Excerpt from Chapter 10: The Art of Cheesemaking by Peter Dixon
For an artisanal business to succeed, the product must be unique and consistently well made, and there must be a market for it. Therefore, artisan cheesemakers adhere to the traditional methods of their craft to bring forth the nuances in flavor that are generated through the intimate connection with the seasons and the environment. The finest cheese may vary, but it should vary within a certain standard if it is to be commercially marketable. Some artisan cheesemakers benefit from following traditions that produce these results, but most of us are relatively new at the game. For the less experienced cheesemakers, then, traditional methods should be supported by scientific principles to the extent necessary to make consistently high-quality cheese. It is important to note that many of the traditional artisan cheesemakers have strong support from the scientific community in their distinctive agricultural regions. The melding of craft and science is used to strengthen the activity on which their livelihood is based.
A cheese such as Cheddar, which was once exclusively made by artisan cheesemakers in Great Britain, has largely turned into the product of an industrial process, though the craft of making Cheddar is still alive. Wheels of Cheddar sealed in cloth bandages, which represent the fruit of an artisan cheesemaker‚??s labor, are still being made. In reading about the history of cheesemaking, we learns that 150 years ago the farm-made Cheddars were more variable in quality because cheesemakers differed in attitude and aptitude‚??that is, some were better at their craft than others. This could be attributed to many factors, most notably attention to cleanliness during milking and cheesemaking; construction of dairies, creameries, and cheese stores; and systems of cheesemaking. In the case of Cheddar, quality was improved by using methods based on scientific principles‚??such as the cheddaring process, hygiene, and temperature control during making and aging‚??that were developed by Joseph Harding in England from the 1850s onward.
Joseph Harding dedicated many years to improving the standard of quality for British cheese. He used scientific principles to develop methods for making cheese that did away with some of the guesswork and exorcised the mysticism of certain traditional methods that produced haphazard results. In this way he was able to demonstrate that some ‚??traditional‚?Ě practices led to poor quality and also showed how to make significant and consistent improvements by following new practices based on an understanding of dairy science. At first cheesemakers were skeptical of his methods, but the string of blue ribbons collected by his family for their Cheddar cheeses proved him the wiser, and several of his daughters went on to consult and work for other cheese businesses in Great Britain and the United States (Cheke, 1959).
This is the appropriate way for artisan cheesemakers to use science. It is now common practice to integrate scientific principles with traditional cheesemaking practices to better understand how cheese of the highest quality standard is made. This, in turn, enables dairying regions to maintain and develop viable economic enterprises that are centered on artisanal cheesemaking. The key is to produce cheese with a high level of quality, on which a reputation can be built, thereby ensuring marketability over the long term. As a cheesemaker myself‚??I make 20,000 pounds/9,000 kg of cheese a year for sale throughout New England‚??I need an approach that will reduce variability and build a reputation for quality. Therefore, I rely on science to enhance the art of cheesemaking. I use standardized rennet and pure starter cultures made in laboratories, and I test acidity regularly during the cheesemaking process. The rest of what I do is based on my knowledge of the craft, which has been built up over only 20 years.