Cheesemaking: A D.I.Y. Manual. A Guide to Making Wonderful Cheeses at Home

February 21st, 2011

Matilde Calandrelli and Donato Nicastro

La Biblioteca di Caseus, 2008 

Review by Susan Marquis

This little book is a release we should cherish.  Published by Caseus, the providers of the highly technical cheesemaking magazine by the same name, Cheesemaking: A D.I.Y. Manual was originally published in Italian under the name, Formaggio – Fai da Te.  The Italian version has been through four editions and is much beloved in Italy. The translation into English was done Michelina (Miki) Ciman, a recognized Italian cheesemaker and chef in South Africa, and just published in July 2008.  Thank you, Miki!

Cheesemaking… provides a thoughtfully organized presentation of the basics of converting milk to cheese, the tools of home cheesemaking, and a glossary of cheesemaking terms.  More importantly, it is a comprehensive collection of forty farmstead and artisanal cheeses, nearly all of them Italian and instructions for making each.  Cheeses are separated into six categories – fresh, semi-soft, matured, exotic, natural acidification, and, “…cheese but not cheese.”  The intriguingly named “Exotic Cheeses” section, reflecting the Italian sensibility that cheeses outside of Italy are rarely considered options, includes Camembert, Feta, Quark and a cheese based on Reblochon.  “Cheese but not cheese” covers fresh and aged ricotta as well as yogurt.  The collection offers insight into a range of Italian cheeses largely unknown by those outside of the country.  The presented cheeses are generally specific to regions or towns.  Many of these cheeses are produced by only a very few farmstead producers or no longer produced at all commercially in Italy. 

Samples from the cheeses included begin with Caciofiore, a goat’s milk cheese using the sap of the fig tree for rennet and no added starter cultures, a local cheese produced in southern Italy that has now largely disappeared.  Vastedda is the only pasta filata, or stretched curd cheese, made from sheep’s milk.  Produced in several Sicilian provinces, Vastedda is placed into soup plates after stretching and before brining to achieve its characteristic shape.  Cheesemaking…describes several variations of Robiola including a fresh cheese with no aging and a bloomy rind (white surface mold) cheese.  Intriguing, and unknown to Cheese Enthusiast, are aged cheeses including “Hard Uncooked Curd Cheese” which is known as Bra and has been made at least since 1371; “Sbrinz,” a Swiss-style cheese made in the Italian provinces of Brescia, Cuneo, and Torino; and,  “Toma,” a raw cow’s milk cheese typically produced in the province of Turin. In addition to traditional cheeses, Cheesemaking… includes descriptions and guidelines for several cheeses recently developed by the “Istituto Sperimentale per la Zootenica di Bella,” near Potenza in Southern Italy.  This institute is the home of the two authors of Formaggio –Fai da Te.  New cheeses include variations of traditional cheeses such as Caciotta, a lightly aged cow’s milk or goat/sheep/cow’s milk cheese of central Italy.  It is interesting to note that these “new” cheeses are relatively minor variations of the traditional cheese (for example, in one version of Caciotta, they use Penicillium candidum to produce a white surface mold; in another, they rub the outside of the cheese with thyme).  While such modifications would receive little notice in American cheesemaking, they are experimental and cutting edge in a country that has been making traditional cheeses defined by region and specific method for hundreds of years.

A few of these cheeses raise a challenging aspect of Cheesemaking…  Toma uses raw milk and naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes to develop the acidity needed in cheesemaking.  Calf rennet is used for coagulation but there are no added starter cultures.  Toma is not alone in that many of the rennet-coagulated cheeses in this book do not use added cultures and are dependent upon the milk to develop the acidity required for aging. Some of these cheeses have a relatively high pH 24 hours into the cheesemaking process and are thus slow to convert lactose to lactic acid.  If the acidity develops through the naturally occurring bacteria in the milk, the cheese may age and will have some shelf life.  But if the acidity stays low, there is some risk of contamination that would be difficult to identify if you have not grown up making these cheeses, or had at least tasted the cheese prior to trying to make it – something that is virtually impossible for the fresh cheeses without travel to Italy.  When making these cheeses, you’ll need to be exceptionally confident in the quality of your milk, maintain highly sanitary conditions and track the pH!

Cheesemaking: A D.I.Y. Manual is, therefore, not the book to use as a beginning cheesemaker.  Recipes, although I prefer the term “guidelines,” are clearly laid out but do not identify each step in the cheesemaking process nor the characteristics the cheesemaker should be looking for along the way.  (Note: The challenges and opportunities of these guidelines may be seen in Cheese Enthusiast’s “Do Try This At Home” column.)  If you would like to make these cheeses, some cheesemaking experience would be invaluable and a sense of experimentation and adventure is essential. Oh, and a pH meter would not be a bad idea. 

But I do not mean to sell this book short.  Cheesemaking… is an invaluable resource for those who are curious about the traditional cheeses of Italy.  It fills a niche separate from the essential Slow Food book, Italian Cheese, or other collections of Italian cheeses — describing how some of the most traditional cheeses may be produced on the home scale.  The photos of each cheese and the cheesemaking process, combined with the brief discussion of the cheese’s origin, provide insights never before offered in English.  Looking through Steve Jenkins’ Cheese Primer, I found a quote he highlighted from The DOC Cheeses of Italy: A Great Heritage.  “With this or that cheese, whole villages have expressed themselves through the centuries.  Cheese is the visiting card the past generations present their grand- and great-grandchildren, the family book in which the ancestors’ memories are kept.”[1]  Cheesemaking: A D.I.Y. Manual allows us to share in this family book, discovering cheeses that have been made for hundreds of years by families and farmers providing nourishment and the comfort of tradition and place to generations.

Cheesemaking: A D.I.Y. Manual, as well as other intriguing cheese, food and wine-related books, may be found at Rabelais bookstore:

Originally appeared in Cheese Enthusiast 2

[1] Steve Jenkins, Cheese Primer, Workman, 1996, p. 185.

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