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Cheese Makers for a Day

Some of Chicagoland's best chefs head for Coopersville, Michigan to get their hands curdy.

Rick Gresh, Sarah McDonnell (hidden), Kendal Duque, Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr., and Paul Virant

May 14, 2009

Late last month I was sitting with a group of Chicago chefs around a table in a Michigan brewpub listening to Giles Schnierle talk about the fresh cheese curds we’d be making the following day. “This is that quintessential fresh dairy experience,” he said. “That experience you haven’t had since you sucked on a tit.”

Schnierle, who operates the Great American Cheese Collection, is a champion of small, artisanal cheese makers and supplies hundreds of their cheeses to chefs. He’d organized this field trip so some of his customers could get some hands-on experience at Grassfields Organic Cheese with fifth-generation farmer Jesse Meerman. If some cheese got sold as a result, so much the better. “The more these guys understand how something happens, the more likely they are to promote it,” he told me.

Meerman and his wife, Betsy, joined Schnierle and the chefs around the table at the New Holland Brewing Company for a multicourse meal with the brewpub’s chef, Matt Millar. The chefs—who included Paul Virant of Vie, Heaven on Seven’s Jimmy Bannos and son Jimmy Jr., Marianne Sundquist of In Fine Spirits, and Rick Gresh of David Burke’s Primehouse—drank beer paired with the courses by New Holland’s Fred Bueltmann. Jesse Meerman, as befitting a dairyman, drank milk.

Making cheddar at Grassfields Organic Cheese

At the end of the meal the towheaded 31-year-old, who drinks about a gallon of the white stuff every day, stood and addressed the chefs with a brief history of the evolution of cheese making, beginning with Middle Eastern nomads and ending in the Netherlands, where his ancestors came from. Unlike the French, said Meerman, who make hundreds of different cheeses and “like to experience life,” the utilitarian Dutch “like to do things cheap,” which leads to standardization. The Dutch are “more about getting things done,” he said. “We like something that we know, and is familiar, and we can eat it, and it sustains us, and we can go do stuff.”

Meerman, who’s been making cheese for ten years, began by playing around in the kitchen sink, then gradually built his skills by visiting cheese makers in Alabama, Vermont, New York, and Wisconsin. By 2002 he’d started the Grassfields cheese operation on his family’s farm. But even today, the local descendants of the first Dutch settlers in the area tend to reject his raw-milk organic Gouda for the homogenous stuff imported from Holland. “I can strive my whole life and try to make that same cheese and it’s never gonna be that, because I’m not in the Netherlands,” he said. “I don’t have those cows. I’m not that cheese maker. I don’t have that equipment. I have to learn to have a more Mediterranean style, which is ‘This is the best cheese that can be made on this farm, and if you don’t like it that’s OK.’”

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Early the next morning the group—joined by former Sepia chef Kendal Duque and Broadway Cellars’ Sarah McDonnell—gathered around the stainless-steel rectangular Dari-Kool cheese vat at the Meermans’ farm. We’d be making cheddar; Grassfields produces two kinds, along with Gouda, Edam, Leyden, and four other cheeses.

The vat was filled with 4,000 pounds of unpasteurized milk, drawn from about 130 of Meerman’s grass-fed cows that very morning. Around 7 AM he added a mesophilic bacterial starter culture, and about half an hour later he added 16 ounces of rennet and stirred it around. So began the slow, meditative process of turning milk into cheese. “This is the business of time,” Schnierle had said the night before. “Expressed in waiting.”

As the bacteria grew in the vat, the acidity level increased. Enzymes in the rennet caused the milk protein to coagulate and gel. While the group waited for the curds to set, Meerman gave a brief tour of the barn, where the cows are walked in from the pasture twice a day. About 20 minutes later they returned to the vat, where the milk had solidified, achieving a Jell-O-like consistency. Meerman inserted a knife and observed what he called a “clean break”—he was able to slice into the curd without anything sticking to the blade.

He then brought out a pair of harps, metal frames strung with wires three eighths of an inch apart. We rolled up our sleeves and took turns plunging them into the bottom of the vat, dragging them through the curd till it separated into smaller and smaller pieces and began to give off yellowish whey. The curds felt like warm, soft tofu, and the fat in the mixture was so rich it coated our arms like moisturizer. “You ever just strip down and dive in here?” asked Virant.

