Eating With the Ancestors: Curds and Whey

A while back our neighbors offered us a couple of bottles of raw milk.  Because of complicated laws regulating the sale of raw milk in New York State, consumers who want to buy unpasteurized milk on a regular basis sometimes work around the regulations by joining a buying club or purchasing shares in a herd–essentially subscribing to local milk deliveries on a regular basis.  Our neighbors were going on vacation, but the milk they had subscribed to was coming anyway.  All we had to do was pick it up and of course wash out the bottles afterwards. 

Those milk bottles, with a generous amount of cream at the top, reminded me of the milk of my childhood, but I should say right from the start that milk and I have always had a difficult relationship.  I remember that we had three kinds of milk in our tenement: chocolate milk, coffee milk, and plain milk.  Chocolate milk had some sort of cocoa powder stirred into it, while coffee milk was made with Silmo Coffee Syrup, a long-gone product that was once a staple in the New Bedford area.  Of the three, plain milk was the one I liked the least, although it was the simplest to prepare.  My mother would remove the orange cellophane from the top of the milk bottle, rinse the top of the cardboard cap, and give the bottle a vigorous shake.  Then she would remove the cap, pour some milk into a saucepan, and start warming it up.  Of course when my mother poured the warm plain milk over my breakfast Cheerioats, they immediately turned to mush. Truth is, I didn’t like Cheerioats much either, and changing the name to Cheerios didn’t make them any less mushy.  I didn’t know then, and didn’t learn until I was in college, that other people enjoyed their cereal with cold milk.

Today I like Cheerios quite a lot, but I prefer them with lactose-free milk straight from the refrigerator.  Yes, milk makes me sick–not terribly, horribly sick, just sickish enough to feel uncomfortable.  So, as appealing as those two bottle of raw milk looked, I wasn’t about to pour myself a tall one and drink it down.  I knew what I would do.  I would make some fresh cheese.

Fresh cheese is an Azorean treat, a simple cheese made with only two or three ingredients: milk, rennet, and sometimes salt. My mother made it often, possibly because she had extra milk in the refrigerator and the milkman was coming the next morning, or possibly because she knew my brother and I liked it.  Despite my problems with plain milk served in a glass, I loved most foods prepared with dairy products, especially fresh cheese but also goldenrod toast, cream of tomato soup, and creamed anything.  But could my mother have had another reason to include this shimmery white wonder in her cooking rotation?  Could there have been another explanation for the popularity of fresh cheese, or queijo fresco, among people of Azorean ancestry in the New Bedford area. 

I made my fresh cheese, and I made it again, and when the raw milk was used up I made it with pasteurized non-homogenized milk.  I could have used homogenized milk.  My mother did after homogenization became the standard, and the cheese tasted just as good, although the texture was a bit grainy.  I could have used low-fat milk or skim milk, as those work, too, as does goat’s milk.  (Ultra-pasteurized milk would not have worked, and neither would soy or almond milk.)  I chose whole milk simply because that’s how my mother made it.  After months of experimenting with different types of molds (my mother used a one-pound coffee can with top and bottom removed) and different types of rennet, I finally produced a cheese I was happy with.  And while I was testing out variations on my mother’s recipe and hunting down other recipes on the web, I learned something interesting: when the coagulated milk has been spooned into its coffee can or cheese mold and the whey is draining out the bottom, most of the lactose in the milk drains out with it.  

My ancestors came from the island of São Miguel in the Azores.  I have traveled several times to mainland Portugal and the Azores, and the only hotels where I was served fresh cheese with my breakfast–two different hotels on two different trips–were in Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel.  Nowhere else in this country of amazing cheeses was I served fresh cheese, although my hotel in Angra, on Terceira, included the different but equally wonderfully São Jorge cheese as part of its breakfast buffet.  I can’t help wondering whether the residents of São Miguel have an especially high incidence of lactose intolerance.  I’m only guessing, of course.  I’m guessing that my mother, a descendant of Micaelense parents, was lactose intolerant, although the term was not tossed around in those days.  I don’t think she knew that when milk is heated some of its lactose is broken down, but she fed me a cup of warm chocolate or coffee milk first thing in the morning, every morning, for years.  It seems that whenever she reached for a bottle of milk with one hand, she reached for a one-quart saucepan with the other.  And she made fresh cheese often.  

Last weekend our neighbors offered us another half gallon of raw milk.  The bottle is in the refrigerator right now, a gleaming reminder of what life was like before something as simple as milk from a cow was subjected to commodification and hyperregulation.  But what do I know about the dairy industry?  Here’s what I do know:  If I warm a quart of milk in a saucepan, if I add a small amount of powdered or liquid rennet, if I let the warm milk set for a few minutes, if I transfer the curdled milk into a cheese mold, if I patiently wait for the whey to drain out, if I do all of this and maybe add a couple of optional extra steps, I will have a smooth white cheese about the diameter of a coffee can and slightly more than an inch tall.  I will cut myself a good-sized wedge, and I will salt it generously.  When I taste it I will think of the cheeses that my mother made, and I will be surrounded by memories that I do not have of ancestors that I never had a chance to meet.  The cheese will not stand alone.

The Wegmans Parking Lot Riviera

The lead story in this morning’s Ithaca Journal was about how Canada geese have invaded area parks and disrupted peaceful family outings just by doing what geese do naturally and leaving behind what geese typically leave behind.  I can understand the concern.  There are a whole lot of these geese living in our city–about 240,000 in all of New York State, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and we have our share–and they’re not about to walk away from a grassy area just because some nice people want to have a picnic.  In fact, when they see that picnic basket I’m sure images of free food pass through their heads, and I can’t really blame them.  Living in today’s world takes energy and inventiveness, and geese don’t have credit cards to use in area restaurants.  But, because I had other things on my mind this morning, I set the newspaper aside.  

