'You going too quick, you need to slow down, no robot here, cheese is made with love' said Toski in his broken English, clutching his hand to his chest with emotion. 'Cheese in big factories - no love, all same, käse should come from the heart' he continued, making me drop my bucket into the cloudy whey and realize in an instant that he was completely right. I love cheese and I work with cheese and yet as I watched my sinking bucket become completely engulfed by small, fluffy curds I realized that I was no different from a robot in a factory, simply trying to get the job finished so that I could move on to the next task. It suddenly struck me that here I was, making handmade cheese in a rural Austrian village and yet I was still trying to move as fast as possible to get 'the job done.' Whether a by-product of living a life in the city or simply growing up in a world in where 'getting ahead' and 'moving quickly' go hand in hand, I seem to spend little or no time living and learning in the moment.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to volunteer for two weeks at the cheese making facility of Robert Strasser; an advocate of quality dairy products, raw milk and the slow food movement. Of the several people who work for him we spent most of our time with Toski, who as well as being an excellent cheesemaker could also speak no less than five languages! A native of Kosovo and the youngest of ten children, Toski grew up in rural Yugoslavia in the 1960s with no access to running water or electricity at home. Coming from a middle class English household during the 90s, Toski's early life seemed like an age gone by to me and one which was extremely difficult. Yet conversations about it reveal that he enjoyed it. ’Life was good' he told me, 'no television, no rush, a simple life.' This plain and uncluttered upbringing no doubt had an influence on his attitude to life and despite the fact he still works very hard, he does it thoroughly and meticulously rather than hurriedly and stressfully. Toski absolutely believes that the way a cheese is made affects it's flavour, it's character and it's overall happiness and why wouldn't that be correct? After all, cheese is a living organism and all living organisms require a certain degree of comfort if they are to thrive.
Like many other areas of food production, cheesemaking is surely an art. Under human guidance, cheesemaking is a skill that is learned, honed and tailored in order to create the best taste. Under robotics without the intervention of human influence, the skill element is removed and the aim is simply to increase production to the highest possible yield. Nevertheless, in order for any cheese making business to be successful, machines are absolutely necessary. The crucial difference between cheesemaking being an art as opposed to being a production line is that machines should aid the making of the cheese instead of control the making of the cheese.
Cheese made by hands may be non-conforming and create anomalies in terms of shape and flavour (especially if it is me who is making it!) yet it tastes so much better than when people's hands have been eliminated and removed from the cheese making process. In large scale factories, the closest a human hand gets to touching a product is pressing a button to start a robot. At Robert Strasser's farm, raw milk is collected from local farms within an hour of when the cheese starts to be made. The milk is then handled no less than six or seven times on it's journey to be sold as cheese. To give a brief overview: Curds and whey are separated with the help of hands; the cheese is cut into shape by hands; the cheese is washed for up to three weeks by hands and then it is finally packaged by hands. All this interaction creates a personal attachment to the product that is going to be consumed by so many people. Customers can also visit the farm to buy their cheese directly from the cooler and build a relationship of openness and trust with the owner and the cheesemaker.
The day after Toski had left me pondering my priorities when he told me to stop being so rough with the curds, Robert told me that 'a cheese is like a child' in the sense that if you care for it when it is first made then it will continue to grow up into a well-rounded, confident adult. Care for the product and attention to detail are two hallmarks of any cheesemaker and evidently high on the agenda of importance for both Toski and Robert. Based on my experience cheesemaking here, I have decided that I am going to spend less time being a robot and more time to fully learning skills and completing tasks thoroughly. There are always going to be times when we are rushed and machine-like, it's the nature of living a busy existence but when it comes to food I am going to try and take it slow. Slow food is better food.