Sunday, January 02, 2005

Making Simple Bag Cheeses / Cheese in Perio

[Turophile: A lover of cheese. Taken from the Greek word turos (cheese) and the root phil (love).]

Demonstration of Basic Lemon Bag Cheese (or camp cheese):


One Gallon Pot

Stirring Spoon (steel or wooden)

Cooking Thermometer




Small Container (butter bowl, etc.)

Milk – 2 qt.

Heavy Cream – 1/2 pt. (Optional)

Lemons – 2 to 3


Herbs to taste

Sterilize all equipment to be used except the cheesecloth, by placing it all in the pot, filling up ½ with water, and bringing to a boil for at least ten minutes. Drain water and set equipment on sterile dry surface. (Clean paper towels work well.) Put the two quarts of milk into the pan and apply medium heat. (Optionally, at this point you may add the heavy cream for a higher yield of cheese and a creamier texture, however this is far from the weight watcher’s option!) Suspend the thermometer into the milk and keep on the heat until the milk reaches 180 degrees F.

NOTE: When doing this in the field (camp conditions) and in a more period style, a thermometer need not be used. But you should get to know how warm 180 degrees F is. It’s much hotter than you would care to stick your finger into, but still short of boiling. If your milk begins to boil, add some chocolate to it and drink it, but don’t use it for cheese. Boiling milk changes its consistency such that it will not form a good curd.

While the milk is heating, cut the lemons in half and juice them into a small cup/glass. The juice of two lemons is sufficient to make this amount of cheese, but three will give it a more pronounced (but still light) lemony flavor. After the milk reaches the desired temperature, remove it from the heat and pour the lemon juice into it while gently stirring. Keep stirring for several minutes until the milk has begun separating into curds and whey. Let sit for up to 15 minutes until the curds are fully separated.

Pour the mixture into a cheesecloth lined colander, and allow the greater portion of the whey to drain out. Grab the cheesecloth by its four corners, and tie it into a small bag. Hang this bag over a sink or draining pot (to catch the whey) until it stops dripping regularly. (Less draining time will make a moister, more spreadable cheese – longer draining will result in a drier cheese which will keep somewhat longer.) Cheesecloth has been known to man, albeit in a cruder form, since at least the 1400’s. However, it was not the only method used. If you wish to follow a period method that was used in Italy from medieval times, right up to the twentieth century, get yourself a tightly woven wicker basket and dump your curds into that to drain and set. It will work, but you may lose a bit more curd, and you must be meticulous in sterilizing it when you clean it, as compared to cheesecloth, which you can either throw away, or wash in the laundry.

When the cheese is done draining, untie the bag and scrape the cheese into a sealable container (such as a margarine container) or onto some plastic wrap. At this point, a small sprinkling of salt can be applied. Optionally, herbs of your choice, such as sage, parsley, chives, etc. may be added and mixed in as well. Seal up the cheese and chill for several hours. (overnight is preferred to allow the flavor to set.)

Two quarts of milk should yield 12 to 14 ounces of lemon cheese. This may be kept for up to one week if refrigerated. It is excellent to spread on bagels, toast, or bread for sandwiches, or on crackers.


Curdling Agents: Since Lemons were not well known in Europe till very late in period, lime (African) may be substituted. For a non-citrus variation, add ¼ cup of vinegar instead of the lemon juice. White or flavored vinegar may be used. Be aware that this will change the texture and flavor of the resulting cheese, more along the lines of a modern “Queso Blanco”. Many other curdling agents were used in period. Two plants are referred to in one early English account, Butterwort and Lady’s Straw. The butterwort, however, is obviously not the same as we know in the United States today, as it is described as a “thistle”. What the Lady’s Straw might have been is a mystery which I have not yet solved. There is also documentation for green fig tree bark being used. The ultimate, of course, is rennet from the 4th stomach of a suckling calf, but this will be covered more extensively in the section on hard cheeses.

Milk: Cow’s milk was used for this demonstration, bought from a store. Any other type of milk (goat, sheep, etc.) may be used. To get a firmer curd from store bought milk, while not a period technique, you may add a teaspoon of calcium chloride per gallon of milk. This serves to undue some of the homogenization process and allows the fat molecules to cling together more consistently. If using farm fresh milk, higher yields may be expected, but you must ensure the milk has been pasteurized. If it has not, before using, heat the milk to 165 degrees F for 20 minutes, then rapidly cool to refrigerator temperatures and store chilled until ready to use for cheese.

