This romantic imagery is perpetuated by the media since the nerdy aspects don’t compete with bucolic ideals (“ah look at the pretty author on the cover holding a fragile lamb.”) Compare the appeal of that cover to the Darwinistic reality of dairy farms and male cows. Farms only need female cows for milking, but about half of all baby calves delivered are boys. Yet you don’t see many boy cows on a dairy farm. Where did they go? Can you say “¿Dónde está Taco Bell?”
This difference in perspective is even less clear when you add foreign cultures into the mix. Masui & Yamada wrote a beautiful book on French cheeses. The first thing they do with pictures is explain in French how the French bureaucratic system works in relation to a map of France. Compare this to a great book on Italian cheeses by Piedmont based Slow Foods. The book’s intro starts with all the different knives that can stab the flesh of a Tuscan Pecorino.
If you didn’t realize just how feral a few cuts of cloth bound cheddar could be, you’re not alone. Next time you’re at your local Safeway supermarket, remember the four chambers of bovine stomach hell that led to it. If you want a cinematic equivalent:
Saw Movie #1 – The Rumin: death to grass in a grinding vat of enzymes
Saw Movie #2 – The Reticuluum Returns: death by mechanical agitation in a pit of cud
Saw Movie #3 – The Omasum Ultimatum: death by squeezing
Saw Movie #4 – Abomasum’s Revenge: a bloody message that it can’t refuse is sent to the udder
At the end of this Dante-esque tour awaits the udder; the milk factory. A ruminant’s four-section stomach breaks forage back into its’ elemental component parts. The udder then reassembles these building blocks into a new recipe called “milk.” The other three ingredients that go into making cheese (salt, rennet and bacterial cultures) are less than 1% of its’ total weight. So the higher the quality and variety of the ingredients the cow eats, the better the milk. And with better milk you get much better cheese.
Keep in mind though that my description above is not the FDA’s. Their approach is the deader (flavorless, inactive) the better—and pasteurization is the key weapon they use to achieve this. One compromise to this school of thought is to pasteurize the milk at lower temperatures for longer periods of time. With this method you “burn” the milk less. In theory this allows the tasty flavor of the milk to come out in the cheese (assuming a tasty milk is used.) One thing is sure, though, rarely in the same sentence will someone describe an expensive gourmet delicacy as “sterile yet tasty.”
Brooklyn: The Center of Everything, Including Cheese
After the flatlands of Iowa, I head to the badlands of Brooklyn to finally visit the Crown Finish Cheese Caves in Brooklyn. This means not only going to the edge of trendy Brooklyn, but back in time to what was once a 19th century brewery.
In the 1850’s the German Nassau Brewery brewed their lager beer out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They tunneled 30 feet through solid rock to build their subterranean cellar caves with curved walls of dark, red bricks that run into cobblestone floors and vaulted cathedral ceilings. Old beer lagering chutes, vertical canals a few feet wide were carved up to the streets above. Hundreds of pounds of ice