Like fine wine, the making of a quality cheese requires a foundation of knowledge, years of practice and a certain amount of art. But one doesn't need to be an affineur or cheesemaker to grasp the elementary steps of this delectable product.
All cheese is made from milk, but the variety is astounding. Though most commercial cheese today uses cow's milk, it wasn't always so. Even today there are many specialty cheeses made, as they were thousands of years ago, from goat's milk, sheep's milk or even the milk of horses. Buffalo's milk has been used to make a certain kind of mozzarella.
Whatever forms the base, the basic process is essentially the same. Left to its own devices in heat, milk will sometimes curdle. That process can be helped along by vinegar or the addition of certain kinds of acid or acid-producing bacteria.
Often lactococci are used, sometimes lactobacilli or streptococci. Yes, who knew that something that gives humans a nasty disease could be used to create a fine cheese product? Swiss cheese uses a propionibacter shermani culture that produces carbon dioxide bubbles in the cheese, which makes its distinctive holes. The different bacteria used contribute heavily to the product's final flavor.
The curdling process results in curds (the solid chunks) and whey (the liquid portion). Whey has been drunk for centuries and provides excellent nutrition. But the curds form the basis for cheese. Depending on which bacteria are used and exactly how the heating and pressing processes are performed at this point, different cheeses result.
Rennet is added causing the cheese to harden into a strong, rubbery gel for most types of cheeses. The proportion is varied, with less being used for fresh, soft cheeses and more for harder, longer-aged varieties.
The curds are separated from the whey in a collander-type device, then either moistened or dried. For cheeses that are intended to be very dry, or already contain excess moisture, the cheese may be set up high in a dryer, near ventilation. For more moist cheese, it may be set in a shed closer to the bottom, where the air is more dense with water.
After the initial drying process, the cheese is pressed into the desired shape often a 'wheel' - a large flat-sided donut shape for aging. At this point, the affineur enters the scene. Not a cheesemaker, per se, the affineur is an expert in taking the cheese at an early stage and aging it to perfection.
Much as a winemaker might get his grapes, or even the must, from someone else, then applying his knowledge, the expert affineur has vast experience turning ordinary cheese into a work of art.
This aging process may be as short as a few weeks, or as long as six months or more, depending on the type and style of cheese being matured. During this period it may be salted, have emulsifiers added or various other refining tasks applied.
The final result is then molded, stretched, chopped and/or washed to be consumed or marketed. A rind may develop naturally, or it can be applied in the form of wax to seal the cheese.
So, next time when you bite into one of those delicious chunks of yellow, white or bluish works of art give a thought to the artists who created it.