Fellow Cheese Maker

Jim Wallace

Jim Wallace

Meet a Cheese Making Guru

Tell us a little bit about your background

It has been a long road traveling in many directions, sometimes simultaneous, sound familiar. I began in pre-med but wound up teaching environmental biology which led to 25+ years of photographing and selling fine print photographs from wild places during this time I became fascinated by the traditional aspect of beer and brewing the old ways and began visiting brewers in the UK and Belgium and we all know what they eat with their beer.

What got you interested in making cheese

On one particular visit w/ Jean Louis Dits at his brewery 'Vapour' (It means steam... a real live steam belt driven process.. cut out of time and place) in the south of Belgium .. He and his wife set a table of the most incredible local cheeses .. and that was the beginning of this incredible adventure.

How did you go about learning how to do it

I then began visiting traditional cheese makers throughout Europe and in the US, set up my 'Cheese Lab' here in western MA, and began experimenting with what I had learned.

It just so happened that this coincided with a new kitchen construction project to my 150+ year old house so I had the opportunity to dig down another 10 feet for my natural cave under it and that added a new dimension to the cheese project

How did you get started teaching

One of the great coincidences in all of this is that I only live about 10 miles from Ricki Caroll and her New England Cheesemaking Supply. Shortly after I began this project she heard of what I was doing and came for a visit. We quickly became friends as she watched the 'science vs old ways' project develop. Shortly after this she convinced me that I should be the 'Tech Guy' for 'Cheesemaking.com'. Ricki had been teaching beginner cheese making workshops for many years and thought we should crank it up a notch and offer classes for experienced to advanced cheese maker ... so within a year I started the 'Cheese Making 201' series of workshops. The focus of which is concept and process technology rather than a simple recipe.

Have you ever commercially sold any of the cheese you have made

I do not sell my cheese commercially and this has afforded me the opportunity to take what I have learned and experiment with it.

It allows me the opportunity to explore many variations on a traditional recipe. For example, Reblochon. I have about 6 different profiles with major variations for making this cheese.

Also I have had the freedom to explore a large group of cheeses that have a somewhat 'industrial' reputation ... cheese that had roots in the history of cheese making .. cheeses such as St Paulin and Havarti that had been reduced to 'commercial' commodity items with all of their edges blurred now raise eyebrows at cheese tastings as 'New' cheeses.

What kinds of things do you teach in your advanced cheese making workshops

In my introduction to cheese making everything I read in those basic books was about a static recipe dealing with time and temperature ... This might be OK for an intro or basic guideline to style but what happens when the milk or season changes? What happens when the cheese has problems? How do we solve these problems? How do you do something different?

My workshops are designed to take the mystery out of cheese making, unraveling the confusing fog of science and demystifying the magic of cheese making.

All of the workshops focus on the essential principals involved in this craft and, depending on the subject of the class, will highlight specific points that are unique to cheeses targeted for that class. The underlying theme will be process driven and not simply to follow a static Recipe.

My workshops cover many topics including

  • Understanding different styles of cheese
  • Milk selection and analysis
  • Startup equipment
  • Culture selection
  • Developing a proper curd
  • Acid development and it's importance to the success of a specific cheese
  • Moisture control and it's role in ripening
  • Moulding / pressing and surface preparation
  • Salting and rind development
  • Cave preparation
  • Conditions and process in cave aging

Are the workshop attendees mostly hobbyists or professionals

The range of attendees in these classes is as varied as the cheeses we make

  • Novice home cheese makers trying to improve their craft
  • Farmsteads looking to produce a special cheese from their milk
  • Chefs looking to explore making a cheese for their restaurants
  • Cheese Retailers wanting to know more about the cheeses they sell
  • Small Artisan dairies looking to explore new directions and refine what they have been doing

The primary requirement for these workshops is a strong interest in making better cheese. Of coarse, having a bit of hands on experience is going to be a plus and prepares attendees to ask the 'right' questions.

What are your favorite cheeses to make

Tough question for me, since I really enjoy the process and like making cheeses that have very different technologies .. Tomme au Marc/Ubriaco probably being one of the favorites due to it's unique aging and flavor profile (plus the wine that goes with it) ... In my workshops I emphasize the beauty of the hand craft cheese and this one wrapped in grape leaves and studded with the skins and seeds of wine making is a beauty to both eyes and palette. The Mountain style Gorgonzola 'del Nonno' (Grandfathers cheese) or 'Antico' (old fashioned) is also high on my list due it's heritage and the 2 curd process.

How about your favorite ones to eat

Now, you have never seen me at a cheese counter or you would not have asked, indecision, yes.

I am always looking for things that are new to me as well as stellar examples of the classics such as Stilton. This week I came home with a well ripened Robiola (perhaps too ripe to some), Tallegio (perfecto), a nice piece of Stilton to go with the caramelized walnuts and pear in a salad, and a fabulous goats milk Tomme. Actually this was a bit predictable but I had a lot of friends around for the holidays. Other favoritess would be Epoisse, true Brie, Reblochon, Munster and on and on. Life is just way too short.

What are the trickiest things about making cheese

The trickiest thing about making cheese is the 'Game Plan' trying to decide what your goal is and how to get there. I have seen so many cheeses that are in the style of and totally missed the mark. Once you have a clear idea of what it is you are making, the rest is just process and control. When I consult with a new farmstead cheese maker, the first step is always to stress the importance of looking at several options and to choose a couple of cheeses that they will truly be proud and happy to make, because it is too much work otherwise, Then we set about making that perfect cheese.

What are the most common problems

The most common problem for cheese makers is not knowing what the acid profile for the cheese should be or not following it. This along with a failure to achieve the targeted moisture content is the biggest reason for cheese to fail in the aging room.

Given that all cheese is made from milk, what accounts for the great variety we see throughout the cheese world

How is one to rule a country with 500 cheeses? Well the truth is that it is much more difficult to replicate a cheese you like than to make a totally different cheese. Changes at ANY point in the process will make a different cheese. Munster and Camembert are very similar processes but the acid profiles differ ... Hence a VERY different cheese. Aging can also make a BIG difference. I recently tasted a cheese made. Same vat batch, same day, same age, one stored at Shelburne Farm Caves the other stored at Mateo's Jasper Hill Farm Cave, very different cheeses.

One thing you can say about many cheeses is, 'Same Same but Different'

Why is Epoisse so different than Parmigiano-Reggiano, for instance

Where do we begin on this one. Two cheeses about as different as they get.

One is made with a skimmed milk, made in the vat about as dry as they can, and aged for many years keeping the rind nice and clean.

The other starts with a very long lactic coagulation, no cooking to keep the moisture high, draining with no pressure, and the development of a cocktail of microbes to form a moist sticky rind then bathed in booze for that 'extra perfume'.

Wow, two different cheeses, and please don't make me choose between that ripe Epoisse and the three year old extra export Parma.

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