By Eila Planinc, Ben Scott-Lewis, and Abbi Vosen
For our second week of Experimental Archaeology, we continued to examine ancient Greek shepherding traditions, this time with a focus on cheese. Last week we used the lens of wool and wool working practices to get at the experience of life in the ancient world, finding it colored by gender, age, and more. Women were at the center of wool work, spinning while they went about their other tasks, not to mention the amount of time devoted to carding, weaving, and every other step of the process. As we dove deeper into shepherding traditions this week, it was remarkable to find that despite their intimate connection with wool, women were rarely allowed to associate with sheep.
The labor of shepherding was a largely male task in the ancient Greek world. Shepherds spent nearly all of their time maintaining their flocks in order to maximize efficiency, especially in regard to milk production. Lambs were weaned at a very young age, letting all milk be reserved for cheese production for much of the spring and summer. During these months each Stani, or shepherding community, would live nearby a cheesemaker who would set up production in a place where they would have a constant supply of milk. Men milked their sheep (women were relegated to working with goats, and doing most other jobs) and brought all of that milk each day to sell at the cheesemaker’s hut.
Our experiment this week focused on the processes that would have occurred in the cheesemaker’s domain. While shepherds and cheesemakers were intimately connected, the process was scalable to the point that only a select group needed to specialize in it. The cheesemaking process has a few main steps, with each taking a wide variety of forms based on the desired product. The first step is the curdling of the milk, where casein and milk fat consolidate and are separated from the whey, which is composed mainly of water, lactose, and milk proteins. The curds are pressed to remove most of the liquid whey, and then are shaped into a mass. From this point there are a variety of steps that can be taken to create certain types of cheese. Despite their variety, all include salting, which is a crucial part of the cheesemaking process. Different ways of salting can affect the water content of cheese, the way in which it ages, the ability of bacteria to grow on it, and more. In our lab we made mozzarella, a very quick cheese, so these final steps, which can take as long as years, were deemphasized.
Procedure Part 1: Making Curd and Whey
We only had a short timeframe in which to make our cheese, so we chose to make a quick mozzarella. We added vinegar to the milk in order to speed up the curdling process. Once the milk and vinegar solution reached 90º F we added rennet, a collection of enzymes that lead to the formation of curds.
Once the rennet was added, we waited 20 minutes for the curds to set, maintaining the temperature. At that time we checked the “break” by pushing our fingers into the curd and scooping up. Groups did not get a clean “break” until at least 30 minutes had passed. Once the curds had broken, we cut them into 2cm cubes and waited another 15 minutes, stirring and waiting for the curd to set further.
We drained the chunks of curd into a bucket lined with cheesecloth, saving both the whey and curd. The curds had to drain with the help of gravity, so we waited another 30 minutes. We gave gravity some help by squeezing the remaining whey out of the curd before starting our mozzarella. At this time we recorded the weight of whey and curd, then held some curd back to put in our whey cheese later.
Procedure Part 2: Making Mozzarella
To form the mozzarella we cut the chunks of curd into ¾ inch slices and boiled them in 150 º F water or whey. The chunks were boiled for 5 minutes, stretched and kneaded if possible (some of the groups reported that their cheese ripped when they tried stretching it). Then we returned it to the hot water, rolled it into a mozzarella-style ball, and let the balls cool in a salt water bath. At this point we could taste the cheeses
Procedure Part 3: Making Whey Cheese
None of the groups made a successful whey cheese. Most groups ran out of time, and the ones who attempted a second cheese did not end up with a soft ricotta-like product.
