São Jorge
A cheese from the Azores


For our April cheese, I have focused on a cheese that has a lot of history but still remains quite unknown to many due to its remote region of production.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Portugal and America, lies a string of remote volcanic islands. From the days of the early sea travelers, these islands became inhabited to take on the role of a way-station for early sea travelers to replenish ship supplies.

Fresh water, fruit and green vegetables were much needed, but due to the lushness of these islands, dairy in the form of cheese became a key product for the sailors.

This meant large aged cheeses able to survive the sea voyage. Thus evolved the most famous cheese from the Azores, São Jorge, or the cheese of Saint George (the dragon slayer) .


A Bit of History:

Well out into the Atlantic Ocean (about 900 miles) off the coast of Portugal lies a chain of small islands called the Azores. It makes sense that in the early days of trans-Atlantic exploration, small wooden ships discovering the new world stopped here. The Azores naturally became a promising place to replenish fresh water, supplies, etc.

Due to its location, situated in the middle of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, the Azores have a mild, damp climate and, due to its volcanic geology, a richly fertile soil that supports abundant vegetation. All these factors contribute towards favorable conditions for dairying – the island is home to 20,000 dairy cows - and cheese making.

The development of Saint George Island (São Jorge) was originally made in the early 15th century by a group of Flemish settlers from the Netherlands, who brought with them both livestock and cheese making knowledge. These folks came to find that the highlands of the island were quite similar to their homeland, where they were experienced in production of meat, milk and dairy products, most notably their cheese.
Today, with twice as many cattle as people, and grass for the cows to enjoy at its higher elevations, the island has become renowned for this strong white cheese.

In 1986, a key step in maintaining the high quality of the São Jorge cheese into the future was implemented with the regulation of registration for Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) attributed to this cheese.
This regulation now determines where and how the cheese is made and aged.

Similar cheeses are made in other areas of the Azores, but they are simply known as Queijo da Ilha or “Island Cheese.”

Production of the cheese on São Jorge


About São Jorge Cheese:

Weighing up to 15lbs, São Jorge is a tangy, semi-hard, raw cows milk cheese made on the island of São Jorge in the Azores, which is located 900 miles from the west coast of Portugal. Because of the importance of this cheese, Sao Jorge it is often called 'The Island of Cheese'.

São Jorge is a robust, aged cheeses able to withstand the rigors of transportation, since it was originally sold to ships crews to sustain them for many months at sea.

It is made by combining fresh milk from the morning and evening milkings. It has a hard rind with a smooth surface and rich buttery tang. It has a firm texture with small irregular “eyes” or pockets, caused by dryness of curd at molding, and the small amount of pressure applied during the curd pressing process, as well as the local humid aging conditions.

Cows are milked twice a day and the evening milk gets delivered to the cheese plant about 8:30pm, with cheese making commencing right away and continuing through the night from about 9 pm to 4 am. Then, after morning milking another round of cheese is made.

The cheese is traditionally made using the whey from a previous batch as the culture. This cheese has a definite "bite" that many believe to be due to the whey/culture used. Some have tried to use modern cultures but the results are just not felt to be quite the same.

Variations in Style:

Mild or Spicy? This cheese has a wonderful progression of changes during the aging process. As it ages, some complex changes take place in the cheese causing it to transform from a sweet mild cheese to tangy and peppery over time.
It is usually aged from 3-9 months and sometimes even longer.

In the USA, we have several small operations making similar cheeses to this but probably the most well know is the fifth-generation cheese makers from São Jorge, Joe and Mary Matos, of California’s Matos Cheese Factory near Santa Rosa. Theirs is a very small family operation and the cheese can be bought direct at the farm. As its reputation has spread, many cheese shops now carry these wonderful cheeses. This is a very rustic and traditional production. I have never visited them but have heard that they did (and maybe still do) use cement blocks for cheese pressing. You just have to love that rustic aspect!

A Recipe for making a cheese in the style of São Jorge

My inspiration for this cheese was a recent trip to Ontario Canada, which included a visit to a local Azorian neighborhood food shop that specialized in products from the Azores. Besides the wonderful sausages and traditional bread, they had two large wheels of São Jorge cheese. The cutter asked if we wanted the spicy or mild for our cheese and, of course, se we do spicy when given a choice!

I have had this cheese in the past but never have I been quite so impressed as I was this time. Before we had gotten too far in tasting this cheese, I was beginning to reverse engineer the making of it and thus began my research for this months recipe.
Several trials in the cheese lab later and I have this months cheese.

The recipe below is for a 2 gallon batch of milk, but can be increased by changing the additions proportionately to the amount of milk. For larger diameter cheeses, more press weight will be required. Do not be surprised by the pictures showing a larger mold and final cheese since I prefer a larger cheese for aging here, especially since larger is the same amount of work as small and with a larger cheese the ratio of rind to cheese is much less (more eating cheese and less waste.).

Before you Begin:

You will need:

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.

Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 87F (30C). You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove, make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats

As mentioned earlier, the traditional culture used in the Azores is a whey from previous batches of cheese and this would most likely account for a complex mix of Mesophilic and Thermophilic cultures.
Our MA4002 culture is the best match for this mix of bacteria. It contains a Mesophilic complex with a slight gas production, which will help with the more open texture found in the traditional São Jorge cheese. The Thermophilic portion of the culture will help in aging the cheese.
The culture contains the following culture components: Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, Lactococcus lactis subsp. diacetylactis, Streptococcus thermophilus.

