Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Production of "Artisan" Food Products at Home

Bear with me here, I will get to the point after some blathering about the above pictured cheese...

Here we have a cheese that I make with some regularity. I don't really know what I should call it, I guess it is a "provolone style" cheese as I have heavily adapted the traditional sort of recipe to my own needs and purposes. To make this cheese I use 3 gallons whole milk + 1 quart of half and half (Meadow Brook Farms, Clarksville, NY). I use both mesophilic and thermophilic cultures, it is a pasta filata cheese of the Italian school, and is brine soaked. 

The resulting cheese can be eaten at any point during its lifespan. Eaten young it is vaguely reminiscent of the standard low moisture mozzarella that you would find at any grocery store. After 4 months or so of aging it acquires some character. This cheese is great for snacking, melts well, and is fairly mellow in flavor (i.e. acceptable to children as it reminds them of string cheese). Due to the high quality dairy that Meadow Brook Farms churns out (and the fact that I don't use any adulterants) there is a freshness to this cheese that makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

So, why am I telling you all of this about the stupid cheese I make? It is because I would like to share a bit of my philosophy on the home production of "artisan" food stuffs (mostly charcuterie and cheese in my case). 

You see, when many of us set off on the road to becoming budding salami makers, cheese makers, or kraut-meisters we tend to set our sights unrealistically high. A novice cheese maker decides that he/she might like to give Roquefort cheese a go, or an aspirant of the meaty art of charcuterie might go after a large diameter, cold smoked, dry cured number... There is always the urge to produce the rare, exotic, and exciting -- the sweaty, gooey, stinky, moldy cheese that will impress your friends and scare the neighbors. 

During these lofty pursuits I think that many of us kitchen alchemists lose sight of what I believe to be the primary goal of home production -- taking quality ingredients and crafting them into foodstuffs that you and your family will actually consume with some regularity. Trying to recreate items that are made by veritable artists with hundreds of years of tradition behind them (not to mention a full compliment of facilities/equipment) is a foolish pursuit and will often result in miserable failure (and waste).

That is why I brought you through the example of my provolone-esque cheese. That cheese is a no nonsense, pedestrian affair that is not going to knock the socks off of your learned cheese aficionado. But guess what? As un-complex as it is, it is made from excellent local dairy products, isn't full of chemicals, and I actually enjoy eating it! I can produce a giant log of it relatively effortlessly and inexpensively and the stuff fulfills a good amount of my cheese eating needs.  

That is the rub I think. Master the basics of your craft, start churning out agreeable results that you can integrate into your daily diet, and then maybe move on to a novel/difficult recipe or two to spice it up a bit. Forsake the urge to make fermented Nepalese raw yak milk cheddar for the novelty of the whole affair and just go ahead and do up a nice wheel of Monterey Jack (w/milk from your local dairy) instead. 

Taking the production of a couple food items out of the hands of the mass purveyors and bringing it home is a pursuit worthy in and of its self. If you can make even half of the cheese /salami/ pickles/ sauerkraut/ bread (or whatever else) that you consume at home yourself than I think that is just the bee's knees. If you can go a step further and do all of this whilst using responsible local products than you are knocking it out of the park.

All this being said, there really is nothing better than crafting then eating/sharing your own stuff. After many years of trial and error (and the construction of Franken Fridge, my meat curing chamber) I can finally consistently produce my own small diameter, dry cured, snacking salamis like these -

These lil' salamis pretty much satisfy my salami snacking needs so I no longer have to pay the exorbitant prices charged by many purveyors of this sort of thing. After about 10 years of meddling with salamis, I am only now moving on to fancier, large diameter sorts of stuff like this pork/beef jobber with walnuts -

I have high hopes that soon I will be providing for my own sandwich salami needs, we shall see...

Ever since buying my house I have been getting increasingly involved in kitchen gardening as well. I have two big giant raised beds filled and prepped for this growing season and I look forward to finding ways to deal with all of that produce (if everything doesn't die or get eaten by Delmar's hordes of cheeky deers).

So to sum it up -- make stuff at home, but maybe try to keep it simple.
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