In a world of food allergies, dieting, sustainable agriculture and the like, I’ve found cheese is one of the hardest delights to give up. Cheese, after all, is Fat And Salt, and rivals Fat And Sugar in popularity.
Did our colonial ancestors appreciate it as well? Likely so, but in different ways. As long as people have been raising or domesticating milk animals, people have been drinking milk and trying to use it before the leftovers spoil. There’s butter and there’s cheese. Farmer cheese, or pot cheese, was the standard, yet few of us eat it now, as we’ve moved on to aged cheese. Let me explain:
Farmer’s cheese uses the process of adding something to make the milk curdle. It doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? But think cottage cheese. We do eat it. Curdle? Curds? Yes. Cottage cheese is the closest thing we have to the process. By adding vinegar, citrus juice, rennet, milk changes. It doesn’t become immune to deterioration (unless it’s processed American Cheese), but it lasts a lot longer. Cheese was a common European product and even now, cheese is rarely a part of Asian cuisines. Europeans brought cheesemaking to the “New World”. Sorry Wisconsin, but the northeast colonies were the heart of cheese-making land long before you saw a Guernsey cow! Cheese in some form was found around the world wherever dairy animals are kept. Africa, The Middle East, the Americas and certainly Europe.
The colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Eastern Massachusetts were full of these European dairymen. The Cheese culture (ahem) spread to western Massachusetts, New York and into Ohio after the Revolutionary War. Parts of Ohio were considered the center of cheesemaking country! The dairy industry continued to spread west.
What’s farmer cheese? Take fresh milk (unpasteurized—in the old days this also meant straining out things you definitely didn’t want in your milk or cheese),and add rennet. Rennet is a product derived from a calf’s stomach. Today you can still buy rennet or you can use vinegar or lemon. In colonial times, rennet and warm milk would sit in large trays in the coolest part of the milk shed or kitchen, and begin to separate. Ask Miss Muffet about those curds and whey, will you? Colonial milkmaids helped the process along and eventually bagged up the curds to drain. Yes, this is where CHEESECLOTH came from, and they were left with curds. What drained off was the whey and it made a great basis for cooking and baking or drinking, just like buttermilk.
In some cases the curds are pressed to further remove whey and create a more solid –yet soft—form of spreadable cheese. Farmer’s cheese is generally left as is or flavorings can be added. Chives, for instance.
The other cheeses we love are taken a step further. They are aged. There’s a science and an art to it. Think of all the cheeses you might eat in one day. Cream cheese, cheddar cheese, feta. They’re all nothing without salt and a specialized aging process. Farmers with more time and competitiveness took those steps. Today, in the Finger Lakes area of New York State, we have a CHEESE TRAIL!
Most of us these days can think of at least ten types of cheese we use in our diet. (Unless you are milk intolerant!) Have you ever made your own cheese?