What We Eat: The Story of Cheese - #108

 BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.

*with thanks and apologies to Clifton Fadiman

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When Columbus arrived in America, there were no cows, no goats, no sheep, no cheese—the pizza, the cheeseburger, even the nacho was yet to evolve. He dropped off the first cattle on the island of Hispaniola. And the settlers who followed him soon began using the cattle’s milk to make cheese.

BURT WOLF: At the end of the 1600s, Dominican Friars set up a mission in Lower California. It was their first settlement on the California coast and they stocked it with cattle brought up from Mexico. During the middle of the 1700s, Franciscan missionaries moved part of the herd to northern California and used them to breed hundreds of thousands of cattle which they used to supply hides and tallow for a large export business.

The first significant demand for dairy products came along with the prospectors who arrived in 1849. Many of the families who rushed west searching for gold traveled across the country with their family cows. When they reached California the men started prospecting; the women started milking the cows and making butter and cheese. Finding gold was an “iffy” business; trading dairy for gold was very reliable. Successful prospectors paid big bucks for fresh milk, butter and cheese. These early farmers became the nucleus of the California dairy industry

Today California has the largest dairy industry in the United States, producing nearly 4 billion gallons of milk each year. And almost half of that milk goes into the making of cheese. Most of California’s dairies are located near the cheese makers. The milk that makes the cheese is usually less than 24 hours old, which gives many of the cheeses a fresh milk flavor. The state has about 65 cheese makers —some are small artisan operations that make only 50 pounds of cheese a day.

Other California cheese makers have major facilities. Hilmar is the largest cheese making complex in the world. It was put together by 12 local dairy producers in 1984. The founders were simply trying to find a use for the milk they were producing on their farms.

Hilmar makes Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack and Mozzarella — and they make one million pounds of these cheeses every day.

One hundred and twenty-five thousand cows have joined together and are presently devoting their entire careers to supplying Hilmar with 9 million pounds of milk each day.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Historians tell me that people have been making cheese for over 5,000 years. There are even drawings of cheese-makers on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs.  It's pretty easy to see the advantages of cheese over milk.  First of all it lasts longer; it's also easy to travel with; and it takes up much less space -- about a tenth of the volume of the milk that was used to make the cheese.


BURT WOLF: The counties just above San Francisco make up the oldest dairy district in the state with an environment that is perfect. The cool ocean air and fog that come in off the Pacific Ocean give the region an even temperature throughout the year and the soil is ideal for the clovers and grasses that dairy cattle feed on. And the long rainy season lengthens the time that the cattle can feed on natural pasture.

The mother of the California cheese industry was Clarissa Steele. Originally from New England, she came West with a family recipe for making cheddar.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The recipe had traveled across the Atlantic with Clarissa's ancestors but it was based on milk from the easy-going English cows. The cows that surrounded Clarissa’s farm had come up with a Spanish herd from Mexico and were really not into being milked. She had to figure out how to capture the cow and then how to milk it.  But the cheese she made from that milk was so good that it convinced her husband and her three cousins to go into the dairy business. And in the 1850s Steele Brothers became the first successful cheese-making operation in California.

Just one more thing.  I wouldn't want to cause any dissention.  But I'm curious.  If it was her recipe and she figured out how to capture the cow and how to milk the cow and she made the cheese, why was it called Steele Brothers Dairy?  Just curious. 

BURT WOLF: Cheese and butter makers along the coast had been sending their products to San Francisco by boat. But the unreliable schedules, temperature changes, salt air and shipboard moisture made the operation a tricky one. So most dairy products stayed in the neighborhood where they were made.

The exception was the cheese made by David Jacks.  During the 1870s, Jacks acquired over 60,000 acres of land in Monterey and Salinas Valley. He also bought 14 dairy farms in Monterey and Big Sur. In partnership with Swiss and Portuguese dairymen, he dominated the dairy business throughout Monterey. Jacks was able to get his buddies in the railroad business to run a line from Monterey to San Francisco so he could make regular cheese shipments by train. Jacks' cheeses were soft, white and based on an old California Mission recipe.

