes allow easier preservation for times when less dairy is available). One possible option is heating the milk or cream long enough that the oil floats to the top, producing clarified butter/ghee. If sufficiently pure this mass of mostly saturated fat can store a relatively long time without refrigeration.
Most approaches aim to coagulate the fat and most of the protein in a way that allows the liquids to be drained. The resulting curds can be further compressed, fermented or stabilised through various additives. In European cheese making the coagulation is often catalysed by rennet, the scraped lining of a calves stomach which contains enzymes that begin digesting the milk. For a small scale producer this technique is not really practical, unless you are content to buy powdered rennet from the shops. The curd is often compressed and fermented under controlled conditions to produce a hard cheese capable of long term storage. None of this seemed worth the bother to me on a low tech home scale.
Another approach is to use acid to coagulate the milk in the form of lemon juice or vinegar (often with some amount of heat). Mediterranean cheeses like paneer is made this way. I tried this a couple of times and it basically worked, if you didn’t mind squeezing a load of lemons. The main downside was the resulting whey is too acidic to feed to livestock. Chickens in particular do spectacularly well on the residual soluble protein left in solution from cheese making. It can also be fed to kid goats with care as they get close to weaning age. The fat is the most valuable component of the milk in the end.
Most of the time we turn our goat milk into yoghurt, a pretty simple technique that is commonly used in warmer climates that are similar to our own. It definitely feels like the most robust and appropriate method, but we can only consume so much yoghurt. For a long time I scratched my head at the problem of milk coagulation/concentration. Luckily a stroke of serendipity intervened one day.
Once when I was making yoghurt with a small batch of milk I poured what I thought was the previous day’s milk into the pot, only to discover it was instead finished yoghurt. I shrugged and figured no point crying over spilt whatever it was, and went through the yoghurt making cycle, heating the milk to 70 C, then cooling it to 42 C before inoculation with a live yoghurt culture (a hand held infrared thermometer is very useful for this). To my surprise when I went to inoculate the milk had already separated into a nice hard curd. The first few times I inoculated and incubated for a bit under 24 hours as usual (a 4 L thermos container is very useful for this stage). The thinking was to break down any residual lactose, but I am pretty sure it is mostly gone without further incubation. I am now pretty certain that the acid and enzymes from the yoghurt half of the mixture is enough to drive curd formation. Labneh is an example of a cheese based on a yoghurt culture, and is common in places like Lebanon, so I only accidentally reinvented that particular cheese wheel.
Once you form a sufficiently hard curd it is an easy matter of straining the mixture. I tried using cheese cloth of various types and found it was a pain to wash. If you don’t mind losing a little of the curd, and it is well set, then a plain colander works fine. For a while I used to wrap the curd tightly in a cloth and press it between two weights to firm up the product, but now I simply let the curd drain into a bowl in the fridge overnight to end up with something the texture of mascarpone.
The final product lasts about three days in the fridge. Much of the lactic acid acidity is drained away with the whey, so it is possible for unwanted bacteria to grow on the curd eventually (unlike whole yoghurt which is more acid and usually stable for much longer). Salting the curd to preserve it is possible, but I find I usually eat it quickly enough anyway. I usually end up adding it to other meals to make them richer. The pressed curd still crumbles a bit if I put it in brine, so I don’t bother pressing anymore. If you freeze the curd the texture changes, but it is still pretty good mixed into other dishes.
The main advantage of this method is that it leverages a culture I was handling and maintaining anyway, and the whey contains no additives that prevent me from redirecting the excess whey protein to my livestock. I find I can get through a batch of cheese alongside my usual yoghurt consumption without feeling like milk is about to trickle out my tear ducts. The neighbours go gaga over the cheese too, but I think it is easier for them to accept it because the idea of goat cheese seems fancy but at the same time they have eaten it rarely enough to have no preconceived ideas about what it should taste like (unlike my sour/runny yoghurt which bears little resemblance to the gunk they buy in the shops which most friends try once, smile politely, then never bother again).
I often wonder how many famous regional dishes that rely on fermentation were discovered completely by accident. Natto (glutinous fermented soybeans) were meant to have been discovered when a horse rider left his lunch bundled up behind the saddle for a few days. Perhaps there are other potential foods out there which people currently view as inedible which merely need to be combined with the right microbes to transform them into something utterly delicious (if you don’t mind your food crawling with microbes).
Disclaimer- Dairy products can harbor potentially dangerous microbes if handled incorrectly. If preparing your own dairy at home be sure to do sufficient research to ensure you are working safely.