Natural milk contains bacteria which cause it to “sour” or thicken naturally by the production of lactic acid. There is nothing wrong or bad about that, except that finding that milk has “gone sour” can be a domestic crisis to a housewife who doesn’t have a cow. Such a crisis could occur overnight in certain kinds of weather before the days of refrigeration, unless a very cool place could be found. Milk came to be pasteurized partly to prevent souring of the commercially distributed products, but mostly because conditions that favored the production of lactic acid also favored the multiplication of any disease-producing organisms that happened to get into the milk either from the cow or from the milker. Pasteurizing renders the disease bacteria harmless but also kills the lactic-acid producing organisms. It does not impede certain other organisms, which are slower acting — so that the milk keeps longer — but which cause the pasteurized milk to spoil. Old timers sometimes say that pasteurized milk, “Doesn’t sour. It rots”.
The natural lactic acid’s harmlessness is illustrated by the fact that in the stomach, even of newborn infants, lactic acid immediately curdles the milk. In fact, some infants whose digestion produces bigger curds than can be handled, must be given milk that has been treated with lactic acid to curdle it, then beaten until the curds are finely broken up.
Commercial cottage cheese is a fair imitation of the real thing, but some other chemical changes must take place in natural “souring” because it certainly does not taste the same. However …..
The farm housewife wanting to make curds or cottage cheese or homesteader’s cheese put a quantity of fresh whole or skimmed milk in a warmish place overnight. “Thunder weather” could do the job more quickly than usual, being associated with a warm atmosphere as a rule.
The first stage was finished when the milk had “clabbered” or “clobbered” so that it separated into white curds and yellowish, watery whey when gently cut or stirred. The container was gently heated over a low fire, until the curd “hardened” and separated into large clumps. Then the whole thing was strained through a cloth to remove the whey, and the resulting solids were tied in the cloth — a sugar sack was favored — and left hanging to drip “dry”. The curds were then broken up with a fork into the size desired, sprinkled with salt, moistened with a little cream, butter or whole milk to make them “stick together”, and that was that! The consistency of the cheese was determined by the heating before draining. Boiling or overheating the “clabbered” milk would give a big, hard, tough and less appetizing curd.
More trouble, but producing a product like that sold in stores as “Ontario cheese”, was the making of a cheddar cheese. The commercial product came in large rounds six or more inches thick, and heavily waxed. They were shipped from the East in stout round wooden cheese-boxes that were much coveted by housewives to make hassocks or footstools. They are museum pieces now.
The method used by pioneer housewives to make Cheddar cheese was this:
For 12 gallons of milk start with about six gallons of evening milk. Aerate well by pouring from one pail to another several times. Leave covered with a cloth at a temperature of 60-70 degrees until morning. Then pour in with it another six gallons of fresh morning milk and put into a wash-boiler, well scrubbed and scalded.
Put on stove over a slow fire and heat to not less than 86 degrees to 90 degrees F. Maintain this heat during setting. Mix one teaspoon of colour with one half-glass of cold water. Pour into milk and stir well. Next dissolve one rennet (junket) tablet in one half-glass cold water and add to milk. Stir slowly two minutes.
Let milk stand perfectly quiet for twenty minutes or until curd is ready to cut. During this time the boiler is taken off the stove. At the end of 20 minutes, try the curd by pushing a forefinger, like a fork, into the curd. If it breaks clean across like jelly it is ready to cut with a long knife, first lengthwise, then crosswise, leaving the curd in half-inch squares – rather a lengthy job. Let it stand for five minutes.
Then place the boiler back on the stove and raise temperature slowly to 98 degrees F. (blood heat) stirring slowly all the time. Remove from heat and cover closely for 40 minutes.
Then try curd again by taking up a handful and squeezing it. If it falls apart easily, it is ready to have all the whey strained off. After draining, mix four ounces of fine salt into curd very thoroughly. It is then ready for the “press”. The press may be made of a heavy tin pail 10 inches in diameter and 15 inches high with no top and a loose bottom. A two-gallon crock with the bottom broken out may be used. (How does one get the bottom out cleanly?)
