Artisan Italian Cheesemaking at Ferndale Farmstead Cheese
I’m here today with Daniel Wavrin co-owner and cheesemaker at Ferndale Farmstead Cheese and we’re going to discuss a number of questions about cheese making because he’s got some really fantastic cheeses and is clearly very knowledgeable about artisan Italian cheesemaking.
Chef David, “What awards have you won in the recent past for your cheeses?”
Daniel, “Well this year we were lucky to win 3 awards at the American Cheesemaker Society competition. The ACS is a national organization where all the owners and cheesemakers participate in an annual competition held in a different city each year and this year we won three awards in three different categories for our Scamorza cheese, our Caciotta cheese, and our Asiago Pressa.”
Chef David, “That’s awesome! So what makes a equality cheese? What should chefs look for?”
Daniel, “In my opinion, a quality cheese is defined not only by the skill of the cheesemaker but also by the quality of the ingredients. Cheese is an amazing creation because it only includes 4 ingredients (milk, cultures, rennet, and salt) which give rise to the plethora of flavors and types of cheese available today.”
“Cheese is a concentration of milk via fermentation. As with anything, it will be harder to concentrate low quality starting material into high quality finished product. So starting with a high quality milk is #1. To us, that means not only high components of fat and protein to give it rich flavor, but also low Somatic Cell Counts (SCC) and low bacterial populations which are naturally present in milk from the farm. This rich but extremely clean milk allows for flavors that are enjoyable all the way through the tasting experience.”
“The first taste of the cheese should eventually give way to the flavor of the milk it was made from. This “finish” is the best way to judge the quality of cheese in my opinion, because it illustrates the quality of milk from whence it came. There is much complexity around what goes into the science of milk production, but disciplined crop harvest and storage and the environment the animals live in are also essential to good quality milk.”
Chef David, “When you’re talking about quality milk how does the diet of the cows affect the flavor of their milk and the flavor of the cheese?”
Daniel, “The animal’s diet directly affects the cheese because milk is a vessel. Flavors from the field will carry over to the milk, for example if a herd got into an onion patch, the milk may not be suitable for a proper quality cheese because the milk will cause off flavors of onion in the cheese. This is why a quality farming practice and storage program are so important to ultimate cheese quality, especially for artisan Italian cheesemaking or any other artisan cheese.”
“A well known example in the cheese world is if spoilage organisms grow in silage, the butyric acid producing and spore forming bacteria can affect the aged cheese made from the milk produced from the spoiled feed. The spores carry through the animals milk and are actually activated or woken up by the pasteurization temperatures. Subsequently, these spores produce gas that creates defects in the cheese in the form of gas holes or cracks. It can be so bad that the wheel of cheese will blow up like a basketball!”
Daniel, “So, the diet directly determines the quality of the milk and the cows need a balanced diet of many different nutrients in order to be healthy and produce quality milk. So for us that means having a feed ration that covers all of the nutritional requirements of the animals, as well as sourcing the ingredients for that ration and knowing that the feeds come from sources that we can understand and control. For this reason we produce about 90% of the feed that makes up the rations for our cows and in doing so we can ensure that the quality of the harvest and storage is superior.”
“Seed to Cheese”…this is the motto or ethos of Ferndale Farmstead Artisan Cheesemaker Daniel Wavrin
Chef David, “What is a common diet for cows raised for cheese making milk?”
Daniel, “A common milk production cow diet in the United States will include a mix of many different nutrients that will include grasses as a large basis of the diet. Our farm uses about a 60% grass-based diet along with legumes such as alfalfa hay which is a legume we grow, as well as dried cornflake for grain, dried distillers, soya, and other nutrient sources such as whey for protein.”
“My father is a veterinarian and he takes care of the health of our animals and develops the specific feed which both benefits our cows and yields high quality milk. We grow the majority of our own feed, control the storage of that feed, manage our own herd of cows, they are milked in the morning and 15 minutes later that milk is being tuned into cheese! We truly are a farm to table operation.”
Chef David, “Are there any cheese myths you would like to discredit?”
Daniel, “Many cheeses in the US are improving in quality, however Mozzarella is still a far cry from its original Italian version or quality. Here in the USA, most producers make fresh Mozzarella with vinegar or citric acids added directly to the milk instead of using cheesemaking cultures as they do in Italy. This diminishes the flavor as the cheese is essentially dead rather than a live cultured product. Beyond that, a bleach is used to dye Mozzarella pure white with a compound known as Titanium Dioxide. This nasty ingredient has no place in cheesemaking and is used to mask the natural yellowish color of rich cow’s milk cheeses.”
“A similar comparison can be made with Cheddar. In recent years White Cheddar has become popular but years ago everybody thought Cheddar was supposed to be orange, not realizing that the orange color was an additive. Today Mozzarella is sort of in a similar situation in that what the majority of US cheesemakers are currently producing for Mozzarella is quite a bit different from the original Mozzarella made with cow’s milk in Italy. True Italian Mozzarella cheese is known as Fior Di Latte Mozzarella and it is this traditional artisan Italian version which we make here at Ferndale Farmstead using cultures that we bring directly from Naples, Italy.”
