Of Hastening and Freshening and Rumen Ecology – Things Learned On Our Visit to Vermont’s Cheesemakers

The Saxelby Cheesemongers team just returned from a weekend in Vermont where we were lucky enough to visit six of our cheesemakers – Consider Bardwell Farm, Twig Farm, Shelburne Farms, Jasper Hill Farm, Grafton Village Cheese, and Vermont Shepherd. When we first opened the store in 2006, our mission was to be the bridge between the cheesemaker and the cheese lovers out there who come to us to taste America’s finest cheeses. Trips like us allow us to keep that connection alive – meeting with the cheesemakers, seeing their animals and cheese caves, talking about the weather, the season, small changes made in their cheesemaking process and how their cheeses are aging illuminates this world of curds and whey that we daily inhabit.

One of the most wonderful things about cheese is this – the more you think you know about it, the deeper you dive into learning about it, the more you are humbled by the vast and infinitely complex universe that cheese inhabits. The finished wheel of cheese is a bit like the sun – the brightest thing radiating in the center, tantalizing you with a complex and infinitely colorful palette of flavors. It’s only when you start to learn about the planets, stars, comets, satellites and other galaxies around, and how they all affect and influence one another, that you scratch your head and say well, I guess we’ll just have to take this one step at a time.

This cosmos of curds and whey begins with the animal making the milk – their diet, digestive processes, environment, comfort, and their overall health – all of which impact the most important raw ingredient in the cheesemaking process. Then there is the chemistry and science of the making cheese – controlling the beneficial bacteria that acidify milk and build flavor in the wheel of cheese throughout the course of its life. Finally there is the environment where the cheese is aged – where other microbes enter the picture and (with the help of humans acting as affineurs) add their signature to the finished wheels. All of these processes owe their successes (and occasional failures) to things we cannot even see – microbes. From the soils and the grasses grown there to a ruminant’s digestive tract to milk to the finished wheel of cheese, we have untold billions of friendly microbes helping the cheese along.

Here are a few cheesy vocab words that we picked up on our trip, and what they mean to the cheeses we eat:

Freshening – Now we’re not talking about gum, or deodorant, or some other barn cleaning device here. Freshening is farm-speak for when a cow, goat, or sheep gives birth. When she freshens, her milk production kicks into gear again so that she can feed her babies, and so the farmer can (after a week or two) begin to use her milk for making cheese. The first milk that comes from an animal after giving birth is called colostrum – it is rich, super fatty milk that is loaded with antibodies that act as the babies’ crucial first boost to their immune systems. After the colostrum has all been consumed, the milk returns to a more normal consistency and can be used for cheesemaking. Most calves, kids, or lambs are bottle fed with milk from the herd until they are ready to go out on pasture and begin eating grass.

Hastening – A very romantic sounding word (in our opinion) that refers to a newly made cheese forming its rind. Young or green cheeses are put into certain environments to hasten for a few days before being moved on to their final destinations in the aging cellar. Rind formation is crucial to the finished cheese – not only does it provide flavor, it also protects the exterior of the cheese during aging. In order for a cheese to hasten properly, the environment must be a bit warmer than a normal cheese aging cave (60-71 degrees) and have a high level of humidity. This environment allows yeasts to flourish on the acidic surface of the cheese, consuming lactic acid and paving the way for future bacterial growth that will become the cheese’s rind.

Rumen Ecology (a layman’s attempt to describe a cows’ digestive system) – If cheesemaking is its own universe, then a cows’ digestive tract is another unto itself. Unique among ruminant animals (those that eat grass) cows have four stomachs operating in concert to convert grass, fibrous plant material, into milk and energy to support their 1,000 pound plus bodies. The first chamber, the rumen, is where most of the magic happens.

The rumen is like a giant fermentation chamber – the cows eat grass almost without chewing, the grass passes to the rumen where billions (yes, billions) of microbes ferment it, producing components that the cows can use for energy. Within each millimeter of the rumen, there are between 10 to 50 billion bacteria, 1 million protozoa, and variable numbers of yeasts and fungi. Whoa. The most interesting thing that we learned on our trip was that grass is not actually the cows’ food… The microbes ferment the grass to produce energy and proteins the cows can metabolize and then die, so what the cows are actually digesting is the spent bacteria from their rumen!

Here at Saxelby Cheesemongers, we are so thankful to our cheesemakers for the work that they do, and thanks to the crash course in microbiology we received over the weekend, we’re even more thankful for all of our microbial friends too!