So I was surprised, as we were leaving Wegmans after our weekly grocery shopping expedition, to see a whole flock of Canada geese wading in the lake that the week’s rain had left at the edge of the parking lot.  Some were just strolling along the shoreline, enjoying the sun.  People were feeding them.  They like people, and they seemed happy to have found a place to hang out on a hot day.  

They strut their poise and stateliness.  Wouldn’t they make handsome carousel animals? 

Greetings from the End of the World

That’s where I am, Cape Finisterre, which translates as “end of the earth” and feels like it.  This peninsula in Galicia, Spain, narrows and pokes into the ocean and into the wind so that you feel totally disconnected from what your life used to be and ready to start anew.  For a long time people believed that Finisterre (or Fisterra, as it often is called on maps) was the end of the known world, but the honor of being the westernmost point of continental Europe belongs to Cabo da Roca, Portugal, which wins by a few feet, although the two points of land look more like noses than feet.  That’s horseraces for you.  

Actually I’m in Finisterre virtually, at the end of my most recent virtual walking tour. I started in Le Puy, France, and walked through Moissac, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Roncesvalles before reaching Pamplona, Spain.  From there it was Burgos, León, Santiago de Compostela, and Finisterre, which is an optional extension of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).  My itinerary was virtual, but the walking was real; I use a pedometer and chart my progress on a spreadsheet.  But I’ve been to Finisterre in real life.  A couple of years ago, Joe and I took a trip through Galicia and Portugal.  We stopped in Pontevedra, where I had the best Spanish tortilla I’ve ever had in my life, and in Santiago, where we saw more pilgrims than I would have believe existed.  There were pilgrims in Finisterre, too, like the nun in the above photo.  We were cheating, though.  We traveled in a rented car and slept in hotels rather than pilgrim houses.  This time around I did the walking, but I did it elsewhere; in fact much of the legwork for the last part of my route was done on wide Parisian sidewalks dotted with Parisian cafes.

Finisterre became a pilgrimage destination in pre-Christian times.  People believed it was the place the sun went to die.  Modern pilgrims don’t make sacrifices to the sun, but they are likely to leave something behind in that sacred place, perhaps their hiking boots or an article of clothing.  

Where do I go next?  I’ve already decided that I’ll walk down the coast of the Iberian peninsula, visiting Cabo da Roca, of course, and ending up in Sagres.  I’m still mapping out the route, but I’ll definitely stop in Porto to sample some of that 20-year-old Tawny.

The Horse in the Calendar

Lately I’ve had horses in my head, mostly made of wood (the horses, not my head), painted in vivid colors, and engineered to prance counter-clockwise in a circle.  The track at Belmont Park is an oval, not a circle, but like carousel horses the thoroughbreds run counter-clockwise, just as they do in every other racetrack in the United States.  Before the American Revolution, racing in the Colonies was clockwise to conform to the practice in the mother country.  I’ve read that our change of direction was meant as a deliberate expression of our independence.  In England most of the racetracks are still clockwise, but a few now copy our habit of racing against the clock.  

I thought of all this Saturday as I was sipping my manhattan and watching the pre-race coverage of the Belmont Stakes.  Although I have never ridden a horse, I love horse racing and have been to races at Saratoga and Canandaigua and at tracks in California and Dublin.  According to the Chinese calendar, I was born in the Year of the Horse or, more accurately, the year Wu (Horse).  I first heard of the Chinese calendar when I lived in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s.  The calendar is very complicated and I won’t pretend to understand it, but I believe the twelve animals used to indicate the years are technically part of the Chinese Zodiac.  Every year has an animal assigned to it, and at the end of twelve years they start all over again.  I remember going to Grant Avenue to watch the magnificent parade held each year to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The parade would feature an assortment of floats and marching bands, but the finale would always be the many-footed dragon that would dance and bob and threaten and delight to the sound of drums and firecrackers.  During my time in San Francisco I always lived close enough to Chinatown to spend a lot of time there, and once I had an opportunity to see the dragon up close, although certainly not personal.  It was the year I took a course in spinning and weaving; our class was held in the Chinese YWCA, and our instructor had arranged to let us into the gym where the dragon lived in all its glory while it was being assembled and adorned for the big day. 

I loved those parades, and I loved the dragon.  But am I attracted to the sport of kings because I was born in the Year of the Horse?  It’s possible, I suppose.  As for the Belmont Stakes, the odds-on favorite, American Pharoah, proved that he was a true descendant of the daughters of the wind by winning the Triple Crown by a splendid margin.  I am truly happy!

More Circles: The Horses of Destiny

After France, we found we missed all those noisettes we had been drinking in Parisian cafes. The noisette, an espresso with a touch of cream, was our drink of choice for a whole glorious month, but when we returned home we realized there were no noisettes to be had unless we made them ourselves. That was why, a few days later, we headed for Destiny USA in search of a Nespresso machine. 

Destiny USA is a shopping center in Syracuse. It used to be called the Carousel Center because of the restored antique carousel in the food court on the second level. Built in 1909 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel had several homes before being purchased for the Carousel Center, where it was placed in 1990. It survived the mall’s name change and remains a hard-working carousel with unusually fierce-looking horses, some outfitted with weapons and some with animal skins on their backs instead of saddles. 

Did we buy a Nespresso machine? Mais bien sûr! Then it was off to the food court to watch the horses go around and around.