Line the press with cheese cloth (loosely woven cotton) and ladle in the curds. On top place a round board just the size of the crock. Then put on a heavy weight. Most housewives used a well-scrubbed stone. Starting with two weights of five pounds apiece, gradually add more. Let whey drip into a container underneath.
After it has pressed for several hours, take the mass out and smooth out the cheesecloth covering, replace in press and put on more weights; leave it 24 hours. Then take it out again, cloth and all, and put on a plate in a room with good circulation of air – – in front of a shaded open window for example. For the first week turn the cheese over several times a day. At the end of the first week take off the cheese cloth, and with a paint brush cover all over with melted paraffin to keep it moist and protect from flies. Then turn it over only once or twice daily. At the end of six weeks of “ripening” it is ready to use. This makes three and a half to four pounds of “Natural cheese”. And if directions are followed carefully – just as good as the commercial product.
Two gallons of separated milk. Let sour until thick, then let simmer until curd separates. Cut lengthwise and crosswise with a knife, strain through muslin, and let drip overnight. Put curd into a pan. To each quart add a half-cup butter and 1-1/2 teaspoons soda. Mix with the hands. Let stand until transparent. Place in double boiler over slow heat. When it begins to heat add 2/3 cup rich sour cream, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon butter coloring. Keep stirring! It will be stringy at first but will become smooth. Time for cooking is about three-quarters of an hour. Pour into molds such as a bowl and let stand overnight. Then remove from molds. This makes a cheese similar to the modern cheese slices or boxed cheese which is known as “processed” cheese. A prize-winning recipe.
The product does not keep as long, but then it was seldom expected to do so. It was a milder, softer product than the first recipe, which if watched for mould and painted with vinegar if mould did appear, would keep all winter. It was a favorite way of treating milk to supply the nutrition of dairy products during the winter or when the cow “went dry”.
The above recipes were supplied by the late Ann Shearer of Shearerdale who got them from Women’s Institute directions.
The Fernand Mertens family of Cecil Lake made a very superior product of superlative quality on a large scale from a Dutch recipe which, naturally, they declined to divulge. It provided a useful cash supplement in the “depression times”, for they never had enough to supply the demand, when meat was rationed during the War, and when population outstripped supplies of all kinds. But what a hard way to do it!
The whey usually went to the pigs or chickens, for nothing was wasted. However, Norwegian people sometimes made a natural cheese from the whey that contained all of the milk sugar in the original milk. I once took part in one of these sessions, because I really loved Norwegian cheese or “Getost”. It had a consistency of a soft maple sugar candy, much the same colour, and a decidedly sweet-sharp flavor. The housewife started with a wash-boiler nearly full of whey that went on the back on the old black iron cook stove, where it heated to a simmering temperature. Then I stoked the stove and stirred the mixture, with brief rests when I could bribe somebody to lend an arm, until the fluid shrank enough that we could transfer it into a preserving kettle. It was becoming thicker in consistency, and I was warned never to cease stirring slowly or it would surely burn.
So I stirred and stirred until I thought my arm would fall off, and finally got the liquid down to a small container. After I had slowly but painfully stirred on, I achieved a remarkably small amount of crumbly, sugary “cheese”. The housewife then took over and creamed back into it some of the whey that she had reserved for such use. Presently a smooth, firm mass was pressed into a butter mold, and wrapped in “butter paper” for storing. My desire for the delicacy seemed to wane until I found the imported product again in a shop run by a Norwegian butcher in Sexsmith, Alberta.
After that earlier experience, a gift of “Norwegian cheese”, which is similarly made, I am told, from goat’s milk, had something of the value of treasure. We had goats during the war, but I never was moved to inquire about the exact recipe for preparing the treat. Such cheese is very nutritious and easily digested because it is composed chiefly of the milk sugar and dry dissolved minerals and proteins which had not separated out in the curd. I have heard of pioneer babies who were allergic to other parts of cows’ milk being kept alive on whey.