The Art of Natural Cheesemaking

review by Rachel Scherer

Are your curds and whey subverting the dominant paradigm? The premise of David Asher’s book is that while bakers, brewers, and produce fermenteers have found their way to incorporating wild microorganisms into their formulary, cheesemakers are still largely dependent on freeze-dried cultures produced industrially.

The book’s foreword by Sandor Ellix Katz, author and evangelist for food fermentation, serves to introduce and/or remind the reader that fermenting milk is an old and honored way of preserving this nutrient dense food as yogurt, kefir or cheese. From there, Asher’s introduction makes it plain that the revival of home and artisanal cheesemaking in the US and Canada (his Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking is located in British Columbia) has uncritically accepted the use of industrial cultures, and neglected the rich history of cheesemaking with wild cultures.

This book is laid out much the same as other books on home or small-scale cheesemaking – chapters on milk, cultures and other ingredients, equipment, and aging, followed by chapters with step by step recipes. The differences between this book and the others on my shelf are in the extensive discussions of the way ingredients we commonly use are produced to yield very controlled and reproducible fermentations, and how to move from them into a natural ecology of cheese with more room for improvisation on the part of the maker and of the fermenting curds.

Asher’s recipes for the most part acknowledge a starting point from a yogurt, kefir, previous whey batch, or moldy cheese already in existence, and then propagating the resulting culture to make it totally local to the experimenter’s own kitchen. The process is not unlike maintaining sourdough starter or making pain au levain with a chunk of dough from the previous rising. My personal experience with starting cheeses with whey from the previous batch have been very successful in creating a distinctly different flavor profile than inoculating with freeze-dried culture each batch. Unfortunately, as a small scale commercial producer, I know from experience that the regulatory agencies in Massachusetts would not approve my longstanding yogurt and kefir cultures from a colleague’s Uzbeck grandmother, and since they require all fermented milk products sold to the public to begin with FDA approved cultures, there is a long haul ahead to get traditional natural cheesemaking approval. This is discussed quite frankly in the book, and David Asher admits to being a “guerrilla cheesemaker”.

The book fails in one matter that is common to many of its neighbors on the bookshelf: there is no discussion of how milk from different species and/or at different points in lactation requires different handling. The only differences attributed to milks are raw vs pasteurized/homogenized. Having only ever used raw milk, and often using non-commercial cultures, I was disappointed by the broad strokes used to characterize the foundational product, the milk.

That being said, this book is wonderfully written and therefore a pleasure to just read. As a technical manual the clear explanations seem easy to follow, and I look forward to trying the recipes. There is much here to learn for experienced as well as new milk fermenteers.