Paul Nabhan, in his fascinating book Coming Home to Eat, records a year devoted to eating foods grown, raised, or fished within a 200 mile radius of his house near Phoenix. Eating local is not an easy thing to do, although easier, say, in Naples than in Nome. While it’s generally too ambitious for me, far from Naples, buying local only is a worthy target–as long as I’m allowed my quota of coffee, peppercorns, tea and olive oil.

And it’s easier to achieve at the height of summer in North Carolina. With all our current local bounty, there really is no excuse for eating New Zealand apples and other out-of-season produce brought to a hemisphere near you, thanks to cheap petroleum.

Eat locally and a much larger portion of your food dollar will go to the people doing real work with real skill. Mobil-Exxon, Kraft, Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland already have quite enough money, and it isn’t good to encourage them and their ilk.

Also, the more you buy locally the more there’ll be to buy locally. Our local farmers’ markets are thriving, and they make it possible to spend your food dollar responsibly. And deliciously. Produce picked yesterday, eggs laid and gathered yesterday, mozzarella stretched yesterday–all taste far better than the ancient industrial fodder in the supermarket aisles.

That mozzarella is stretched right here in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill. Actually, Chapel Hill. A couple of weeks ago, as the tomato/mozzarella/basil season neared, I paid a visit to the Chapel Hill Creamery to see local cheesemaking up close.

I arrived in time to see the very last stages of mozzarella (see sidebar) production–the stretching of the curd in hot water and the rounding into spheres. (Note in the picture the tell-tale folds on the bottom of the mozzarella ball, which machine-made cheese lacks.) Which also means that I arrived in time to taste it still warm, within minutes of its making, making for a very happy mouth. Portia McKnight and Flo Hawley (who are Chapel Hill Creamery) make mozzarella twice a week, so you too can taste it while it’s still fresh.

How do they fill in the rest of their week? Well, they make a variety of cheeses, both fresh and aged. About 300 pounds a week. That’s the yield from 3,000 pounds of milk a week. Did I mention the cows? Caring for and milking the cows takes a chunk out of the day, as does selling the cheeses at the Fearrington (Tuesday), Carrboro (Wednesday and Saturday) and Durham (Saturday) farmers’ markets. I’m guessing a 12-hour day is routine.

But it is more worthwhile and more fun than selling your farm’s milk to the big milk cooperatives for $12/hundredweight and going quietly bankrupt.

So what happens before the stretching of the curd? Let’s start with a vat full of whole milk–we’ll get to the cows later.

For a fresh cheese, like mozzarella, they use slow vat pasteurization (145F for 30 minutes). The vat in question is a 500 liter, triple insulated vat, with a jacket through which water circulates, thereby controlling the temperature. A very large bain marie.

For mozzarella, they then add a specific bacterial culture and, a little later, rennet. Over the years, Portia and Flo have experimented with various cultures to get the taste and texture to where they want it. Among their other useful metabolic tricks, the bacteria produce lactic acid from lactose, thereby lowering the pH. The resulting curd is then cut (roughly 1/2-inch thicknesses) and left to sit with the whey for a few hours, until the pH hits about 5.8. It is then drained and kept at about 98F, via the water in the vat jacket. The timing of all this affects the texture of the result; relatively small changes can result in overly tough mozzarella.

When the pH hits 5.2 the curds will be suitable for stretching, and the process is stopped by running cold water through the jacket and the curds are refrigerated overnight. Don’t try this at home.

The next day the curds are put into a hot water bath and stretched, and then formed into balls. As I’ve learned, this is not a skill you pick up in a few minutes.

At the other extreme of their cheesemaking is Hickory Grove. “Other extreme,” because this is an aged cheese and, since it is aged over 60 days, it can benefit from being a raw milk (unpasteurized) cheese. (See sidebar.)

For Hickory Grove, the milk is heated to 86F and then the culture is added, and later the rennet. This culture is a different strain from the mozzarella culture. After the curd has set, it is cut, stirred, and the temperature raised. The complex flavor-enhancing process proceeds, and the acidity rises. The curds are partially drained, some water put back (making this a washed curd cheese), aiming for a not too low pH–about 5.2.

The curds are then drained, scooped into a form, flipped several times, and left overnight. They are then taken from the form, salted, and put in an aging room. The outside is washed with a 3 percent brine and bacteria solution that makes for its natural rind. It is turned and washed several times during its initial aging.

The resulting cheese has semi-firm lacy texture, delicious on its own, with apples, and as a melter.

Calvander, another of their cheeses, is a pasteurized cheese, softer (more whey is kept), a different culture, not washed and dry-salted. (You can sample all these different tastes at the farmers’ markets). They also make a feta, Carolina Moon (camembert type with a bloomy white mold) and a farmer’s cheese–cultured, tangy and silky. The farmer’s cheese is a fresh cheese, like the mozzarella. It is milk one day, into a mold the next and at the market the next day.

None of these meticulous procedures would have much point without good milk. When Portia and Flo started out, they realized they needed high-quality milk. Their first thought, thinking of themselves as cheesemakers, was to buy milk. But the more they investigated buying milk, the less they liked the idea. Zoning difficulties, hauling complications figured in, but the primary reason was control. They became farmstead cheesemakers, so they could control the quality of the milk.

They wanted soft, creamy cheeses and Jerseys made the richest best milk for that, so that settled the breed issue. Most dairy herds these days are Holsteins, because they are huge producers. For dairy farmers who are selling milk at $12/hundredweight, production is the only issue.

As for feed, grass was the way to go. Intensive rotational grazing (simulating the traditional migration of herds from lowland pastures to highland) is good for both the cows and the grass. So five acres of early rye and clover was available on Feb. 13 this year. Then crabgrass and five more acres of Matua prairie grass, which is now ending. Within those seasonal pastures, the cows are moved from quadrant to quadrant, allowing the grasses to grow back. When hay is needed they use local hay with a high standard of cleanliness.

Indeed, all this meticulousness in farmstead cheesemaking is as much about cleanliness as it is about flavor. At Chapel Hill Creamery the milk is safe before it is pasteurized and that requires attention to arcane details of cow health that ensures cleanliness from teat to tank. For instance, an clever fly trap, which the cows walk through twice a day on their way to milking, helps prevent mastitis, pink eye and other fly-borne diseases.

Equipment cleanliness is a big deal; they have cleaning cycles every day, filters are carefully checked and they painstakingly maintain temperature control. Milking itself is tricky. Portia did a six-month internship, just to learn the cow end of the farmstead cheese business.

There are fewer and fewer small operations like this; more typically cows are pushed for high yields and wear out sooner from hormone treatments, standing on concrete, and generally, the demands of high production.

If real farming, non-factory farming, is to survive in the United States, it will be because of small-scale producers, like Chapel Hill Creamery. And if we want the real food they make, we have to support them. Not that that’s a hardship. EndBlock

Pasteurization panic
The FDA is proposing to ban raw-milk cheeses. As a public health measure, it’s udder nonsense. Next month I’ll discuss listeria panic, pasteurization and the epidemiology of food-borne disease.

Mozzarella nomenclature
OK, before Italians and Italophiles barrage the Indy with corrections: mozzarella, properly so-called, in Italy, is made only from water buffalo milk. A similar product, made from cow’s milk, is called fior di latte. In the United States, it’s all mozzarella.