"Mom. Why couldn't I try any of the cheese snacks after your class?"
"Well, the snacks were in the classroom, and the only way you'd have been able to try the snacks is if you had been willing to come into the classroom, and you weren't. That's fine, of course—you didn't have to go in. But the snacks weren't coming out."
"Oh. Right. I wish I had felt like going in."
"Yeah, I know. Maybe another time."
Just the other week, David Asher was in the Bay Area, and I got to meet him not once, but twice! The first time was at his Wednesday evening book signing at Omnivore Books. I couldn't have been more pleased with his Monty Python-inspired inscription in our copy of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking.
The book signing also included a kefir and cultured butter demonstration, and David offered everyone who attended the opportunity to take home their very own pet for making cheese: a grain of kefir culture. It was pretty terrific to meet David and his lovely partner, Kathryn, in person and get hugs from them across the demonstration table.
The second time I met David was several days later, on Sunday, at his Alpine and Blue Cheese workshop hosted by Pollinate Farm & Garden in Oakland. Originally, I had planned to head to Oakland without Marc or Wyatt and simply attend the three-hour class with our friend, Darcie. But that plan changed on the evening of the book signing when I unfortunately let slip to Wyatt that I was going to meet David and get our book signed. The poor boy started to cry because, as he said, "It's not FAIR that YOU get to go and I have to stay HOME!" I immediately made a quick (and clunky) course correction: I lied. I told him I had gotten confused and I actually had to go to a meeting for school that night, but we could probably meet David later in the week when I had my class. Wyatt calmed down right away and agreed that plan would be fine.
In light of Wyatt's keen interest and my lie, it seemed only right to do my best to give him the chance to meet David over the weekend. Accordingly, Marc and I planned that we would all spend Sunday in Oakland.
Before leaving for Oakland on Sunday morning, I asked Wyatt what he thought would be a good present to give David. I pointed out that he had written the book that taught us how to make cheese and had been away from his home for a long time. Wyatt responded immediately that we should bring him some of our cheese, and we should also bring him crackers so he would "have something to put his cheese on." Wyatt also suggested that we bring him some sauerkraut because, "I think it is so fun visiting places, but I miss eating sauerkraut when I'm gone."*
We met Darcie for brunch, and then all of us then headed over to Dimond Recreation Center. The plan was that Marc and Wyatt would hang out while Darcie and I attended class there. They would come back for me after class, and then Wyatt could meet David.
Darcie and I were early for class, so we got front row, center seats in a class of about ten students. Overall, the class was great. The only disappointing part was that the stove at the facility was broken, and because only one hot plate was available, we were only able to make blue cheese, not Alpine and blue as planned. But David was terrific. He spoke at length and in approachable detail about how and why he discovered and taught himself how to make cheese naturally, kefir, kefir culture, maintaining kefir grains, the importance of rennet and choosing a rennet source, cultivating Penicillium roqueforti, and making blue cheese. I truly admire David's educational approach. He presented a variety of often controversial topics, including the use of animal rennet, the importance of quality dairy products from well-treated animals, freeze-dried cheese cultures, and the value of raw milk, in a way that was never preachy or confrontational. He explained which products he uses and why, and he encouraged everyone to engage in their own conscious evaluation to decide how to proceed with their own cheesemaking. And just like at the book signing, he offered to anyone who was interested their very own kefir grain to take home.
And guess what? The Art of Natural Cheesemaking is really the only resource you need to make amazing cheese. There weren't any "secrets" that came out during class that aren't in the book. Moreover, the photos and descriptions are terrific representations of what you need to achieve at every step of the cheesemaking process. So while I would highly recommend attending any of David's workshops to meet him, experience how he teaches and meet like-minded cheesemakers in your community, you don't need to attend a class to get great results. Just buy the book and follow the instructions.
That said, I did take the following notes in class:
- Milk that is getting old and has already started fermenting will give you cheese with big balloons of gas in the curd. (So now that mystery is solved.)
- You can use a double-boiler to help keep milk the right temperature while you're allowing the curd to set.
- When you pour in rennet, just give the pot a quick stir. You can't really over-mix the kefir culture into the milk, but you can over-mix rennet.
- To dry kefir grains to store them, you can wrap them in a towel and leave them at room temperature. You should flip them every day so they don't stick to the towel. In three to four days, they will be dry, and you can store the grains. When you put them in milk again, they will re-animate and start producing kefir.
- When you drain your cheese on a stainless baking rack, be sure to put them first on a bamboo sushi rolling mat so that you avoid any rust on your cheese.
- You can age your cheeses in the refrigerator if you can't find a space that is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you age the cheeses in the refrigerator, it will take 30% longer.
- You can make the recipes in the book that call for 5 gallons of milk with 2 gallons. The cheeses will be smaller, so they will not be able to age as long. As a result, the smaller cheeses won't be as amazing as if you had made the full recipe, but they will still be great.
- If you use a plastic bin for your cheese aging cave, it doesn't have to be exactly at 90% humidity. Just wipe down any water droplets that accumulate on the inside surfaces of the box every day or two, and the humidity should be fine.
That Sunday turned out to be awfully rainy—far too rainy for Marc and Wyatt to spend over three hours outdoors at the playground. So as Marc later told me, he asked Siri what fun things there were for kids in Oakland on rainy days. Siri suggested the Chabot Space and Science Center, so they went there. I'm still hearing new details about their adventure, so it must have been a truly splendid afternoon. But by the time they returned to pick me up after class, Wyatt was crying. He had tripped near a puddle on the way into the recreation center, fallen and scraped his finger. We washed the cut, but even after a few minutes, he just couldn't pull himself together. He flatly refused to go into the classroom. David, gracious as ever, came out into the hallway to meet Wyatt who proceeded to hide behind Marc's legs. Marc then lifted him up, and Wyatt buried his face deep into Marc's neck.**
All of us grown-ups took Wyatt's emotional short circuit in stride. After chatting for a couple of minutes, I gave David his gift bag. He immediately opened the cheese, took a long, appreciative sniff, and exclaimed, "And look! It's so gooey!" He also remarked that just that morning he had run out of sauerkraut—how wonderful that he now had some more.
Even though Wyatt hid during this entire exchange, he made it clear to me later that he had listened to every word. He was beyond delighted that David appreciated the presents. And he is still lamenting having missed out on the snacks after class.
*Crazy, I know. But I swear it's true.
**What can I say, other than that the dear child must have been starstruck.