Years ago, I saw a movie about a woman who wrote for a newspaper. She ran out of ideas, so she began writing about different uses of cheese. After five weeks, the editor called her into his office. When the writer revealed what amounted to burnout or loss of imagination, the editor blurted out: “You’re a good writer – write about anything. But no more cheese, lady!”
That was the best line in the movie.
However, since I hadn’t written about that use of milk, since Carol and I were in the town of Tillamook, Oregon, and since I really like cheese, I decided it was time to write about it. When my editor read it, he approved, so I sent him some.
Tillamook is a Native American tribal name, but that’s another story.
Mankind has been making cheese for over 4,000 years, and I read that there are 1,831 kinds of cheese. Cheese is classified by geographic origin, what animal gave the milk, the animal’s diet, age of cheese, texture, added ingredients, butterfat content, and a lot more, and by combinations of all the above. Most milk used in cheese production is from cows, but cheese is also made of milk from goats, camels, sheep, yaks, buffalo, and even reindeer. I wonder if anyone tried giraffe milk.
Tillamook is my favorite brand of cheese, and Colby Jack (marbled yellow & white) is my favorite kind. Don’t ever confuse Colby Jack with Pepper Jack. That stuff is hot! (My editor liked it.)
The Tillamook Cheese Factory is a dairy cooperative that was founded in 1909. My first visit was in the summer of 1991 with Carol and the younger two kids (Rebecca and Michael), and this is my third visit. Over a million people a year must have the same taste for cheese as I do and visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory, so they built a new visitor center, updated its name to Tillamook Creamery, and added a food court.
There is no admission price. You walk in and learn while you enjoy all the free cheese samples.
So, how is cheese made? If you already know, skip the next four paragraphs.
Milk is poured into a vat and an enzyme, rennet, is added to coagulate it. (But juice from fruit, fig leaves, melons, safflower, vinegar, lemons, and other vegetation can be added instead.) This causes the milk to curdle and separate from the liquid whey. Tillamook’s vats hold 53,500 pounds (over 6,300 gallons) of fresh milk. As the milk is stirred, the curds and whey separate. The whey is drained into another container while the curds begin to stick or knit together. This is called cheddaring.
Ten pounds (1 gallon plus 2.5 cups) of cow milk will produce one pound of cheese, while six pounds of sheep milk will produce a pound of cheese because of its much higher fat content. Goat cheese production is similar to cows.
I hope this isn’t boring you. The whole process fascinates me.
The curds are chopped, cut, and pressed to release more liquid. Then the cheese curds are poured into a square column and pressure is slowly increased. When pressure finally reaches 800 pounds, it is held for two minutes then cut into 40-pound blocks. The blocks are stored and aged from 60 days to five years – depending on their intended use.
After the proper aging, the blocks are cut into smaller blocks – normally, half-pound, pound, and two-pound blocks. Mis-shaped or broken pieces are made into shredded-cheese. The Tillamook Creamery packages about a million pounds of cheese a week, and that takes about 1,160,000 gallons of milk each week.
There are hundreds of uses for the whey. It is commonly used as an ingredient in some drink mixes, protein bars, and other foods. Whey powder is often added to smoothies and other workout foods for its protein.
The Tillamook Creamery center is a 38,500-square-foot building that allows visitors the privilege of learning about each step of the milk-to-cheese process and allows them to actually see production from the second-floor level.
We visited the facility twice this week and really enjoyed learning. We ate lunch there, but the best part was the large Tillamook ice cream cones! Carol got huckleberry and chocolate-peanut butter, while I got chocolate and vanilla. That, with the free cheese samples on the second floor, topped off our meal.
If you get a chance, visit the Tillamook Creamery in Tillamook, Oregon.