I had been well-trained in the art of composing a cheese board: combine fresh with aged cheeses, cow milk with goat and sheep, soft textures with firm, subtle aromas with pungent. Add wine. Achieve satisfaction. I was even getting rather proficient in remembering the curriculum of particular cheeses: this one from high mountain ranges, covered in luscious pastures, that one from craggy hills where sheep roam freely nibbling on wild herbs. But I hadn’t yet quite understood cheese.
My epiphany came one morning in February. We had started our extra early, to witness the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the famous hard cheese of the Po plains of Italy, through all its steps. The production starts when the milk from the morning milking comes in, around 8am at the latest. To be honest: we missed the very start. When we arrived, the milk was already heating in the giant cone-shaped copper cauldrons, half-sunk into the floor.
But we got to see the rest of the spectacle: how the warm milk is stirred about, how the rennet is poured in to make it coagulate, how it coagulates, after 12 minutes, without fail, as it has done for centuries. The curd is cut into small pieces, about the size of wheat grains. The stirring and cutting, the hard labour, is today done by a machine, a tool moved by a motor. But the master cheese maker still has to be here every morning, to check the curd. He does it by hand, literally, dipping his hands into the warm fluid and rubbing the white solid flecks between his thumb and fingers, to check the consistency. The curd, cut into tiny flakes, is left for an hour in the cauldron to settle and collect into a massive ball at the bottom. This is then heaved out, with the help of wooden poles and the labour of two men, and hung over the cauldrons in a cheese cloth to drain. Then it is pressed into a mould, left to drain further for 24 hours, after which it has acquired its typical shape and can begin its long ageing process.
All this I knew before. I had studied the process in books and powerpoint slides. But the cognitive link only clicked into place when the cheesemaker broke off a chunk of the huge ball of curd hanging in its cheese-cloth cradle and handed it around on a piece of oil paper. It tasted of – nothing. It was the mouthfeel that enchanted me, warm, rubbery-soft and squeaky, with the faintest aroma of sweet milk. None of the nutty, savoury aroma, which comes from many months of ageing. But not the soft creaminess of milk either, or the refreshing acidity of yoghurt. This was cheese, in its embryonic stage. It was the missing link, the step between the pasture and the cheese board. I got it now.