What’s Going On in That Pot, Anyway????

[Note: If you have no interest in the “science bits” about cheesemaking, feel free to skip over this part.]

An old Arabian legend holds that a traveling merchant named Kanana discovered cheese while pausing from his travels in the desert to have a drink of milk from his skin. It was made from a young calf’s stomach and he found to his delight, instead of milk, curds and whey. But what happened to his milk?

Why does your milk wind up turning into cheese? Well, to answer that, we need to understand what milk is made of. Not much, really. Milk is a combination of fats, milk sugars (lactose) and milk proteins (casein) which are what will eventually lump together to form the curds. They are all suspended in a thin liquid which we call “whey”. (Yes, yes… “curds and whey”, just like in the story with the spider. In period, people ate this all the time. I’ve tried it. If you are really brave, you can too.)

Milk left out in the heat will naturally spoil and begin the curdling process, but left to itself this is a wildly unpredictable process which usually just results in a horrible acidic mess and depends heavily on what naturally occurring bacteria are in the area. For hard cheese (below) where a very hard curd is desired, a starter culture of special bacteria is added to the milk before beginning. This process is known as “ripening” the milk. This process also occurs naturally, albeit more slowly and less efficiently, and results in a softer curd. When the bacteria begin their work, the milk sugars (lactose) are converted by the bacteria to lactic acid. This increase in the acidity of the milk is what allows the milk proteins (casein) to form into curds when a coagulating agent (or “curdling agent”, as described above) is introduced to the milk.

Another factor that will determine how solid the curd shall become, aside from the coagulating agent used, is the temperature at which all this occurs. The bacteria do their work best between 75 and 95 degrees F, with the hardest curd being formed if the milk is curdled at about 85 degrees.

Hard Cheese (and no…. I don’t just mean “difficult”)

[Note: The following are not specific enough instructions to go home and make a hard cheese. This is a general overview. If you wish to make one, contact me and I will help you with the specifics and the equipment required, and information on where to get it and what to order.]

As was alluded to above, the initial steps in making a hard cheese are very similar to that of making a soft one. You just have a few more things to add, and will need some extra equipment for the additional steps required. First of all, if you are going to use store bought cow’s milk, you will need some calcium chloride to add to it, if you are to get a suitably firm curd. Any type of milk can be used, however. Cheese can be (and has been) made from the milk of any animal man was ever able to domesticate, up to and including African Cape water buffalo.

You will also need a starter culture. These come in two types which can be ordered from any cheesemaking supply company. (I use New England Cheesemaking Company. Their website may be found at Another source is Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog at The two types of starter cultures are mesophilic and thermophilic. Which one you use will depend on the temperature you plan on curdling, and the type of cheese you are trying to make. This is added to the milk initially while you are first warming it. This process is known as “ripening the milk.”

Making hard cheese also requires rennet. The most common is animal rennet, which can be had in liquid or tablet form, and is taken from the lining of the fourth stomach of a young calf. For vegetarians, there are also concentrated vegetarian rennets available for order, which are often made from fungal sources. This coagulating agent will be used in place of the lemon juice in the soft cheese example to set the milk into a firm curd.

The initial process is the same as making the bag cheese, but when the curds are drained, you don’t hang them in a bag. You will need to put them into a cheese press. The press simply consists of a cheese mold and some method of applying pressure to it to force the curd down into a much more solid mass, and forcing all of the whey out of it. You can order cheese molds commercially, or they can be made from a coffee can with some holes in it. It’s really not as hard as you think.

After the cheese has been suitably pressed and drained, it is removed from the press and lightly salted, and allowed to air dry for several days, being turned twice a day to ensure even drying. A rind forms on the cheese during this time. The rind on many great cheeses is often the best part, though Americans are not used to seeing it and may not find it palatable.

Once the cheese is dry, it is usually aged, for anywhere from a month to years, depending on the type. Some are left to form an ever harder rind of their own, but many are waxed. You can get cheese wax cheaply, and melt it, and brush it onto your cheese to keep it fresh and free of spoilage while it ages.

