Spring is the perfect season for butter and cheese making. Cows are having calves, producing more milk and providing one of the ingredients for cheese making, rennet. The grass is new, the cow’s milk is sweet. Milk preservation was very important in the spring and dairy production has a long history in the Netherlands. The grass in the lowland, damp areas of the Netherlands is the most abundant resource. The highest producing dairy animal is the Friesian breed of cow which was developed in North Holland and Friesland. From the beginning of time cheese and butter have been one of the best ways to preserve milk. In the Netherlands cheese production was regulated in the middle ages, sold at markets in the center of town by local farmers, where guilds could balance the price of cheese.
Dairy production was mainly a women’s job. The environment for cheese and butter making needed to be clean and sanitary. Anything less than clean could be lethal or unprofitable. Small buildings or rooms in the basement would be fitted with brick or stone floors, ceilings and inside walls plastered and whitewashed against dirt. Because coolness was also vital floors of dairy buildings were mostly below grade and well ventilated to keep cool. Gervase Markham in his 1615 book “The English Housewife” describes the keeping of a dairy “the main point belonging there unto is the housewife’s cleanliness in the sweet and neat keeping of the dairy house; where not the least mote of any filth may by any means appear, but all things either to the eye or nose so void of sourness or sluttishness, that a prince’s bed chamber must not exceed it.”
The first step in processing the milk for cheese and butter is to strain it, removing the chunky bits, cow hair, and flies. Then you pour the milk into wide, shallow pans, leaving it twenty-four to forty-eight hours on the shelves while the cream rises. The pans were earthenware, glazed on the inside, metal pans were rarely used because they could change the flavor of the milk. Once the cream rises, it's skimmed off with big flat spoons and stored. As with meat in a smokehouse, water is the enemy; it makes things go off. Since cream is more fat than water, it has a longer shelf life than milk. To make butter, the cream is worked in a plunge churn. The agitation causes a physical change in the cream, so the fat accumulates in bunches while the water gets separated. Dairymaids learn to listen to the churn for the diagnostic slop, slop. . . slush. That thin watery sound means the butter has formed. The long job of making butter had its own rhyme. This was as a song which went with the rhythm of the work. It was widely known on both sides of the Atlantic, with many variations and was probably already old when mentioned in print in 1685. Many cultures had their own churning songs.
After the cream had formed lumps of butter, it still wasn’t ready for serving or preserving. It was taken out of the churn, probably with wooden scoops, ready to be salted and shaped. Buttermilk, which had separated from the butterfat, had to be rinsed off. This would improve texture and flavor, and also help the butter keep well, since milk turns rancid more quickly than fat alone. Salt was usually mixed in at this stage, for flavor and preservation. Working or “kneading” the butter with a pair of wooden butter hands was the last step to shape the butter then store in a cool place until the time to use.
To make cheese, take the fresh milk, heat it slightly then and add rennet, which is derived from the lining of a calf's stomach. Rennet is an enzyme that curdles milk and starts the solidifying process. After standing for twelve hours, the rennet-milk mixture resembles Jell-O. If you take the pan and shake it, the whole thing wiggles. You then cut the cheese into squares with a knife. This makes lines where the whey, the watery part, can weep out of the solid curds. The whey is strained off and used in some recipes or given to the farm animals as a protein drink. The curds are then ready for the cheese press, to force out the rest of the water. The cheese will stay in the press for a few days then dry on a slated shelf, being flipped daily, for a couple of months. This produces a hard cheese that will last for years. Flavor and texture come from the type of milk used for cheese making, what the animal eat, drying time and even the environment the cheese dries in. There are many varieties of cheese and each country has its own varieties as well.