My friend Jim and I are standing, hairnets at the ready, in a fromage factory deep in the bowels of an otherwise unoccupied concrete warehouse just north of Five Points. It does not exude old-world charm. The equipment has been scrounged, salvaged, reclaimed, and repurposed from motley sources. PVC pipe — food-safe, of course — plays a major role. We’re contemplating the culinary version of paint drying: a stainless-steel vat of acidified milk slowly coming to temperature (80 degrees, in case you were wondering). Since this is a test blue-cheese batch, a starter bacterium has been added.
It’s hardly shocking to learn that San Antonio is not as famed for its camembert as it is for its chalupas. There’s no dearth of limestone caves in the nearby Hill Country, yet cave-aged fromage bleu is not a local specialty. Dommage, tant pis, too damn bad … But if recent CIA graduate Luis Morales and his girlfriend-Friday Marsha Millegan have anything to say about it, we will soon be known for at least a few cheeses — some of which may actually be blue. It’s amazing what can be done, with heart and dedication, in a setting that has absolutely no glamour whatsoever.
Cheesemaking is both simpler and more complicated than one might imagine. Some basic cheeses are simply dosed with lemon or vinegar, which creates curds and whey, but the camembert-like cheese that Morales is currently known for — a constant favorite at the Pearl Farmers Market — also requires rennet, vegetable-derived in this case because the cheese will be aged for a relatively short time. (Yes, non-vegetarian rennets, such as those derived from calf stomachs, are often required, depending on the desired end result.) Temperature, both at production and in the curing process, is key.
Morales does have a raw-milk source at Miller Farms in Lacoste (more on them another time), but has found that pasteurized milk from H-E-B is the best — and he has tried all of the local options. “Better a good pasteurized source than an organic one that has to be shipped over long distances,” he says.
He makes his Camberti from H-E-B milk in a fresh and two-month-aged version, and both are exceptional. At the Pearl he recently offered a three-month “stinky” version that could have had les Francais in a flap: It was pungent, and a little butter was needed to mellow it out on a piece of ficelle from Whole Foods, but it suggests what the duo is capable of. Kraft Singles this was not. I can’t wait for the bleu — which will be done “the ancient way, not inoculated,” he says. And a farmhouse cheddar is also in the works. “‘Cheddaring’ is like doing a puff pastry,” Morales explains. “It’s cut, fold, do again … ”
Really pungent, washed-rind cheeses such as epoisses and tallegio, are more aromatic because the rind is bathed, over time, with substances as benign as saltwater and as assertive as beer and Cognac. Morales has tried such a cheese made with a beer yeast and has not had much success yet. (We suggest trying a tequila “wash.”) But he’s basically self-taught and will work his way through it given time.
“I went through hundreds of gallons of milk and messed up a lot,” he admits of his post-CIA experimentation. As a result, he’d like to teach cheesemaking classes one day (the CIA doesn’t offer them) to save future acolytes some of the trouble.
Morales wants to produce an example “from every major cheese group,” and is currently contemplating “a big-eyed Swiss aged for six months,” but he doesn’t want to be defined solely by cheese. Already, Humble House Foods, his umbrella company, produces spreads and dips such as hummus and tapenade, all available, as are the cheeses, at the Pearl Market and Big Grass Bamboo on Hildebrand. But his goal is to branch into smoked meats.
“I want to be the guy that supplies the restaurants, not the one who works in them,” he says, alluding in part to his post-CIA career at places as diverse as Il Sogno, Old San Francisco, and Central Market’s manufacturing division. But Morales realizes that the material setup for smoking and the hydroponic operation he and Marsha are also dreaming of will require more capital than the $1,700 he saved to launch the cheesemaking business by helping his parents with their sign shop and from the landscape and lawn-maintenance company he had run since age 13.
So the cheesemaking, as promising as it already is, is a means to an end, which doesn’t stop with meats, either. A mention of growing mushrooms gets an enthusiastic, “Yes — if you like cheese, you like mushrooms!”
Morales’s blue cheese has just been released at the Pearl Market so San Antonio may soon be better known for blue than rose, smoked feral hog could become trendier than acorn-fed Spanish ham. Could happen. And Morales may be just the man to do it. •