NANCY FLETCHER ON CAMERA: When David Jacks shipped the cheese, he put it in a box, he stamped his name, David Jacks from Monterey, California.  So that's where Monterey Jack got its name.  And many people think it's the most important cheese that's been created in the United States and it was created right here in California.

BURT WOLF: During the First World War Monterey Jack took on a second form. A San Francisco cheese wholesaler, had left a surplus shipment of Monterey Jack sitting in his warehouse. When he finally opened the crates, he discovered that the cheese had aged quite nicely.  It had lost most of its moisture and was as hard as Parmesan or Pecorino Romano.  It had also acquired a nutty flavor--but that was all just fine.  The war had cut off the supply of cheese from Italy and the large Italian community in San Francisco needed a replacement.  Dry Jack was quickly accepted by Italian-American cooks.


BURT WOLF: The process of making cheese starts when the cheese-maker adds a starter culture. The culture causes the lactose sugar, which is found naturally in milk, to turn into lactic acid.

Rennet is added which causes the proteins in the milk to clump together, forming curds.

The solid curd mixture is cut up and the liquid whey is drained off. Larger curds usually produce a softer and moister cheese.

If the cheese being made is a cheddar-style cheese, the curds will be cheddared,  which means that blocks of curd will be piled on top of each other and pressed together, then piled on top of each other again and pressed again.  The cheddaring process releases the liquid whey; the result is a semi-firm, dry cheese with a fine texture.

To get a totally different type of cheese, the curds are cooked and stirred, which turns the clumps of protein molecules into strands. The texture of a string cheese or Mozzarella is the result of being cooked.

The curds are put into a form that gives the cheese its shape. Some are pressed to take out more whey which will give you a firmer cheese. Some are not pressed at all which will give you a softer cheese.

At this point, the cheese is ripened in a storage room where the temperature and the humidity can be controlled. The butterfat in cheese tends to sink to the bottom, so the cheeses are turned regularly to redistribute it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Letting wine sit around in wooden barrels is a form of ripening-- controlled aging. Letting cheese sit around in a ripening room is also a form of controlled aging. I myself am ripening, but with very little control. 


BURT WOLF: The traditional division of labor in dairying goes back for thousands of years.  Men would herd the sheep, goats and cows, while women did the milking and made the butter and cheese.  In Colonial America, making cheese became a skill that was passed from mother to daughter and selling their cheese gave farm women an independent source of income.  Rural women also set up small factories to produce cheese for urban markets.  The profits from these enterprises helped cheese-making families educate their daughters.

In the last thirty years, American women have started small cheese-making companies that offer a superior product.  And that tradition is taking hold in California. In 1997, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith started The Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco. There are two parts to their business.

The first is Tomales Bay Foods which is a retail shop offering locally made products—jams, mustards, chutneys, and produce from nearby farms. They also age and sell cheese from small local cheese makers. 

PEGGY SMITH ON CAMERA: Let me give you a taste of this Dry Jack.  This cheese is 18 months old and he's become really famous for this cheese.  As you get close to the rind, you can really taste the cocoa and the black pepper. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh I like the rind.

PEGGY SMITH ON CAMERA: It gets a little bit spicy.

BURT WOLF: The second part of the business is The Cowgirl Creamery

SUE CONLEY ON CAMERA: The cheeses we make here are primarily fresh cheeses and that's because in Europe, in France and in England, the cheese shops always make their own fresh cheeses on site and then they bring in the aged cheeses and take care of them in an aging facility.

BURT WOLF: All their cheeses are produced in the most traditional way. Conley realized that people coming in to shop would have a better understanding of what they were eating if they saw the cheese being made. So they built the cheese making room behind a glass wall. Shoppers can now see how fresh milk becomes cheese.

SUE CONLEY ON CAMERA: We chose the name Cowgirl Creamery because we realized we're out here in the most Western point of California.  It's really like the Wild West.  We thought, well, maybe we're just a couple of cowgirls tryin' to make cheese.  Even though we're really kind of afraid of horses. But we like the outfits very much.

BURT WOLF: In the same general area north of San Francisco, is the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Bob Giacomini wanted to reduce the size of his dairy herd. But he didn’t want to reduce his income.  He was also looking for a way to bring some of his daughters back to the family farm. He accomplished both objectives and, in the bargain, produced California’s first blue cheese.