“We are very proud to be making the traditional Fior Di Latte Mozzarella using true cultures, which yields an authentic Italian Mozzarella with a more forward flavor, a firmer bite, and a characteristic cream color (as opposed to the bleached white color of domestic Mozzarella). In doing so we are excited to be leading a revolution in flavor in fresh Mozzarella cheese within the United States.”
Chef David, “Tell me about the pasteurization process you prefer for your artisan Italian cheesemaking at Ferndale Farmstead.”
Ferndale Farmstead milks their cows in a barn across the way from their cheese making facility. It’s close enough that the fresh milk is pumped into the cheese making building in as little as 15 minutes after milking the cows. Here it goes through a centrifuge which separates the cream from the milk. Then the milk is pumped through a high tech HTST High Temperature/Short Time Pasteurizer. HTST pasteurization heats the milk to around 161° for 15 seconds, versus the more standard Batch Pasteurizer which heats milk to 145° for 30 minutes or longer.
Daniel says that the HTST pasteurization method, although more costly to implement, yields milk which is more like raw milk in flavor and therefore yields a more quality finished product. And, it requires less energy to operate which is more consistent with their green footprint philosophy.
From there, the milk is pumped to the next stage in the process. We have 3 milk vats and each one holds about 700 gallons of milk. Up to the vat stage all the cheeses are basically the same. After that is when the process begins to be different for each unique cheese. Each of our cheeses uses a different culture and a different recipe to produce each unique cheese.
Chef David, “Describe the process of culture selection. How many different cheese cultures are there for any given cheese variety?”
Daniel, “Depending on the type of cheese and where it is produced, cheese can have any number of cultures. Raw milk cheeses may add none and instead utilize naturally present bacteria to drive the fermentation, especially in traditional cheesemaking regions in Europe. Some cheesemakers in the US may use a cocktail of several strains, perhaps 5-10 cultures to achieve this diversity in flora. Some more simple cheeses may only use one.”
Chef David, “What separates one culture from another as far as quality/flavor goes?”
Daniel, “Different bacterial culture strains produce different effects in cheese in terms of flavor, texture, and appearance. Gas producing cultures used in Swiss cheesemaking known as Propionic acid producing Shermanii provide the “eyes” or large holes found in the texture. Blue mold cultures known as Penicillium Roqueforti produce the veining found in blue cheese as well as the astringent flavor that results from the breakdown of certain parts of the fat and protein. Many other types are used to create the various flavors in various cheese types.”
Chef David, “About how long does each cheese stay in the vat?”
Daniel, “Our cheeses take anywhere from 2 hours to make up to 12 hours to make it depending on the type. Our fresh Mozzarella is a slow fermented and cultured version which can take 10 to 15 hours in the vat to produce.”
“One of the most artisan of all aspects of our cheeses at Ferndale Farmstead is in the way that we cut. We cut with two separate cutters rather than using only cheese wire knives or cutters. We also use a second pair of knives known as Spinos or Lyres . This unique cut is done entirely by hand and by eye. It is a very difficult technique that took me nine months to learn cutting with my mentor Raffaele everyday.”
“Each Italian cheese that we make uses a different culture, a different amount of rennet, a different cut, a different aging time, different brines, and a different technique to produce.”
Chef David, “So how do you create different varieties of the same type of cheese? For instance, different varieties of bleu cheese.”
Daniel, “You can create different varieties of cheese by altering the process by which it is made, however you may still end up with a result which is similar in flavor profiles due to the lack of diversity within the cheese culture pool.”
“Almost all cheesemakers and artisan cheese makers in the US currently source their cultures from three producers: Cargill, Chris Hansen, and Danisco companies. This can lead to a similarity across the board in cheese flavors in American.”
“Many of the differences in flavor that we can taste in similar cheeses is based upon the taste of place or the terroir. This taste of place results from the environment where the animals, the crops, and the cheese is produced and living.”
Chef David, “What bad trends, if any, do you see happening?”
Daniel, “Some alarming trends that I am concerned with personally are the increasingly high costs of production. Milk prices are high, cheesemakers must work extremely hard and are expensive to train, and food safety regulations are always increasing costs to the producer while the consumer wants to pay the same price or less than they are accustomed to. This is true for all dairy products.”
Chef David, “What good trends, if any, are you glad to see in cheese making?”
Daniel, “I am happy to see a trend not only in artisan Italian cheesemaking but in the cheese making community in general towards the use of more diverse starter flora. Starter cultures can be a source of similarity between producers or a source of great uniqueness. Some artisans are experimenting now with natural fermentations and isolating strains of bacteria found on the farm that are desirable for cheese production. This may open a whole New World of flavors, literally, since we Americans have been sourcing their cultures from only a few European origins up to this point.”
Chef David, “What is the best way to store various cheese varieties after opening?”
Daniel, “Bleu – Bleu Cheese is best stored in foil in my experience. It needs to breath but not too much.
Asiago – aged cheese like Asiago can be stored in cheesepaper (formaticum) after it is removed from vacuum for a short period until it dries out.
Mozz – Mozzarella as a fresh cheese is best consumed fresh and never frozen. Freezing and plastic wrap after removal from vacuum changes flavor. Unfortunately true fresh Mozzarella is very difficult to store!”