Throughout much of the process Meerman kept track of a number of variables such as temperature, time, and the pH level of the curd, making decisions on when to take each step based on his measurements but also on what he felt in his hands.

The group continued to break up curds for about an hour, and gradually, as they gave off more whey, they stiffened, becoming tensile and eventually squeaky. Meerman drained the vat, pumping the whey into the milking barn for the farm’s pigs, though he said his family occasionally used it for cooking. “Anything you use water for,” he noted, “whey will make it better.”

Everyone reached into the tank and pushed the curds into two piles, one on each side. It looked like a snow-covered river valley as the whey continued to leak between the two piles and out through the drain in the bottom of the vat. Meerman explained that the color of the cheese changes with the seasons. In the winter, when the cows aren’t eating green grass, the curds are white. In summertime, when the animals are pastured full-time, they’re more yellow thanks to the beta-carotene in the grass. (When dairy farmers began confining cows all the time, they started dyeing cheese with annatto to mimic this color.)

At this point, most other cheeses would have normally been pressed into forms. But this was cheddar, so as the piles of curds solidified, the chefs cut them into large blocks, which they began flipping over every ten minutes to expel more whey—a process that’s actually called cheddaring. They took a break to visit the farm’s cows and chickens with Betsy Meerman, while Jesse and Schnierle stayed behind to continue flipping the blocks, gradually stacking them in piles. When the chefs returned, the blocks had flattened and spread as the curds knitted together and got a bit closer to cheese. It was time to cut the slabs into small cubes.

The aging room at Grassfields

“No sweating or bleeding allowed,” said Meerman as everyone reached into the vat, slashing at the slabs with knives. “It’s always a disappointment when you slash your thumb.” As Meerman tossed in salt and stirred the cubes around, they continued to weep whey. Then the group filled 27 plastic, cylindrical, perforated cheese forms with the contents of the tank, stacked them in threes inside corrugated black plastic drainage pipes of the sort used in road construction, and placed them along a shelf on the wall. The forms were weighted down with five-gallon buckets of water.

While we broke for lunch, the curds solidified further, forming rough wheels that would continue to shape up under pressure. After lunch they were removed from the forms one by one and immersed in scalding water to slightly melt the exterior so that a flawless rind would form as the cheese aged. You could still see the faint outlines of the curds in the exterior of the wheels; they looked almost brainlike. They were returned to the forms, and the following morning Meerman would soak the wheels—about 376 pounds of cheese—in brine and lay them up on shelves in his aging room. For at least two months he would periodically flip them to dry out the rind and uniformly distribute the moisture inside.

In the meantime, before they packed up, the chefs bought cheese. Paul Virant made away with two wheels—a Gouda and a Fait Gras, a high-fat cheddar—which he’s already used in a cheddar-potato side dish on his tasting menu. At Primehouse, Rick Gresh is using the Fait Gras in a braised duck-leg wonton and Grassfields’ blue cheese in an open-face short-rib sandwich.

“I thought it was amazing,” said Marianne Sundquist, who later ordered some of the farm’s Gouda and Fait Gras for In Fine Spirits. “It was much more labor-intensive and intentional in every little step than I think I expected. There are so many variables.”

For Meerman, it was all in a day’s work. Sometimes things go wrong in the cheese-making process and the final product ends up not being quite what he wanted. When this happens he tries to sell the cheese anyway, calling it “My Apolo-Cheese” and insisting that customers taste it before they buy it. Usually someone will like it. At the beginning of the process he wasn’t sure he’d be able to call the cheese the chefs made cheddar. But by the end of the day he was pretty sure things would turn out all right.

“If it went perfect we’d keep it a year or two and sell it to folks who want a sharper cheese,” he said. “But it might ripen really quickly, so I might need to sell it young. By four months or so it might be a good cheese.”   R

Grassfields Soft Cheese-Making Class

Thu 6/4, 6:30-9 PM, 14238 60th Ave., Coopersville, MI 49404, RSVP by 6/1 to Betsy Meerman at 616-997-1306 or migreenpastures@gmail.com, $30.

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