To attempt the whey cheese, we boiled the whey and the reserved curds together. When they boiled, we added ¼ cup of vinegar and removed the pot from heat. After around 5 minutes, we strained the product into cheesecloth, using the same method as before.
|Initial Milk Weight
|% Curd Set Aside
|Final Taste of Mozzarella
|Whey Cheese Quality
|8 lbs 8.4 oz
|0, no whey cheese made
|Squeaky clean – a little dense but very stretchy
|8 lbs 8.5 oz
|1 lb 3.9 oz
|9 lb 3.5 oz
|“rubbery and squeaky, tasted relatively plain and clean”
|8lbs 7.3 oz
|7lbs 1 oz
|“Edible, but not great” – did not stretch well
|Stiff, and with an acidy taste
|8 lb 10.2 oz
|1 lb 3.5 oz
|8 lb 3.1 oz
|Chewy and fairly bland – did not stick together as cheese
|Less stretchy, purer and cleaner than mozz.
|“Yummy and squeaky”
|0, no whey cheese made
|“quite good in terms of both texture and taste, even without the salt”
The yield of curd was only about ⅛ of the original weight of the milk. This was initially surprising to many of us. So little of what we put in was converted into the product, but that makes sense, because the only parts that collected as part of the curd were milk fat and casein protein, with most of the water, lactose, and whey proteins separating out. Water was the main player here in terms of weight ratios. It is also worth noting that the discrepancy between the weight of milk added, and the total weight of product (curds + whey), can be explained by the addition of water and vinegar at the beginning to assist with the curdling process.
The different groups had varied success in the mozzarella making process, but all found some success. A few groups found their cheese not to be very stretchy, which might be attributed to not leaving it in the hot water for long enough. Other groups had problems with dirt and sticks making their way into the cheese (making us realize the importance of the cheesemaker’s hut!). A few groups however, found great success with stretchy mozzarella, which made a squeaky sound when bitten, and had a clean flavor. Some groups found that their cheese, though stretchy, was packed too densely. With more practice and better technique, we may have been able to make a more consistent density and texture.
The groups that had time to make whey cheese found minimal success. Weights of whey cheese were barely higher than the curd originally put in, and the product was stiffer and less enjoyable than the mozzarella made. It is possible that sufficient heat was not reached in order to form a larger yield of whey cheese. This process was rushed due to the fact that we were running out of time, and therefore data from it is not as high quality as for other parts of the lab.
None of the groups made a successful whey cheese. Though everyone ended up with a mozzarella of some kind, only ⅚ groups were successful, and many of the cheeses ended up with dirt, ash, and dead bugs baked into them. However, even when the mozzarella or whey cheese was unsuccessful, we were able to try the successful cheese of the other groups and compare results. Many groups with especially ashy or dirty cheeses saw the need for a mitato to protect their vulnerable curd from the elements. We were able to appreciate how hard the cheesemakers had to work, and the amount of experience they had in their craft. We were helped by modern tools (thermometers, heat gloves, cast iron pots, Noah), but they didn’t have any of the same luxuries. They did everything by eye or by feel. Though it’s incredible to us now, it was normal for them. Using a computer requires just as many thought processes as making cheese– it’s just a part of how we live.
Our first outdoor lab was a great bonding opportunity for the class and we all celebrated each others’ successes. When the first group broke their curd, everyone yelled in delight. The lab was filled with quick periods of action followed by much longer periods of waiting. During the waiting time, everyone got to talking with each other. It was nice to be making something from scratch, and our satisfaction transferred over to our conversation. I can’t imagine that, if the shepherds had ruined a batch of curds, their conversation would have been as friendly as ours was. This was a fun experience for us but it was a huge part of their livelihood. It was important to get all the steps right.
This week’s class and lab built on our understanding of ancient Greek shepherding communities. The dynamics around care for animals and regulations of flocks brought up conversation around age, gender, and social position. Seeing the process of cheesemaking let us broaden our perspective on who was involved in the processing of sheep products. As we learned last week, when we see a spindle whorl, we ought to think of all the women involved in the wool working process. Similarly, when we find a cheesemaking hut or pot, we ought to see the whole world of the Stani, completing the Dhiava (the transhumance) to provide the milk for that one cheesemaker.