Lessons in cheesemaking: Don’t let the kimchi curdle

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Lessons in cheesemaking: Don’t let the kimchi curdle

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Jo Ok-hyang is a cheese maven.
Her nose could tell from across a room when the milk has begun to curdle. In her kitchen on a recent Saturday afternoon, it took Ms. Jo less than a minute to tell whether her curds were ready to be drained in a strainer.
She took a small piece out of the pot, rinsed it in cold water and swiftly rubbed the surface of the fresh curd with her two fingers over a few times. Then they were stretched and kneaded in hot water to form a shape of a ball. Voila! It was done.
“If they disperse, it’s a bad sign for mozzarella,” she explained. “It should be stringy and elastic.”
She tore off a long piece of the fresh Italian-style cheese and handed it to a visitor.
It was sweet, mild and fresh ― a far cry from powdered processed cheese in Kraft Dinner as if that were even a fair comparison.
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Fresh cheese is essentially concentrated milk with a toss of salt and a scoop of water. (100 kilograms, or 220 pounds, of milk shrinks down to 10 kilos of cheese.) The milk must be fresh ― no more than 3 to 4 hours old. There are no preservatives. One can test that easily: Fresh cheese without preservatives should develop mold in a few days.
A 30-gram (1-ounce) serving of cheddar cheese contains about seven grams of protein and 200 milligrams of calcium.
Fresh cheese is the next emerging item of “slow food,” a popular movement across the nation promoting the consumption of organic, locally-produced food, which is probably one of the reasons why it’s increasingly a popular item in the nation’s specialty food corners at major hotels and department stores today.
“One’s tastes change very slowly,” she says. “You have to constantly train yourself to get used to a new taste. With cheese, Koreans are finally opening up, though very slowly.”
Few people here ate cheese until the Korean War, when the Korean black market hoarded yellow slices of American processed cheese they were provided through contacts in the U.S. military here. Kraft cheese, along with Spam and canned fruit, was one of the popular military foods that worked their way into Korean cuisine after the war.
That explains in large part the mixed attitude Koreans have to the substance.
For some, it’s a “nostalgia food;” for others, it’s a symbol of Western cultural inroads and a bad reminder of the war.
Ms. Jo is married to a ranch head at Euna Dairy Farm in the city of Yeoju, on the outskirts of Seoul ― not exactly a place reputed for fresh cheese. For years, the city was known for producing traditional celadon and rice, if it was known at all.
In rural regions throughout Europe, however, making cheese has long been the occupation of ranchers’ wives. Traditionally, women who live on dairy farms make and sell cheese to neighbors, and successful makers could even export their cheese.
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In many ways, Euna is modeled on the pastoral tradition from Europe. The place is run strictly as a family business.
While Ms. Jo takes care of cheese-making in her cozy studio, perfumed by pasteurizing gouda cheese, her husband looks after the farm’s 152 head of cattle. The couple has an additional helper, but the ranch has always maintained its family atmosphere.
Recently, Ms. Jo’s eldest daughter, Ji-eun, went to Japan to study dairy processing under a man who is known across the country as a “cheese maestro.” The family is thinking of remodeling the entire farm to develop a modern dairy operation when she returns.
Cheese was most likely invented by Turkic tribes in Central Asia, or by Middle Eastern peoples.
The most common tale about the discovery of cheese tells of an Arab nomad carrying milk across the desert in a container made from an animal’s stomach, only to discover that the milk had been turned into curd by the rennet, which is extracted from cattle stomachs to coagulate milk.
Indeed, cheese is eaten all over Europe and the Middle East. Indians eat paneer, a kind of soft cheese made from yak’s milk. In the 1980s, Japan became one of the first countries in Northeast Asia to start large-scale cheese production, mainly as a method of preserving surplus milk. The average Japanse person consumes over 2 kilograms of cheese a year; In Korea, it’s 70 grams.
Ms. Jo, however, is on her way to catching up. She’s already found a way to mix gouda with red pepper to curdle a Korean version of “gochu cheese.” It’s part of the ranch’s move towards “fusion cheese.”
Real cheese ― not the preprocessed American kind ― wasn’t too popular among Koreans, in large part due to its odor. That’s also changing.
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As Koreans have taken a fondness to European wine, demand has also risen for a varieties of cheeses, most of which are sold in local specialty food stores. That demand has in turn boosted the number of local cheese producers. Many fusion restaurants in some of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods now incorporate cheese into varieties of Korean food. A combination of cheese with kimchi had been a popular one, with some the most common recipes being the pork cutlet stuffed with kimchi and mozzarella and frozen pizza topped with kimchi.
The pairing is also being adopted by foreign chefs. Recently, a group of French Chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, a renowned French culinary school that opened a Seoul branch in 2002, published a fusion cookbook in English and French. One of the recipes from the book was an eclectic platter of deep-fried Camembert cheese wrapped in a flour coating with kimchi.
Earlier this year, Ms. Jo also published a cookbook using cheese as a main ingredient, introducing a set of all-new cheese recipes.
One recipe was for baked yams topped with melted mozarella. Another recipe calls for surplus milk to be mixed with crushed rice, molding it into small balls to bake into loaves or pancakes.
In the fall, Ms. Jo makes about 20 kilos worth of gouda, requiring up to one ton of milk. The farm has no food license yet, so it holds workshops every weekend, charging visitors 50,000 won a person to make 10 kilos of cheese for themselves. Classes are offered for mozzarella, ricotta, feta, stelling, gouda and quark, a German cheese spread.
“It’s not just the cheese,” Ms. Jo says. “Everything begins from having a good breed of cattle. That’s not easy at all.”


by Park Soo-mee
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