The upcoming Cheese Tuesday, “Summer’s Best”, will celebrate farmstead cheeses that are only available now, or are at their best during the summer months. (July 17 at 7:00)
I am often asked about seasonality: why are some cheeses not available year round, and why are some cheeses better at certain times of the year? We are talking about farmstead cheese (where the animals are raised and the cheese is made on the same farm) and small farm cheese. Industrially made cheese is the same day in, day out, year in, year out.
Well, it is all about the milk. Cows, sheep and goats all have a natural cycle of lactation, giving birth in the spring, and producing milk until the fall, when the animal goes dry, and rests up until the cycle begins in the next spring. It is easy to adjust a cow’s breeding cycle so that most members of a herd will always be producing milk. Not so easy with goats or sheep; sheep farmers usually run out of milk in October, and goats stop milking in November/December. No milk, no cheese.
Just as importantly, the content of milk changes dramatically during the milking season. After all, the purpose of milk is to feed a baby animal, and as this baby grows, its nutritional needs change, and Mamma knows best. Summer milk is relatively low in fat content, which shoots up dramatically in the fall. This summer milk is superior to fall milk if you are making hard cheeses meant to last: high fat content can lead to spoilage issues. Traditionally, Comté, a hard Alpine cheese with long aging potential is made in Summer months when the cows are grazing in alpine meadows. When the cows come inside and the fat content of the milk climbs in the fall and winter, production of Comté stops, and soft, lush and fatty Vacherin Mont d’Or is made instead.
Summer milk has other very desirable qualities. The grazing animals have a great diet of fresh grasses, wildflowers and herbs, the flavors of which are transferred to the milk and cheese. As the animals move from pasture to pasture, their daily diet changes, which leads to subtle but wonderful variations in the daily batches of cheese.
Industrial makers, on the other hand, use “standardized” milk, similar to supermarket milk that has been adjusted for fat content. No variation, no subtlety, no change. I recently read a great definition of artisan cheese making. The artisan changes the recipe to fit the milk. The industrial cheese maker changes the milk to fit the recipe. Vive la différance!