The Art and (a little) Science of Cheesemaking
By: Robert Russell (Mar 21, 2012)
I had never taken a cheesemaking class before signing up for one of Merryl Winstein's weekend marathons: two days of nothing but cheese. I have, however, attended workshops in other fields I knew little or nothing about. Frequently it has turned out to be the case that the so-called 'experts' running the workshops knew very little about what they were trying to pass on. I wanted to avoid this disappointment in learning about cheese. I am happy to say that I was successful. Merryl introduced a roomful of us to the mysteries and intricacies of calcium, lactic acid, pH levels and a whole host of other necessary elements of the art of cheesemaking. I say the 'art' purposely too, for with Merryl cheesemaking is not ultimately a chemistry experiment but rather something that brings into play all the senses: smell, touch, sight -- even sound (when the curds squeak) -- and, of course, speech, since there was a lively and constant flow of explanation and anecdote coming from her. Because there is plenty of sitting around time with cheesemaking, there was ample time to talk: for us students to ask questions, and for Merryl to question us to make sure we were understanding what was going on. This is not to say that we spent a lot of time sitting around. The schedule for the weekend was ambitious, and we were constantly shifting from one cheese to another: starting a cheddar, draining a chevre, molding a tomme, making ricotta. Our heads were spinning by the end of the first day, but the booklet she provided to all the students allowed us to straighten things out in our own minds, on our own time. Her insistence that we participants actually participate was invaluable. We stirrred, cut curds, squeezed them, pulled them apart, tasted them, packed them. And we ate cheese made by previous classes, just as our efforts will be consumed by future ones. We learned much of how cheese is made (with constant recourse to the pH meter), and why one thing leads to another, but we also learned that good cheesemaking finally comes down to knowing just when to move on to the next step. This is the art of the expert. It can make a beginner despair if not demonstrated in the proper way. There was no despair at the end of the day. Back in the 14th century when the Gothic cathedral in Milan was under construction there were serious disagreements about how to proceed. A French builder was brought in as a consultant by the Milanese and he summed up the problems with the statement 'ars sine scientia nihil est': 'art without science is useless.' The summing up of Merryl Winstein's cheesemaking weekend might well be 'scientia sine arte non satis est': science without art is not enough.
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