Who knew that the hand-crafted ricotta in your shopping cart had a seasonal shelf-life? Surprise: milk is actually one of the most misunderstood ingredients from the farm, and a truly seasonal food.
EcoSalon readers will agree that as a farmers market-shopping, tomato-growing, eco-conscious subset of society, we’ve become pretty savvy about where our food comes from. We understand that asparagus and peas are worth waiting for, and that pastured-raised chickens and their eggs really do taste better.
Yet, few food-loving folk people are aware that cheese is a seasonal food. Since its discovery sometime around 2000 BC, fresh cheese has been a way to use surplus milk. The process of aging cheese is actually one of the earliest methods of food preservation, and it provided vital protein and other nutrients during the winter months, when certain species of ruminants (cud-chewing mammals with four-chambered stomachs) aren’t lactating.
Image: June Mita Photography
Milk, of course, comes from lactating mammals, i.e., those that have recently given birth. The stomachs of ruminants are specially adapted to break down their entirely plant-based diet, and the end result is an especially rich milk, and the main ingredient in cheese. The normal lactation period for the three main dairy species—sheep, goats, and cows—ranges from six to ten months. Factors such as breed, climate, diet, and topography all influence lactation time and the flavor and chemical composition (the ratio of water to solids) of milk, as well.
This is why fresh (unaged) cheeses such as mozzarella, chevre, and ricotta were traditionally only available during the spring and summer, when animals began their lactation. Aged cheeses such as cheddar, Gruyère, or Parmigiano-Reggiano were consumed during the lean winter months. As agriculture became industrialized, dairy species were domesticated and genetically selected to produce more milk, and extending the lactation cycle was adopted as a practice in most commercial dairy farming.
A longer lactation results in a higher milk yield and profit (in the short term, at least). The problem with continuously lengthening lactation and overbreeding a dairy animal is that it stresses their system, which is not exactly humane or conducive to quality dairy products. Ultimately, this results in a shorter “working” life, and potentially makes the animal more susceptible to disease and injury.
Image: George Wesley & Bonita…
Despite advances in the dairy industry over the centuries, cheesemaking has changed very little, which is why, for small cheesemakers, it remains a highly seasonal food making endeavor. From a financial standpoint, fresh cheese equals immediate profit, while aged cheeses mean a source of income during the off-season.
This is why you likely won’t find that incredible yogurt or chevre from your favorite local, small-scale cheesemaker during the winter months: their animals aren’t producing milk. There’s nothing wrong with purchasing fresh cheeses from larger producers or those using frozen milk in the colder months (or summer, for that matter). If, however, you want to support local or small-scale cheesemakers, be sure to purchase their winter offerings, as well.
Want to know more about cheese? Check out my book, Cheese for Dummies.
top image: mark notari