I’m rather fond of cheese, though I know little about it.
It was one of my favourite foods growing up. I’d nibble slices and chunks of it like a mouse, sprinkle it on pasta, melt it on chips and marvel at its gooey goodness. When I went to Italy, I’d salivate over shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano in my salad and gobble creamy blobs of fresh buffalo mozzarella at every opportunity. Today, wheels and wedges of Havarti tempt me from store shelves, while buckets of shredded marble cheese haunt my freezer.
At some point, possibly after listening to Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch for the nth time, I realized I knew virtually nothing about how cheese was made. It had something to do with milk, but I had no idea how it got from “moo” to “mmm!”
That’s why I was delighted to learn Jeff Nonay had opened a commercial cheese factory on his dairy farm in Sturgeon County. I paid him a visit recently to learn more about the wide and wonderful world of cheese.
What is cheese?
Nonay said he got the idea to get into commercial cheesemaking about 10 years ago when some visitors from Quebec told him about the cheese plant on their farm. After years of research, he started construction of the Lakeside Farmstead cheesery last winter and had his first cheese out the door on Sept. 23. The plant is now one of 10 commercial cheeseries in Alberta and the only one in Sturgeon County.
The Lakeside cheesery itself is a place of smooth concrete, white walls and stainless steel shaped like a really huge house.
It’s also the workplace of head cheesemaker Ian Treuer. A hobbyist turned professional cheesemaker, Treuer spends his days churning curds and packing moulds as he transforms milk from Nonay’s dairy into about a dozen types of cheese.
“Cheese is milk’s leap into immortality,” Treuer said, paraphrasing author Clifton Fadiman. By souring milk under controlled conditions, you can transform it into a delicious, solid form that can last for years on the shelf.
The basic ingredient of any cheese is milk – cow, goat, sheep, whatever. Your animal’s genetics and diet all influence the quality of that milk, Nonay said.
Next comes bacteria. Typically shipped as powders or frozen blobs, these lab-grown cultures break down lactose in milk to produce a cheese’s flavours and also make the milk more acidic.
That acidity is essential for the next common ingredient to work: rennet. Typically sourced from cow stomachs, mushrooms, or thistles, rennet is an enzyme that causes milk proteins to clump together as curds.
Some cheeses require additional ingredients, such as salt, spices or specialized fungi, said Treuer, who makes one variety that contains chaga tea. Your cheddars will often have the colourant annatto, which is what makes them orange (they’re normally white or yellowish).
Your cheese will also contain what the French call “terroir,” which are subtle environmental factors determined by the soil, climate, and geography of the place where it is made. Terroir means a cheese made on Nonay’s farm will taste different from one made down the road even if both use the same ingredients.
That sensitivity makes biosecurity vital in cheesemaking. Everyone in the cheese plant has to wear white shirts, gloves and sanitized boots at all times, and stomp through disinfectant baths between rooms.
“Nothing leaves here that hasn’t been tested,” Treuer said, adding he does regular swab tests to detect harmful pathogens.
Curds, pressure and time
Treuer starts cheese production with milk – lots of milk. He uses a stainless-steel vat the size of three cows that can hold 2,500L of milk at once, which is equipped with built-in heating and two big mixer arms. Treuer said he currently gets about 100kg of cheese from every 1,000kg of milk he puts in the vat.
After heating and mixing the milk at 63C for 30 minutes to pasteurize it, Treuer adds his cultures and rennet and waits another 40-odd minutes.
“There are certain parts of cheese-making that are like watching paint dry,” he said, which is why he usually goes off and does something else at this point.
The rennet slowly turns the milk’s proteins into a tofu-like layer of curds thick enough to float a dustpan. The rest of the milk becomes a yellowish liquid called whey, which you might recognize as the other half of Little Miss Muffet’s lunch.
These curds form the base of all cheese, Treuer said. Depending on what you do to them, you can get any one of the hundreds of types of cheese that exist.
Step one is to cut the curds to the desired size, giving then more surface area with which to shed liquid.
“The smaller we get the curds, the drier the cheese will be texture-wise,” Treuer said.
You do this with a knife at home, but at a cheese plant, you hook giant wire harps to your mixer arms and send them spinning through the milk, leaving hypnotic gyres of cut curds in their wake.
After many minutes of spinning and slicing, Treuer stops the mixer and opens a valve to drain the whey, which gets sold as pig feed.
For cheddar, you cook the curds for a bit until they reach the proper pH before you drain the whey, after which you cut the curds into loaves, stack them, and flip them repeatedly for about an hour or more to drain more liquid – a process called cheddaring. You then mill the loaves into strips and add salt and other flavourings.
Finished curds get shovelled into moulds for shape. These moulds can be traditional wood-and-cheesecloth models or plastic ones with microscopic pores such as the ones Treuer uses.
You then use a press to squeeze more whey out of the moulds. Treuer uses a horizontal hydraulic press for this purpose that works overnight.
At this point, you have a bunch of cheese-like wheels full of live micro-organisms. Those microbes will continue to break down the chemicals in the curds over time, giving you the flavours, colours and (in the case of Swiss cheese) bubbles you want.
It can be days or even years before this process is complete. To keep the microbes alive and the cheese unspoiled, Nonay and Treuer store their cheese in storage rooms kept at constant temperature and 95 per cent humidity. Sometimes they have to wash the wheels with brine, coat them with wax or wrap them in plastic or cheesecloth to ward off pathogens. Some cheeses, such as brie, contain fungi that grow their own protective rinds. They also have to flip the wheels every once and a while to counteract the effects of gravity.
Nonay and Treuer cut, package and ship their cheese for sale when it tastes ready. Cheeseries must produce a balance of fast- and slow-aging cheeses in order to make a profit, Nonay noted.
The perfect food
Nonay said he and Treuer plan to produce about 500kg of cheese a week for distribution through businesses such as Jack’s Burger Shack and D’Arcy’s Meat Market.
To Nonay, cheese is about the good things in life – family, friends, and entertainment, served alongside fine wines and expensive meats – and a way to forge closer ties with his customers.
“Food is back in focus,” he said, especially during the pandemic, and he hopes people will seek out local food and cheeses to have a unique experience.
To Treuer, cheese is all about chemistry and experimentation. He continues to try out wild new recipes at home for fun, especially the brine-washed ones that are so stinky his wife jokes he’s probably hiding bodies in the basement.
“It’s a science, it’s an art form, it’s one of the most perfect foods out there.”