The herd is smaller now and his daughters, Karen, Lynn and Jill are working at home again. Actually, Karen is out selling cheese today, but Lynn and Jill are still here.

LYNNE GIACOMINI STRAY ON CAMERA: My sisters and I, we were never really interested in the actual dairying end.  But when we started talking about cheese and expanding the business, we all love food and to cook, and so we got very excited about it. 

JILL GIACOMINI BASCH ON CAMERA: Also, coming into the family business was a way to really kind of carry on our parent’s legacy.  They built this farm from scratch and it's our way to deliver it to the next generation. 

We did leave the cheese-making up to a true expert, and our cheese-maker, Monte McIntyre, came to us with over 15 years of cheese experience, specifically in blue cheese.  And when he came on board we said, this is the kind of cheese we want to make.  We want it to be very full-flavored and creamy, very reminiscent of some of the French Roqueforts, and he nailed it. 

We start with pumping our morning milk into our cheese plant.  And then into that we add our starter culture, our penicillium roqueforti, which is the blue mold, the salt, and rennet, which is the coagulant that helps to separate the curds from the whey, the solids from the liquid matter.  After that process is complete, the curds are separated from the whey, the curds go into cheese forms, and that's where the actual wheels of cheese are set up. 

The following day, we begin a salting process where we hand salt the wheels three days in a row and then we actually punch the wheels with needles to introduce oxygen into the body of the cheese.  That's really where the magic happens.  That's with the oxygen mixing with the mold; it activates the blue veining process that creates the beautiful blue color inside of the wheels of cheese.  Then following the curing stage, we actually age the cheese for about 6 to 8 months in our aging room.

LYNNE GIACOMINI STRAY ON CAMERA: It's easy 'cause we know each other so well.  We know our personalities.  We know how to deal with each other.  And it can be a lot of fun.  Especially because it's something we all love.  But then it's always just the dynamics of it-- and it gets loud -- especially with my father around.

JILL GIACOMINI BASCH ON CAMERA: Yeah.  I don't know what's worse: working with your sisters or working for your father!

BURT WOLF: The tradition of women as the pioneers of cheese making has continued. Laura Chenel loves goats and goats love Laura Chenel. So, during the 1970s, they combined their mutual affection in a goat cheese business.

LAURA CHENEL ON CAMERA: I was experimenting with different cheeses at home with my goats milk and every one of them turned out to be inedible.  And I tried many, many different varieties.  Cottage cheese and jack and cheddar.  And then I was lucky enough to taste some French goat cheese.  And when I tasted that I knew that that was the highest and best use of my goats' milk.

BURT WOLF: She spent three months in France learning how to properly make goat cheese and then returned to a nation that had no interest in goat cheese and no facilities for manufacturing it. Fortunately, both goats and goat lovers have a tendency to be stubborn.

LAURA CHENEL ON CAMERA: Initially, I made the cheeses in my home.  I lived in a large house and there was a basement I could convert to a small fromagerie.  So it was a month of making cheese every day and having it fail everyday and having to throw out that failure.  And then finally a batch took and then it just got better and better.  What I really wanted was, I wanted to live the way I lived in France.  I get to be with my goats, that was my goal.  To keep them in my life.  And I have more of them than I every dreamed would be in my life.  When I first started experimenting with cheese I had about 20 goats and now I have close to 500.  There are many, many people making goat cheese now.  I never would have dreamed this.  This went way beyond anything I would have thought.  And now there's a goat cheese industry.

BURT WOLF: Laura taught stainless-steel manufacturers to make the equipment she needed; then she taught Americans to appreciate goat cheese. She became a pioneer for today’s artisan cheese-makers.


BURT WOLF: The cheese-making tradition in California goes back to the early Spanish and Mexican settlers. Today California is the country's largest producer of Hispanic-style cheeses. The restaurant Maya in San Francisco is named after the Maya Indians who were the great eaters of Mexico and Central America, before the arrival of Columbus.

