The Observer’s father developed a dairy allergy toward the end of his high school years, the product of a bona fide milkoholism Yours Truly duly inherited. Our affection for the 2 percent runs as deep as the wellspring of chocolate syrup we’ve preserved in The Observatory’s refrigerator door for so many-odd years. You might then sympathize with our frustration (and our nausea) when, one recent night, we pulled out the gallon jug and encountered a mostly liquid solution. Hard to believe that stomach-turning goop is the stuff delicious cheese is made from.
Motivated equally by curiosity and a desire for closure, The Observer dialed up Kent Walker, a local artisan cheesemaker, to solicit a tour of his operation and to better understand the process by which the nectar of our bones solidifies into cheddar, gouda and brie.
Walker, 29, runs a humble — though profitable — enterprise, tucked inside a Razorback Air Filter warehouse out on Pepper Avenue east of the Clinton Presidential Library. He started cheesing three years ago after watching a few of his buddies launch home-brewing operations. “It’s complementary,” he said. Business has only expanded in those three years, having blossomed from the kitchen of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Center Street into the facility Yours Truly toured last week. Three rooms comprise the establishment — a production kitchen, an office (which doubles as both a bedroom and a carpentry shop) and a cheese cave.
The kitchen includes a 500-gallon vat, which holds the milk that Walker curdles into cheese by adding healthy bacteria and an enzyme called rennet, extracted from calf stomachs. “Cooked” cheeses, like Parmesan and cheddar, are heated at temperatures higher than the body temperature of the animal that supplied the milk, which makes them harder and more acidic. Likewise, “uncooked” cheeses, such as gouda, are heated at temperatures below that of the original animal, leaving them softer and runnier. Similar to red versus white in the wine community, cooked versus uncooked marks a dividing line among queso connoisseurs. Once the curds have hardened and some of the whey — the liquid element of milk — has drained from the vat, the curds are cut, cooked some more, formed into wheels in a plastic mold — excuse the pun — salted and pressed on Walker’s handmade double-piston, water-weighted cheese press. Then into the cave they go.
Folks, you cannot appreciate the cool and quiet solemnity of a well-stocked cheese cave until you’ve wandered in one yourself. We found it nothing less than a veritable treasure trove of mold-encrusted gems. Were it not a functional refrigerator and faintly dank, Yours Truly might have found it a fine place to sit for a while. Beautifully named wheels — Montasio, Ophelia, Blue — line the racks of the cave for years, flipped once daily to ensure that an even coat of rind and (nontoxic) mold develops around their exteriors. Months-old 20-pound hunks of a prototype golden-orange Parmesan fill what Walker calls the “Research-and-Development” rack in the back of the cave. Walker said the pilot Parm wheels will have to age for another couple of years before they’re released to public tongues. The taste is in the time, and time can be the trickiest element to manage around a cheese enterprise.
Making a full batch of cheese takes up to eight hours, so Walker keeps a cot behind his desk in case he needs a few minutes of shut-eye during the occasional nighttime cycle. (As an aside, late-night cheese batches have made Walker an occasional 4 a.m. Midtown Billiards burger-goer, the type of late-working folk for whom David Koon and Benji Hardy advocated in their cover story two weeks ago.)
“Recently, we got frozen goat milk in the morning, which had thawed by that evening, and we had cow milk coming in at 6 a.m. the next morning,” Walker said. “So we couldn’t wait until the day after to do the goat milk since it wouldn’t be fresh, so we had to make it that night.”
The Observer found it a little funny the way freshness means everything to the man who spoils milk for money. But, as we discovered, it really isn’t that simple.
“We let it spoil with style,” Walker said. If only we could say the same of our own.