Book Review: The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice by Sasha Davies

February 8, 2013 · 4 comments

I mentioned The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice by Sasha Davies a couple weeks ago before I’d read through it, but it turns out that it deserves so much more than a mention. It’s so well written and inspiring that if you have any interest in cheesemaking or cheese eating, you should BUY IT immediately.

When I first started out as a dairying novice six years ago, I needed information, guidance. I needed a mentor, but I couldn’t find one. Unlike homebrewing, canning, or bread baking, our community’s cultural knowledge of dairying has been pretty much erased, and most of what’s left is held by factory cheesemakers and huge dairies. Because I couldn’t find an actual person to teach me, I turned to books, but again, there just weren’t that many that offered what I needed. I bought Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making and read it cover to cover. While Home Cheese Making is a great resource and should probably be part of every home cheesemaker’s library, it left me wanting more…more science, more professionalism, more factual information on raw milk. The other problem was that all the people I’d known in real life that made cheese had learned most everything they knew from reading the same dang book.

I bought The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice when I was at Powell’s in Portland because I follow Leela Cyd Ross‘s blog Tea Cup Tea, and she mentioned that she had photographed a book about cheese. I figured that I like cheese and I like Leela’s photos, so I might as well see what it was all about. I didn’t have very high expectations about the content, but after getting into it just a few pages, I knew that I had seriously underestimated Sasha Davies and this incredible book.

The book is organized into 15 chapters, eight of which focus on a specific method of cheesemaking/type of cheese (i.e. fresh cheese, washed curd and pressed under the whey cheese, cheddar cheese, surface-ripened cheese, etc.), and the other chapters cover ingredients, basic cheesemaking techniques, and aging (which I learned from the book is technically called “affinage”), and then it finishes with selecting, tasting and pairing cheeses. Each chapter starts off with an interview or two of a cheese-world professional, and all the specific cheese chapters include one or more recipes. The content in the book ranges from cheesemaking 101-type stuff that I breezed through to super technical jargon that went right over my head. Maybe the scientific parts would be intimidating to some readers, but I found it fascinating and humbling in that just because I’ve been making chévre in my kitchen for a few years, I still have so SO much to learn.

If you already own Home Cheese Making or other cheese books, know that The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice is completely different but perfectly complementary to more comprehensive cheesemaking cookbooks. The list of recipes included in The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice is relatively short, but it does cover most of the cheeses that I would ever aspire to make at home.

By far, the best parts of the book are the interviews. Davies grills cheese professionals including cheesemongers, a microbiologist, a food-science professor (in my opinion, the most mind-blowing interview of the bunch), dairy owners, cheesemakers, cheese-aging specialists, and cheese tasters/evaluators. Many of the artisan cheesemakers interviewed got started at a time when there wasn’t a lot of information or resources available for small-scale cheesemakers, so now they are incredibly forthright about their process and the special challenges they’ve faced. It seems as though their inability to get help in their early years has driven them to be especially open and willing to share, so that others won’t have to start from zero. In one interview, Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery declares when asked about increasing competition in the artisan cheese market (and trying to sell fromage blanc to Americans that had never heard of such a thing), “Being the first has its advantages; being the first in a non-existent market is much more difficult.”

This book is also the first place where I’ve read rational, science-based commentary about when one should and shouldn’t use raw milk and what risks are involved. I found those sections super refreshing and affirming of some of the principles I’ve established for myself regarding raw milk, and it also gave me a lot to think about. This book will certainly give any cheese-loving reader lots to think about.

Davies’ writing and interview questions also speak to her intimate knowledge of cheesemaking and the cheese industry as well as her empathy for cheesemakers trying to make the best possible product while also attempting to run a viable business in a economic climate that may not be patient or kind to young cheesemakers. Davies herself has been working in and writing about the world of cheesemaking for the last 10 years, and now she and her husband have opened an unpretentious wine and cheese shop/restaurant in Portland called Cyril’s at Clay Pigeon Winery.

I was in Portland again this week (because I had tickets to see The Moth live!), so I made a special trip to Powell’s to buy a second copy of The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice for my dairying friend Lisa. Also while in the big city, I had the privilege of going out to breakfast (at Sweedeedee, super cute and delicious) with Leela (the photographer). After I finished gushing about how in love with the book I was, Leela encouraged me to stop by Davies’ restaurant (where supposedly everything on the menu is good) or to get involved with Cyril’s Community Supported Cheese program, which sounds like the most fun thing ever (although I don’t think I can make it back to Portland again in February for the wheel-cutting party, maybe next month).

The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice is one of those books that really lit a fire under me. Every year, I say I’m going to learn to make hard cheese, and every year, I don’t follow through, but mark my words, I’m not putting it off any longer. 2013 will go down in history as the year Camille at least attempts to make some sort of aged cheese. If it works out, I’ll have this book to thank for the inspiration and motivation.

On a barely related note, Leela is co-leading what sounds like the most amazing trip ever to Florence, Italy in May. It’s a vacation combined with a photography workshop in one of the more beautiful places on earth, and if there was any way I could swing it, I would totally be there. If you have the time and the means, check it out the details because I’m sure it will be incredible. 

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