Weight, Salt, and Transhumance...Oh My!!
On this second round of the Birth of a Cheese tasting for Culture Magazine and the Cellars at Jasper Hill, we continued to imagine how science played a role during the transition from the first iteration of the cheeses to the two that were currently in front of us. Nerds that we are, we analyzed the cheeses’ appearance, aroma, texture, and flavor while keeping in mind the chemistry and microbiology of these Alpine-style, washed rind cheeses.
The verdict? The last seven months have been good to these Alpha Tolman. We enjoyed their complex, fruity noses, rounded out by their smoky, nutty rinds. Plus, these snackers melt to ooey, gooey perfection on bread or veggies, like a good Alpine style cheese should. Raclette, anyone??
As scientists, we mused on influence of weight on cheese and cheese making. For the casual cheese consumer, weight measurement during cheese making is a detail and at most, a final determinant of cost. To the cheese maker, however, weight is a heavy subject. Accurate and precise weighing of milk, culture, and added ingredients in cheese can make or break the resulting cheese. Even before any curd is made, measuring the weight of milk per animal per day can inform the cheese maker of abnormalities with the animal (i.e., Is the animal sick, heat-stressed, eating correctly, etc...?), and how this milk might affect his cheese. Once in the cheese house, weight is currency that monitors the process: used to meter milk poured into the cheese vat, weigh the curd to check for yield, and apply correct amounts of salt, the titan of all spices.
Relating this weighty issue to the cheeses #120109 and #120125 in front of us, adding the correct amount of salt to the cheese curd or brine for an Alpine-style is crucial to reproducing this regional and temporally specific class of cheese. Traditionally, Alpine-style cheeses were made high in the mountains during Transhumance, or the movement of livestock and herders to higher or different grounds. During this movement, all cheese making supplies had to be moved along with the herds. This included, importantly, a staple ingredient in cheese, salt. Being heavy, salt was used sparingly in traditional Alpine-style cheeses by the cheesemakers who stayed with their herds all summer up in the mountains. We both noticed the lack of salty taste in cheeses #120109 and #120125, much as we imagined the cheese maker probably hoped to achieve.
Other things we noticed in both cheeses were the presence of minute holes from bacterial gas production. Gas production in cheese (see “Swiss” cheese) directly relates to bacterial fermentation of lactose and lactic acid -- how certain bacteria in the cheese gobble up the cheese and literally pass gas inside the pliable matrix of cheese. Typically, these gassy bacteria thrive in hospitable low-salt, Alpine-style cheeses. Altering the salt content of Alpha Tolman may add desired flavors and textures, but to keep the gaseous holes as is, a different tact may give the cheesemaker better results.
Overall, we think that Alpha Tolman has many good qualities (texture, aroma, and appearance), but we do see some room for improvement. To win over traditional Gruyere and Appenzeller consumers, Alpha Tolman will need to increase the flavor profile of the cheese. There are many good flavors in the cheeses, but we feel that it’s not complex enough. Maybe changing the amount of salt added to the curds will effect the change that’s desired? We’ll find out during our next tasting of the Birth of a Cheese experience!
--Daina and Steve from Ithaca, NY