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COUNTY AGENT GUY

By Staff | Oct 10, 2014

A new cheese manufacturing plant has just commenced operations on a site located about a dozen miles from our farm.

I was given an opportunity to tour this facility, an experience that was similar to visiting the engineering department of the starship Enterprise.

One of the first things a visitor notices is that the folks who run the cheese plant are germaphobes. They are so obsessed with microbes that I was even required to wear a hairnet on my beard.

I found this mildly insulting. There weren’t any cookie crumbs or stray bits of pickled herring on my chin whiskers. At least not as far as I knew.

In addition to wearing hair nets, we had to slip rubber booties over our shoes and don blue paper jackets.

At the end of the tour we were told that we could keep these fashion-forward togs. I’m going to wear mine at Halloween and ring doorbells and tell folks I’m a home hygiene inspector.

On second thought, maybe not. That would be too scary.

The tour is tremendously interesting, especially if you like stainless steel. I spent most of my time gawking at the maze of gleaming pipes and tanks and gizmos and wondering, “Holy cow, what does all this do?”

Back when our two sons were grade schoolers, we decided to experiment with in-home cheese making. I was inspired by a radio cooking show that breezily described how to use a few simple ingredients to make authentic Italian mozzarella. The simple part was appealing.

But there were some items that were of concern. One: The assertion that authentic Italian mozzarella is made from water buffalo’s milk.

I know nothing about water buffalo other than they are extremely ugly and probably have dispositions to match. Such a creature likely wouldn’t have gotten along very well with our herd of Holstein cows.

Obtaining water buffalo milk seemed a bit extreme for what I hoped would be a fun experiment, so I opted to simply use milk from our farm’s tank. Next on the list of ingredients was a substance called rennet.

I had to Google it. Rennet, I learned, is an enzyme produced in the stomach lining of baby calves. Talk about Germ Central Station.

Sacrificing one of our calves seemed a bit extreme for what I hoped would be a fun experiment. I instead obtained a small amount of rennet from the dairy science department at our local university.

Since milk temperatures needed to be closely monitored, another critical item was a thermometer. I doubted that the large circular outdoor thermometer that was given to me by a feed dealer would fit into our kettle so I bit the bullet and purchased an authentic food thermometer.

At last all was ready. When the time was right – by which I mean my wife was away at work – we began our mozzarella-making experiment.

Perhaps the most difficult part was being patient while the milk slowly attained the desired temperature. They say a watched pot never boils, which was good because we didn’t want it to boil.

In other words, we couldn’t simply crank the burner up to “molten lava” and walk away. When the milk was properly heated, we stirred in the rennet.

This was followed by another anguishing wait, which caused the boys to comment that making cheese is only slightly less boring than watching paint dry.

Finally it was time. We touched a spatula to the surface of the milk and … magic. The milk had turned into curds and whey. I told the boys to keep a sharp eye out for that diminutive cheese thief known hereabouts as “Miss Muffet.”

Then came the fun part. Using our bare, germ-riddled hands, we kneaded and stretched the cheese to help develop its stringy character. The cheese’s stretchiness grew to the point where it was suggested that we make a mozzarella jump rope, but the boys vetoed the idea.

After all that time and labor, we produced maybe a pound of cheese. But it was our cheese, by golly. Cheese that had been silage and alfalfa hay just days earlier.

The best use for our mozzarella, we decided, would to be to melt it upon a pizza. So we made ourselves a cheese pizza and piled on the extra cheese until we had used up all of that day’s curd production. It was like having a little bit of pizza with our melted cheese.

I tried to hide the evidence of our escapades from my wife.

“You’ve been eating cheese pizza, haven’t you?” she asked.

“Umm … maybe. How did you know?”

“I have my ways,” she said as she plucked a string of stray mozzarella from my beard.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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