Some Notes on the History of Cheese in Period

Many people will find it shocking if you tell them of advanced styles of hard cheesemaking in period. Lots of folks seem to think that in our period, only simple, soft cheese, cottage cheese, or curds and whey were eaten. Not true! The history of hard cheese is ancient, going back to well before 4000 BC. The story of Zoroaster (written in 1000 BC by Pliny) tells us of a man who was said to have lived for 20 years on a single cheese. (Note: it is currently estimated that this cheese must have been a parmesan the size of the rock of Gibralter.)

The Greeks said that cheese was created by Aristaeus, son of Apollo, and many of their references refer to it as “pressed cheese”.

In I Samuel 17:18, David was carrying ten cheeses to the army of Saul when he met Goliath. We can only speculate that if he’d simply given the giant a couple of them, he’d likely have been on his way with much less fuss and bother.

A monk’s chronicle from 1070 tells us that Charlemagne was reported to have been very fond of Roquefort and ordered it from great distances away.

The Island of Delos had a hard cheese on face of one of their coins.

Cheshire is one of the oldest English cheeses and it can be dated back to Roman Britain and is mentioned by name in the Domesday Book of 1086

We have already covered a large list of period coagulating agents used in cheesemaking. More can be found in the references given at the end of this paper. As to equipment, for the draining of cheese, a very period method was the wicker type basket mentioned in the soft cheese section. This is referred to many literary examples, including Homer’s tale The Odyssey. The wicker baskets used for draining curds by Polyphemus (the Cyclops) were known as “formos” to the Greeks, which became the word “forma” in Latin, and gave rise to the Italian word for cheese, “formaggio” as well as the Old French “formage” which became “fromage”.

Cheese was also pressed in molds during our period, and they came in a variety of styles. Digs in Great Britain have turned up iron rounds with many holes in them which were used for this purpose. Even older still were ceramic pottery molds of similar style. The “followers” (which are the pieces that fit into the mold on top of the cheese to press it down) were referred to as “flowers” in those times. Many of these have been recovered as well. Many types of presses were used to apply pressure to the cheese, but simple weights on the press were the most common. Bricks were an obvious choice, and while not in our period, “brick cheese” got it’s name from just such a system, where brick molds were made to form and press the cheese, and the bricks themselves were used as weights to drive the follower down.

It may be of interest to note that several varieties of hard cheeses have ancient lineages. Here is a short list of some of the older ones, along with the earliest references to them which have been found thus far in primary resources:

Cheese Variety Year(AD)

-------------- --------

Gorgonzola 879

Roquefort 1070

Cheshire 1086

Grana 1200

Cheddar 1500

Parmesan 1579

Gouda 1697

Gloucester 1697

Stilton 1785

Camembert 1791

Reference material used in this paper, along with other sources where you can find more information on the history of cheesemaking in our period:

The Complete Book of Cheese. Bob Brown. Gramercy. Library of Congress #55-11956

Summa Lacticiniorum, by Pantaleo de Confluentia, Turin, 1477.

Formaggi del Medioevo, by Irma Naso, Torino Publishing, 1990

The Cheese and Buttermaker’s Handbook: a practical treatise on the arts of cheese and butter making, by J.B. Harris, published Glasgow by Dunn & Wright, 1885.

The Story of Cheese-making in Britain, by Val Cheke, published London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

The Cheese Book by Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell. Published: Simon and Schuster. 1964.

"Cheesemaking in Scotland – a History" by John H Smith. ISBN 0-9525323-0-1

The History of Cheese. (online resource) British Dairy Council:

The Cheese Companion, by Judy Ridgway, published 1999, Quintet Publishing Co.

History of Cheese Making in the Moorlands, Alan Salt, London, 1991.

"The Cheese Book," by Richard Widcome. Published: Chartwell Books (Seacaucus, NJ), 1978.

Production of soft cheese, by J.H. Galloway, published in The Society of Dairy Technology. 48 (2); 36-43.

The making of farmstead goat cheeses. By J.C. Le-Jaouen, published 1990. Cheesemaker's Journal. 206.


This article is by Lord Jakys the Chesemonger

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