Once the milk is at the target temperature, the culture can be added. To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps, sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in.

Allow the milk to rest quietly for 30-45 minutes while the culture begins to ripen the milk, maintaining the target temperature above.

Coagulation with rennet:

Then add about 1/4 tsp or 125ml of single strength liquid rennet.

The milk now needs to sit quietly for 60 minutes while the culture continues its work and the rennet coagulates the curd . The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time. Do not add any heat or stir during this time, but do try to maintain the 86F in a sink full of warm water. You should find that the milk begins to thicken at about 18-20 minutes, but allow it to firm for the full 1 hour.

Cutting curds and releasing the whey:

Once the firm curd has developed, the curd should be carefully cut to about 3/8" pieces. A brief 5 min. rest following the cut will allow the curd surfaces to firm slightly. Following this with a slow and gentle stir for 10 minutes will further condition the curds. During this stir bring the temperature back up to 86F if it has dropped.

Cooking the curds :

Now it is time to begin drying out the curds. This will be done by increasing the heat slowly to 95-97F (35-35C). The heat needs to be increased slowly at about 2-3F every 5 minutes at the beginning. The total cooking time will be 30-45 minutes and may be extended to about 1 hr if the curds are still soft.

The final curds should be cooked well through and should be examined to make sure that enough moisture has been removed. A broken curd should be firm throughout and the curds should have a moderate resistance when pressed between the fingers.
Also, when the final curds are squeezed in the hand enough to consolidate, they should separate easily with just a little thumb pressure.

When this point is reached the curds can be allowed to settle under the whey

Removing the whey:

Begin the whey removal by ladling off the layer of whey above the curds until about 1 inch of whey remains above the curds.

The dry curds, along with remaining whey, can now be transferred to a colander lined with butter muslin. They should be allowed to drain for 15-30 minutes; an occassional slow and gentle stirring will assure that the whey drains off and the curds do not mat together at this point. During this time the curds will begin to cool slightly to about 75-80F.

To keep the curds warm, I create an incubator by placing a raised rack in my empty and cleaned cheese pot and adding warm water. I then place my draining curds in this and cover it between stirs.

At the end of the initial stir the curds should be dry enough but still left warm (75-80F) for the next 2-3 hrs. During this time the bacteria is still working.
Be sure to give them a stir every 15-30 min to keep the curds separated.

The final cheese will have a higher moisture content of between 48-52%, whereas cheddar has a moisture of 39%. This results in a cheese that is moist enough for sides to deform and spread slightly in aging room (like Parma). However within 30 days the final moisture loss will approach that of a young cheddar.

Salting the curds:

At this point the curds will be dry salted prior to being transferred to the mold. This is similar to the making of cheddar, but the big difference is that São Jorge has not developed as much acid as the cheddar would have developed at this point and therefore the work of the bacteria (conversion of lactose to lactic acid) is not done yet. São Jorge cheese will still have a higher pH of 5.4-5.7 whereas a cheddar cheese would have a final pH of 5.2-5.3 at this same point in the process.

What this means is that the salt applied here will only be enough to slow bacteria down whereas the cheddar receives enough salt to end the acid developing process. Cheddar normally gets about 2% salt by weight but this cheese only gets about .9-1.5% salt by weight.
.5oz. of salt will be adequate for a cheese weighing 1.75-2lbs

As a result of the light salting and high moisture (residual lactose), the bacteria continue working over the next 30 days post pressing, the pH eventually stabilizes at about 5.1-5.25 over this period.
During the ripening as proteins change the pH will again rise to about 5.3-5.5 again.

Pressing:

For pressing we should begin very light and slowly increase the press weight to a moderate level:

  • 30 minutes at 20 lbs.
  • 1 hr at 40 lbs
  • 4 hrs at 50 lbs
  • Overnight plus 1-2 days at 75 lbs.

The rate of whey running off is simply a matter of drops and not a stream of whey being released. This is a good rate of whey removal during pressing and will slow even more as the residual free moisture is released. The form should show tears of whey weeping from the form very slowly. When this stops you can increase the weight slightly. The cheese should be removed from the press, unwrapped, turned, re-wrapped, and put back to the press at the above intervals to assure an even consolidation. At each turn you will notice the cheese has formed a smoother surface and rests lower in the mold.


Into the mold and initial pressing begins

It is important to keep the pressing cheese at a warmish temperature of 62-72F while pressing because the bacteria culture is still working.

The extended press time will be determined by the final surface consolidation. The surface should be quite smooth and with good curd binding to prevent too many openings where mold can hide or enter the cheese.

The final cheese weight should be about 1.75lbs from this much milk


The final cheese after a successful pressing with the extended press time.

Aging:

Once the cheese has been pressed well and removed from the mold it needs several weeks to a month or more at about 58-65F and a moderate moisture of 70-80% (some go 30 days at these conditions). If the room is too dry or excess airflow, the curd junctions may begin to shrink and separate at the surface and moisture needs to be increased. This warmer time should stabilize the cheese for aging.

The cheese can then be placed into your aging space at 52-56F and 82-88% moisture.
The cheese can now be aged for 3 months and it will ready for your table but can go up to 7 months for a cheese with more character.


During the winter months in my cave the moisture is much lower
so I use partially covered plastic boxes to keep the moisture up

Keep molds down with dry brushing daily beginning 3-5 days after removing from molds. This should become less frequent as the surface dries.

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