The owner and the chef is Richard Sandoval who got his first taste of the kitchen working for his parents, who owned two restaurants in Acapulco. He uses Hispanic cheeses in many of his dishes. These cheeses are usually not table cheeses. You wouldn’t eat them on their own — they were developed to be cooked. The cheeses themselves add salt, and a milky flavor to counterbalance other ingredients that add heat, and texture.

A signature dish at Maya is Chile Relleno—A roasted poblano chile is split and filled with a mixture of scallops, squid and shrimp. Oaxaca cheese is added and the stuffed chile is baked.

RICHARD SANDOVAL ON CAMERA: I like to compare this to a regular mozzarella or a string cheese. It pulls apart very nicely, it's not too overpowering, and it also melts very well.

BURT WOLF: Chile Rellenos is an excellent example of Europe meets the Americas.  The chili is indigenous to Mesoamerica; the cheese is Old World.


BURT WOLF: California’s great valley region runs between the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on the east and the Coastal Range on the west. It’s about 400 miles long and 40 to 60 miles wide. During the 1870s, William Chapman, one of the largest landowners in the state, sold 80,000 acres of the Central Valley to a group of German settlers and encouraged them to grow alfalfa. The crop was so successful that it became the primary feed for the dairy industry in central and southern California. After the railroads arrived, the central valley became the state’s largest dairy region.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Wisconsin was traditionally thought of as the dairy-making state.  But during the early 1990s, in an upset victory, California became the state producing the most milk in the country.  In order to improve their profits, the milk men began making artisanal cheeses.  Their objective is to do for milk what Napa did for wine.  [TO COWS]  How do you feel about that?  Let me get a nice Pinot for you.  I think that's where you'd start.

BURT WOLF: A good example of a small farmstead producer is the Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese. The sisters are Marisa, Lindsay and Hannah Hilarides. Marisa and her father Rob decided that they needed to do more with their milk from their herd and started attending classes at a State University. With their formal training completed they began production.

MARISA HILARIDES ON CAMERA: The aging process is what amazes me and what I'm really learning about right now.  As you can probably see behind me we've got lots of cheese and its always -- it needs constant care.  It takes a lot of oiling to keep from forming cracks, and Hannah likes to help with that.  We also, when we have the cheese on our wooden racks, they need to be turned constantly and Lindsay helps out a lot with that.  So they've been a big help to me.

BURT WOLF: Within a year their Serena Cheese, which is a cross between Parmigiano and aged Gouda, won a Silver Medal at the World Cheese Awards.

MARISA HILARIDES ON CAMERA: It's really neat to be able to see the end process when people are actually tasting the cheese and we're getting compliments on it.  That -- it really makes you feel like your work is worth something -- it's paid off.


BURT WOLF: The southern California coastal region starts in Los Angeles, runs south to San Diego and has a couple dozen cheese makers.

For several decades, Jules Wesselink has been a successful dairy farmer with a herd of Holsteins.  In 1996, he decided to begin making cheese from his herds’ milk. He’s of Dutch descent and went back to Holland to learn the traditional Dutch techniques for making Gouda cheese.

JULES WESSELINK ON CAMERA: When I was in Holland and I saw them make the cheese, then I decided that was it.  I saw the beautiful cheeses and I tasted the good cheese and I thought, this is it.  If I can do that, then it'll be fine.

BURT WOLF: When he returned, he convinced his daughter and her husband to become cheesemakers.

JULES WESSELINK ON CAMERA: I thought I knew how to make it.  But when I came back here in the United States and I started it wasn't all a success at the beginning.  It became later on.  But it -- you have to make some changes. It is when you make it then you find out what is right and what is wrong.  You have to learn it.  It's different every day.

BURT WOLF: They produce a farmhouse gouda that is offered at several stages of ripeness as well as goudas flavored with cumin, jalapeno peppers or herbs. 

JULES WESSELINK ON CAMERA: There is nothing greater than having your family around, having your kids and your grandkids around to work with.  Maybe one day I can retire and just watch from an easy chair and see how things are going.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The cattle that Columbus brought to the Caribbean introduced the idea of dairying to the Americas.  And today, The United States is producing cheeses that are up to the quality of the great cheeses of Europe.  But perhaps more important, without Columbus’ cattle and the development of the dairy industry we might never have had the cheeseburger and I, for one, would feel the loss.  For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.