Last week, I made reference to my favorite cheesemaking truism, that you can always make bad cheese from good milk, but you can never make good cheese from bad milk. A number of people asked me about this, (actually, one person mentioned it in passing, but I’m going to clarify and expound on it never the less) and what is meant by “good milk”.
Cheesemakers sometimes make mistakes and turn very good milk into bad cheese (although you’ll probably never find one to admit it since there is always the farmer to blame.) But no amount of talent or praying can turn poor quality milk into high quality cheese.
What determines good quality milk? Basically, good quality milk is clean, has relatively high butterfat and protein with a good ratio between the two and the milk has depth of flavor. This is essential to good cheese and it is getting harder and harder to find.
Which is why prior to opening Zingerman’s Creamery, I spent six months talking to dairy farmers and searching for “good milk”. The conversation would usually begin with me asking the farmer how many cows they had, to which they would almost unfailingly respond, “I have 300 (200, 500 or whatever) ‘producers”. Such was the vernacular of the dairy farmer and wanting to demonstrate a professionalism, I altered my approach and dutifully asked them how many “producers” they had. Then, by total luck, I ran into Nikki who manages the herd at Calder Dairy. I put on my most professional and pretentious face and asked her how many producers she had, to which she responded “I have 120 girls and I name them all.”
I ran into Nikki at an event last month and she mentioned that she had to get back to the farm because the hoof trimmer was coming. Hoof trimming is one of those hundreds of details that go unnoticed unless you’re a dairy farmer, but like horses or the nails on your dog or cat, cows need to have their hooves trimmed from time to time. I asked her how often this occurs and she said that they do it about three times a year, because the Amish man that comes to do it can only do about thirty cows a day, since he files them by hand.. The usual practice is to use an electric chipper, which is much faster, but like wood chipping is hard to control and often clips the hooves down to the quick and causes discomfort to the cows. I had visions of cows limping away from the hoof chipper and Nikki confirmed that that is not uncommon, so Nikki has the hooves filed gently by hand by the Amish hoof trimmer. I can see the dairy farmers with 300 milk producing units rolling their eyes in disbelief at the thought of investing that much expense in the comfort of a producer.
There is no one on earth that can taste Calder milk or the cheese we make from it and say, “wow, it tastes like they hand trim the hooves of those cows.” But in a very real sense you do. You taste that the milk comes, not from producer number 174, but from Mary or Gloria. You taste that the cow didn’t suffer from the pain of walking on sore feet. You taste that Nikki’s girls are kept around milking long after their “prime efficiency” has passed. You taste respect and care given to the cows.
It is our challenge and duty to match that care and respect when we make the cheese from the milk of Nikki’s “girls” and we hope that you taste all of this and more in every product we make. But on the occassion that you don’t, “it’s probably the farmer’s fault.”