The Whey of Cheese

September 12, 2011
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Jaya Karlson and cheese

“Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky.” – Italo Calvino

Necessity inspired Cape Cod resident Jaya Karlson’s first foray into cheesemaking. Thirty-three years ago, when she lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills and was known as Swami Jayadevananda, she was standing in the ashram’s kitchen and heard the loud thud on the back porch that was the sound of heavy metal cans being delivered with the morning’s milk. And then came the aha moment. As Jaya puts it, “My mind said, ‘how much yogurt can we eat—community and guests? I’m the kitchen manager. I gotta learn how to make cheese!’” So the swami did what every swami did before the internet age: she trekked to the Grass Valley library. There, she read dry, dusty texts about making cheese. She experimented with heating and cooling; she added sage and black pepper and used milk at the exact temperature it came out of the cow’s udders. She called farmers in Wisconsin, who were generous with advice. One day she opened a cheese wheel and saw blue veins running through the white and was shocked to realize she had inadvertently made blue cheese.

Today, homemade cheese making is undergoing a renaissance. Instructional resources abound on the internet and in bookstores, and small farmers have increasingly added artisanal cheeses to their repertoire. But cheese making, like wine making, is an art as well as a skill, one that relies on regional ingredients and accumulated experience.

Jaya and her husband Geof were already avid locavores who grew many of their own vegetables and cooked in solar ovens when Jaya returned to cheese making after a decades-long hiatus. “I began to realize that industrial cheese is made from lower grade milk and decided to try making cheese with store bought, organic milk,” says Jaya. When friends visited for tea, Jaya served them slices of her homemade cheese. Their enthusiasm reignited her passion for cheese making. “I wanted to be local,” Jaya says. “I wanted cheese that wasn’t wrapped in plastic or made from milk that had been shipped in from industrial dairies. Homemade cheese is as local as it gets.” Soon she was offering demonstration workshops to share her knowledge and enthusiasm, attracting students from up and down the cape, including Provincetown chefs.

Jaya’s enthusiasm as she tells cheese stories (not to be confused with cheesy stories) is palpable. As we stroll across the large, airy room where she teaches cheese-making classes, she says, “People call me and say they want to learn how to make, let’s say, Gouda or Havarti or Camembert. What they don’t realize is that cheese exists on a spectrum rather than according to pedigree.” She explains that on one end of the spectrum are the soft cheeses, such as feta, cottage cheese or mozzarella, which are appropriate for the beginning cheese maker and can be made in several hours. At the other end of the spectrum are the aged cheeses, such as Parmesan, Cheddar, Gouda and others that require a delicate melding of ingredients and long periods of time in a cheese cave, where the temperature and humidity can be highly controlled.

I’d always imagined a cheese cave as an underground room walled in stone, and indeed some cheese caves do fit that description, but Jaya’s cheese cave is a mini-refrigerator, the kind marketed for dorm rooms, hooked up to temperature and humidity controls. Inside, ripening on the racks, are seven hefty cheese wheels, their rinds smooth and unctuous. These are the hard cheeses she is aging. Jaya selects a three month-old cheese and balances it on her palm. “You want to get the details just right, but you can’t only go by the formula because it has so much to do with the atmosphere. You want your intuitive self to engage as well as your practical self.” She laughs. “A cheese is a little like a baby. You incubate it, rock it, pat its behind dry when it gets too moist, and get up at 2 a.m. to turn it if that’s what it needs.”

Jaya wears many other hats in addition to cheese maker. She is a Buddhist minister. She runs Cove Woods, a bed and breakfast. She has a thriving message therapy practice, teaches yoga and tai chi, is a volunteer at the Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary in Eastham, and is active in community organizing for the environment.

As Jaya and I talk, she checks on the solar ovens on the back patio. She lifts the glass cover on a large, square metal box—there, slow cooking in a Pyrex dish are diced carrots and potatoes. “We usually start these in the morning and voila—by early afternoon lunch or dinner is ready!” Jaya says. She bought her first solar oven fifteen years ago and during the summer months seldom uses the “regular” oven in her kitchen. “What can be more local than using the energy of the sun overhead?” Jaya asks.

I am invited for dinner, and the star at the table tonight is Jaya’s three-month-old cheese. It sits, proud and placid, on a bamboo board as Jaya cuts thin wedges that she then urges me to try. “You don’t eat cheese, you taste it,” she says. “Tasting cheese is a mindful act. It’s about how it feels on your tongue. About the different tastes.” As I lift my cheese between thumb and forefinger I am mindful, for perhaps the first time, of the long process it took to get to the table. From the sun and water that grew the grass the cow ate, to the farmer who milked the cow, to the pasteurizer and packager and retailer of the milk, and finally to the cheesemaker’s art and skill and time. On my tongue I taste rich, sweet, creamy, pungent. No two cheeses are exactly alike. The most astute tasters can tell the difference between a cow’s morning milk and evening milk, which have different qualities in protein and sugar. Morbier, a French cheese, was traditionally made with a layer of morning milk and a layer of evening milk, separated by a layer of ash.

Over dinner, which also included grilled salmon and a salad of fresh Bibb lettuce, red peppers and tomatoes dressed in vinaigrette, I asked Jaya what she loves most about cheese making. Words spilled out, as if she had been waiting for me to ask. “I love the mystery that you’re orchestrating thousands of microbes in the pot. I love the science. You’re working with proteins and sugars and calcium. You get to see what they’re doing by how quickly the milk coagulates. You’re directing them by heat and time.” She confesses that as a girl she had dreamed of studying to become a scientist, a dream that was not encouraged by the traditional Greek culture in which she grew up. Now she directs me to the work of Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, who is making an extensive study of cheese, or rather, the microbes that live in cheese. Increasingly, scientists are discovering how important a role microbes play in human and environmental health. For that reason, Dutton’s lab is studying healthy cheese rinds to learn how diverse microbe species form and interact in microbial communities.

More microbes are present in raw milk than in pasteurized milk. Although Jaya uses raw milk when making family cheeses, for safety reasons and regulations, she uses only pasteurized, organic, store bought milk in class. The cheese-making process is much the same for all kinds of milk, but the responses vary. Unprocessed milk takes less culture, less rennet and less time than pasteurized milk because it’s still so alive that everything happens more quickly. Jaya gears her demonstration classes so that if people have goats or sheep at home they can learn how to vary the temperatures to make milk with their own milk as well as with store bought milk.

She holds small demonstration cheese making classes in the fall and spring. “My hope,” says Jaya, “is that people go home from my classes and make homemade cheese the way people make bread or jam. I want people to have fun with it. No matter what you do, you’re going to have an edible product. you can whip it, make lasagna with it, or add spices. And your friends and family will love it!”

For further information on Jaya’s cheese making classes, email her at

Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs and co-editor of the bestselling Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, Sex and Who Does The Dishes. She spent ten years weekending in an off-season communal household overlooking Wellfleet Bay. She lives in Cambridge, where she writes, edits, and coaches private clients. For more information visit

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