I am of the school that everything is better with cheese. Without it, tuna sandwiches would not be melted, wine would be oh so lonely, and pizza would be pointless. It was because of this love for cheese that in February while trolling Etsy.com I did something crazy and ordered a DIY cheese kit from Urban Cheesecraft. It wasn’t any old cheesemaking kit, it was the ‘Deluxe,’ and for $50 it promised I could make 30 batches of homemade mozzarella, chevre, ricotta, and queso blanco. All I needed was milk!

As that kit taunted me from my shelf I realized I needed more than milk. Sure, the kit included butter muslin, cheese salt, citric acid, cheese molds, a thermometer, rennet, and easy-to-read directions, tips, and pep talks, but what if I failed? I had already envisioned a goat or two in the yard, with me milking happily away as I whipped up chevre by the pound, and braided mozzarella while friends looked on enviously. I was sure in no time I would have moved on to cheddar and brie, maybe a little gorgonzola if the mood struck — in my mind, there was no stopping me. But I needed some courage.

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It took a quick pep email from Claudia Lucero, Portland, Oregon– based co-founder of Urban Cheesecraft (stating ‘all WILL go well’) to get me to buy my milk and separate my curds from my whey. A pound of paneer (a fresh cheese common in South Asian cuisine) and a shiny ball of hand-pulled mozzarella later, and I felt like a super hero. I may have pumped my fists in the air while yelling, ‘Look what I have created. I have made cheese!’ There was nothing like the satisfaction to be had from making something from scratch that you have always been told you have to buy. All I provided to the experiment was a six-quart non-aluminum pot, a slotted spoon, a colander, a gallon of pasteurized milk, and a touch of apprehension. Elated and craving more, I pestered Lucero for more information.

In 2008 Lucero and her partner Jeff Norombaba were inspired to make their own cheese. But as their ‘about’ page on urbancheesecraft.wordpress.com says, ‘When we tried to find local cheese-making supplies though, we had no luck. This is Portland, Oregon — the capital of DIY! How could this be?!’ They knew that people have been making cheese for thousands of years, and there must be an easy way to do it at home — voilá, Urban Cheesecraft was born.

Moonshine Ink: When did this all start?
Claudia Lucero: I first learned to make simple cheese in high school after working in an Indian restaurant but I didn’t really pick it back up until about two years ago.

MI: What were your expectations when you started — and how has it ballooned?
CL: I meant to start a personal foodie hobby — I’m really into making simple, old-style food from scratch. Then after friends expressed interest and confusion as to where to get the supplies and realizing that it was difficult to find them locally, I decided to start a little Etsy shop online. I thought maybe I’d sell a kit a week but the idea of helping a few people learn to make cheese appealed to me. Now that we got into wholesale on top of retail, we sell hundreds of kits a month!

MI: Do you feel as if cheese is taking over your life?
CL: Not too much, but I don’t get to make as much aged cheese as I’d like because I always seem to be making sample batches of fresh cheese for classes. Other than that, I only take on as much ‘cheese work’ as I want to. Sometimes it’s hard to say no to classes and festivals. There are more invitations than I can handle — though I think it’s awesome that people are so interested. Luckily it seems that at the same time as I started, a few others started teaching classes here in Portland. It’s a great community of quirky people!

MI: Is it hard to balance cheese and your full-time job?
CL: It was at first, but when it became clear that this wouldn’t just be a little side business I approached my partner, Jeff, and asked if he wanted to head production of the kits. He was working on a career shift anyway so this has given him that freedom, and it’s been awesome for me.

MI: How has the feedback been? Obviously in a DIY-centric place like Portland, it must be great, but do you get purchasers from all over the country?
CL: The feedback has been fun, overwhelming, unexpected, encouraging, empowering … just awesome in Portland especially, but surprisingly, all over the world. Canada and Australia order lots of kits!

MI: If I run out of ingredients, can I pick up things like citric acid and rennet at a grocery store, like Whole Foods? Or are these the ingredients that are still hard to find without places like Urban Cheesecraft?
CL: Some Whole Foods locations here in Portland carry citric acid for canning but I bet it depends on the city, store, and what the local customers are into. I’d ask them to start! It used to be a lot more common for bulk sections to have it, so it’s not out of the question. I have only seen one local grocery store here in Portland carry rennet, but it’s the weak stuff meant for pudding. It’s sad because people will buy it, follow a cheesemaking recipe, fail, and get scared to try again. You have to do your research and get the right stuff. Rennet is still a specialized cheese-making supply that you have to get from a specific source like us.

 MI: What is the next step? After I run the gamut of ricotta, chevre, mozzarella, and paneer — is it realistic to think I could make cheddar at home or something like Brie or Camembert?
CL: Brie and Camembert are very realistic, cheddar too, but you have to approach these and any cheese-making ventures with the curiosity of a mad scientist and the wonder of an artist. You can’t expect success with the first tries. You have to take them as learning experiences since to start they will help you figure out if your aging ‘cave’ (crisper drawer of fridge, basement fridge, wine fridge) is set at the right temp and humidity. Then there’s also the pressing weight, mold, and culture strains used etc. I hope to help demystify these cheeses for folks as I hope I’m doing with the fresh cheeses. It’s difficult to find info on home aging out there.

MI: Any tips, trade secrets, or words of wisdom you have for beginners or those looking to take it to the next level?
CL: If you’re a beginner, the next level and my words of wisdom are to practice more and more on fresh cheeses; from the easiest acid-coagulated ricotta and paneer to rennet-based cheeses like mozzarella, which requires stretching, and feta, which is salt-cured. Just when I think I’m an expert, a ‘new’ factor messes up a batch. I learn from each mess up and find the boundaries within which I can move freely. The other thing you can do is experiment with different milks, shapes, herbs, layers, etc.

Yearning to start making cheese? Check out urbancheesecraft.com to get started.

~ Comment on this article online, visit moonshineink.com.

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