- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Paul Stephan is up to the elbows in curds and [email protected]:”This is the old-fashioned way to make cheese,” he says as he leans over a 50-gallon container and gently breaks up gelatinous clumps that soon will be mozzarella cheese.

Mr. Stephan is owner, cheese maker and one of two employees at the Blue Ridge Dairy in Lovettsville, Va. The company, about 12 miles outside Leesburg, makes mozzarella, ricotta and mascarpone cheeses that are sold in Whole Foods grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

“We make a lot of cheese here. It’s a tiny place, but we pump it out,” Mr. Stephan, 36, says as he works on one of three batches for the day.

Wearing a white baseball cap with the company name, a white shirt and checked chef’s pants, Mr. Stephan explains that the winter is a slower time for business, but he still will go through about 150 gallons of milk and produce about 200 pounds of fresh mozzarella, 50 pounds of ricotta and a smaller amount of mascarpone in one day this week.

It is a small addition to worldwide cheese output — this year about 4.4 million tons will be produced in the United States and 9.7 million tons in other countries, according to U.S. Agriculture Department estimates.

Americans eat almost 31 pounds per person annually, the USDA says, with a preference for American, cheddar and mozzarella, according to Dairy Management Inc. research.

Americans bought $9.95 billion worth of cheese in the past year, according to industry figures based on retail scanner sales. And more than 400 firms nationwide are cashing in on the strong appetite for the dairy product, U.S. Census Bureau figures say.

But Mr. Stephan sees his contribution as something a little more special than a mass-produced pizza topping or cannoli filling.

“From the time we had one cow with 15 gallons a week, we found no high-quality cow’s milk mozzarella on the market,” he says.

Mr. Stephan started in 1999 with water buffalo, the animals he saw used for mozzarella production in southern Italy. But the beasts did not want to cooperate as milk producers, and he did not want to wait the time it would take to breed a more pliant generation.

So he tried the rich milk produced by Jersey cows.

“The milk is the key. We couldn’t make this cheese with Holstein milk,” he says, dismissing the black-and-white cows with massive udders prized by American dairy farmers for sheer gallonage.

Eventually farming became impractical as the cheese-making business grew. Mr. Stephan buys his milk from a Maryland farmer, and recently sold off his own acreage.

His Lovettsville operation, in a small cinder-block building with few amenities, will move to Leesburg by the end of next month, he says.

But for now, the rural factory sees all the action. The daylong process to make the fresh cheeses starts with a 90-mile round trip to the Maryland farm, where Mr. Stephan picked up 150 gallons of milk on Wednesday.

The liquid is heated to 145 degrees — pasteurized — then cooled down to 103 degrees, when it is transferred to a plastic tub. A bacterial culture imported from France is added and allowed to convert lactose to lactic acid for 45 minutes.

Then a carefully measured squirt of rennet, a coagulant, is added to the vat. The liquid turns into a gel after about 20 minutes, when Mr. Stephan can slice and dice it with a curd knife. Then he plunges in up to his elbows, ensuring that the curd is broken up and the temperature is even throughout the vat.

The curds, semi-solid pieces that will become the mozzarella, quickly separate and settle, leaving the watery whey on top. After several hours, the whey is removed and pasteurized again on its way to becoming ricotta.

The curds are moved to a “stretcher-molder,” a hefty and expensive piece of equipment that Mr. Stephan imported from Italy. It mechanically recreates the motion of arms and hands working cheese, stretching it like taffy and then molding it into balls of different sizes.

“It took a little while to learn. The Italian directions are kind of sketchy,” Mr. Stephan says.

The cheese is then plunked into plastic containers, covered with water, capped, labeled and shipped.

The product made Wednesday is on store shelves today. It will stay good for about two weeks, Mr. Stephan says.

The milk-to-cheese process, though, is only a small part of the day, Mr. Stephan cautions. “People don’t realize it, but you have to clean everything constantly. Cheese making is 90 percent cleaning,” he says as he squeegees spilled milk off the floor and down a drain.

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