The cheese that many people make at home first - or try to make - is mozzarella.
Mozzarella - that stringing, stretchy, melty, milky cheese you'll find in the US in many different ways:
• Packed as slices or sticks in plastic, where it is sometimes hard to tell what is cheese and what is plastic.
• As a odd looking ball, in vacuum packaging on supermarket shelves where the distant use by date belies mozzarella's reputation as a 'fresh' cheese.
• Rounded shapes floating in a light brine or whey in small pots or even plastic bags.
The latter is the way in which you will find the freshest mozzarella, and the way you will find it in your independent cheese shop, like Boston Cheese Cellar.
Mozzarella, was first made in Naples in Southern Italy, and made out of water buffalo milk - mozzarella di bufala. It's a type of cheese, called 'pasta filata' (or 'stretched curd') due to the process in the making, where the curds are stretched repeatedly, and this stretching is key to giving mozzarella its unique properties and malleability.
Traditionally, the shapes of mozzarella have been wide and varied, but all are formed after the curd is stretched while it is malleable. The shapes include: ovoline (avocado sized), bocconcini (small egg sized), nodini (little knots), ciliegine (cherry sized balls), treccia (braids), straciatella (curd pieces in cream). Then there is burrata and burratina, a casing of mozzarella curd stretched around straciatella.
Burrata is perhaps what Mozzarella House is best know for. As you can see below - every single one of these is made by hand!
Mozzarella House, started making mozzarella in Boston in 1989, and is still making some of the best, and freshest mozzarella in New England.
• First of all, know-how (the owner and head cheesemaker are first generation Italian).
• Secondly, make your own curd, so that you can read changes in the milk and adjust the make accordingly.
• Thirdly, use fresh, quality milk. Milk is delivered to Mozzarella House, right after the morning milking from a local dairy. It is pasteurized in house by Mozzarella House, and then made into mozzarella. This fresh mozzarella will be delivered to independent cheese shops - including Boston Cheese Cellar - and restaurants that same day.
I was lucky enough to shadow Franco, the head cheesemaker at Mozzarella, as he made one small batch of offline mozzarella, on a warm Spring Monday morning.
The Making of Mozzarella The milk is moved from the holding tanks into 'kettles', which are large water jacketed containers, designed to raise and maintain the temperature of milk quickly and evenly. This 40 L of milk was raised to temperature (about 90F) quickly before the addition of set amounts of salt, citric acid and rennet. Salt to provide taste, citric acid to lower the acidity (pH) of the curds to around 5.2 to allow stretching, and rennet (vegetarian) to form the curd itself.
Judging when the curd is fully set is both art and science. The time of curd formation should be constant, but variations in the milk can affect this, so a judgement of a 'clean break' in the curd is also required - and this requires Franco's experience. Experience is also required to assess the right stretchiness of the curd. Again, Franco has the eye. As you can see from the video, if the curd can stretch and hold an arm's span - we are good to go!
The curd is now ready to use, and is spooned out of the kettle, and stacked onto a platform, cut and worked a bit more to help drain excess whey.
From there, the curd is placed into the hopper of a mozzarella machine, which performs a few key tasks: stretching, heating and forming. With the brief amount of curd manipulation on the table (cutting etc.), the particulate curd has cooled down too much to be stretchable, therefore it has to be recombined into a solid mass at the right temperature, which is achieved by streams of hot water applied to the curd. Once the right temperature and texture is achieved (again a judgement of Franco), stretching and shaping can occur.
There are a coupe of rotating arms which stretch the curd - much like a taffy-making machine. The rotating form-wheels pinch off curd from the mass, and squeeze it into either the ovoline-sized shape, or bocconcini-sized shape - depending on the wheel installed.
Today, as the gate is opened, and gravity and an archimedes screw pull the mass of curd into the ovoline form, it rotates and beautiful ovoline drop out into cold water.
The process is finished, with the only step left, to place two ovoline into a pot for delivery.
Being Perfect Isn't Easy With spending these few hours at Mozzarella House, what is clear is that even making one of the so-called 'simplest' of cheeses, is in reality complex. Relying on an experienced cheese maker to read the curd at each stage, to understand when it is ready for the next step. It was also obvious the care, attention and pride with which the cheese makers worked.
A big thanks to Diego, Franco, Giuseppe and Jeamy for tolerating my questions, and allowing me to shadow them through the lakes of whey and fields of curd!