Tomini, Tomini

By Michael Kalish

After a week of lectures on theory and hygiene, we were all ready to jump into our lab coats and rubber boots in the caseificio (“cheese room”).  Adjacent to the old cathedral, the caseificio is shaped like a long train car. A movie line of machines and vats leads to two, temperature-controlled aging cells.  At the door, we change our shoes and wash our hands.    The raw milk sits outside the gate to the church yard, which we drag in from the cold and over the floor to the large “swiss” vat, capable of holding over 1200 liters.  Damiano and Mattia, two farm-raised boys from Trentino, Italy, lift the milk cans and pour a good 100 liters into the vat, which sloshes around at 6 degrees celsius (ca. 43 degrees fahrenheit).  Our professor, Signore Guido Talone, spins the vapor line open to heat the cold water jacket and Patrick sits on the digital thermometer until it reaches 70 degrees celsius (ca. 21) for a quick heat treatment.

The cheese of the day is Tomino, a soft, fresh, cow milk cheese, which is made with milk, salt, and a lot of rennet.  No loving from lactic bacteria.  Normally, my love for cheese is for lactic curds, which involve a long, slow acidification of the milk (12 to 24 hours) at a low temperature (more or less at 20 degrees celsius, or 68 degrees fahrenheit) with a drop of rennet to help knit the final set of the curd.  These lactic cheeses then can be dried out, coated with ash, brined, or washed down to make some Dr. Jeckly and Mr. Hyde mold and yeast configurations that can radically alter the taste and consistency of the final product.

But the cheese today does not lend itself to any artful manipulations or character transformations.  Au contraire, the cheese retains its milk flavors and all acidity development is avoided.  The recipe is a common one in the Piedmont.  No glorious history or fame is associated with it, though it has been around for perhaps millenia.  It has little character and no interest in gold or fame like the rising star from cooperatives in Valle d’Aosta, Fontina, or the Pavarotti of cheeses, Parmiggiano Reggiano.  It is pale, small, and insipid, and sits shyly in the cold deli cases still sweating in its plastic moulds for a week, at most.  So why make this cheese?  Because a cheese can’t always steal the show.

It is sweet, mild, and cuts into charmingly triangular wedges without losing its shape.  The quality of the Tomino matches the quality of the milk, which makes it perfect for small farms with superior pastures.  It is fitting as a snack or chopped coarsely to put in a salad or served as a dessert with a spread of jam or a drip of honey.  The quality of the cheese evokes, for me, the feeling of a good home cooked meal, over one bought and served at an extraordinary restaurant.  There is no need to rove your palate for nuance or complex flavors or to tongue and savor the last grains or residue.  It stands up to the occassion of good eating, though it may not stand tall or dashing.  It stands up as straight and delicious as milk can stand.

After dropping the temperature to 40 degrees celsius (104 degrees fahrenheit), we add the rennet and wait for the curd to set.  After 15 minutes or so, Guido dips a beaker into the vat and swirls around a small sample of milk.  Little nodes cling to the walls of the beaker, which indicate the first sign of a coagulation.  After another 55 minutes or so, Guido sets his knuckles on the curd to see if curd has set to a satisfactory firmness.  He dips his finger into the curd and lifts it.  The curd splits down both sides of his finger without leaving a trace of residue.  Pronto!  He takes the spada (“sword”) and cuts the curd very gently to avoid the loss of fat particles (which form whitish clouds in the whey).   Once the curds are cut in a grid-like fashion, Guido spins his guittara (“guitar”)  through the curd.   The moulds, shaped like perforated bowl, are set on the table, filled liberally, and left to drain in a cool environment to avoid the development of acidity (heat = bacterial activity = possible lactic acid development).

Once we had eaten a few spare curds, our class of twenty manned the hoses and brushes and began to scrub down.  After thirty minutes, we  took off our boots and stuck the tomini in the refrigerator.  Tomorrow they will be on the lunch table.  And suddenly, a little cheese in a little town in the Piedmont had everyones attention.


4 Responses to “Tomini, Tomini”

  1. Richard "Padre" Kalish Says:

    Michael, this is a GREAT blog!! What a great chronicle of your experiences and extremely interesting. Please keep it up. I love everyone’s entries and the photos add immensely.


  2. David Kalish Says:

    My ignorance is going to show big time here. What is rennet? Thank you for the interesting blog.

    • Michael Kalish Says:

      hey, Uncle Dave, just say your comment nearly a year late. Rennet is essentially a powdered or watered-down extract of enzymes from a kid, calf, or lamb stomach. These enzymes, which we find naturally in the stomachs of young ruminants, serve to coagulate milk by making the proteins of milk clump together. there exists also microbial, gmo, fungal, and other vegetarian alternatives (thistle flower, for example). The reason we still use animal rennet is to preserve the typical character of traditional cheeses and because there are still some things conferred on cheese by animal rennet that can not be substituted for by the alternatives. I hope I answered you question. Talk to you later.


  3. Alisha Dahlstrom Says:

    Michael, that was poetry! A beautiful entry, that left me smiling…”standing as tall as milk can stand”…hope you, Aaron and Laura are well!

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