Making cheese at home used to be commonplace.  Today the majority of us simply buy cheese, ready to eat, from our local markets, as the majority of today’s cheese is mass produced in factories, especially in the United States and Europe.

When we first started to dip our toes into the world of cheesemaking, we looked first into the history of the craft.

This image depicts cheese making in 14th Century Italy. Note the perforated cheese strainer/mold on the upper left corner of the table. (Image: Public Domain)

The origins of cheesemaking are unclear, but clearly predate recorded human history. Recently, archaeological evidence of dairying in the grasslands of the Sahara, suggests that milk was an important diet staple as early as 8000 BC. [1]  It’s not unreasonable to expect that some of that milk may have been used to make at least some simple types of cheese.

Sherds of perforated pottery, presumed to have been used in early cheesemaking for draining whey, have been found in areas of France, Denmark, and Germany, dating at least to the late Bronze Age. [2]

Regardless of its origins, cheesemaking was obviously a practical method for dairying cultures to extend the shelf-life of milk. By producing cheese, milk that otherwise would have spoiled could be stored for extended periods of time, transported, and even traded as a commodity.

The earliest cheeses made were likely simple coagulated soft cheeses, similar to a cottage cheese, or Chèvre.  Cheese curds are drained and shaped using strainers, or molds, known as Faisselles.

Cheese, like this Chèvre, is shaped with the use of a cheese mold

Traditionally, such strainers, or molds, were often crafted of wood, tin, or pottery. However, vintage molds are difficult to find in any quantity today, as they have been replaced by molds made of more modern materials since the early 20th Century.

A 19th Century American wooden cheese strainer

Of the traditional molds, the ceramic molds are perhaps the most practical as the glazes make the molds easier to clean than wood, and occasionally a few of these molds can still be found for sale.

Vintage ceramic 1920s cheese molds

Modern commercial molds are typically stainless steel, however, most home cheese making equipment today is made of plastic.   Everything is plastic, including cheese ripening boxes, and draining mats, and most especially the cheese molds themselves.

If you purchase a cheese mold today, it’s more likely to look like this

There are practical reasons for using plastic molds. They’re easy to clean, lightweight, and of course, they’re very affordable. If you’re just going to dabble in cheesemaking, plastic molds are fine, but I can’t help but feel that it takes some of the charm out of the process of crafting one’s own cheese.

Even though they’re cheap to manufacture, I do wonder what the total cost is of a plastic mass-produced mold, between manufacturing, and transportation. Most seem to be made in Asia, or Europe, and I have yet to find any manufactured here in the United States.

The disadvantage of plastic molds is they can become brittle with age, and repeated washing, making them prone to cracking or splitting over time.

Ultimately though, the plastic molds, to my eye at least, are completely bereft of any charm or character, and quite honestly the couple of plastic molds I do own are hidden in the back of the kitchen cabinets, far out of view.

As cheesemaking, like bread making here, is becoming a lifestyle choice on the farm, we had an idea!

We decided that we don’t have to buy plastic molds from thousands of miles away, made by someone we’ve never met, just so we can drain and mold our cheeses. The trouble was, we couldn’t find much in the way of alternatives locally.

It’s not essential to use a mold for soft cheeses. This particular Chèvre was simply shaped in muslin, and hung to drain.

As you can see from the plastic molds shown above, cheese molds are relatively simple in their design, so in the spirit of shopping locally I decided to contact a friend who enjoys dabbling in pottery in his spare time.

After discussing the practicality and use of the molds, and pointing to a few historic designs, versus the modern plastic characterless choices on the market, I asked if making something as mundane as a ceramic cheese mold would be something he’d be willing to take a stab at. To my delight, he agreed to give it a try!

We forwarded some photographs we’d pinned to Pinterest of some traditional French Chèvre and Roquefort molds as inspiration.

Before we knew it there were prototype sketches waiting for us in our inbox!

We were sent some preliminary design ideas for our molds (Image © 2012 – Loren Stirling)

The advantage of commissioning custom crafted ceramic cheese molds, providing they’re food safe, is that they can be almost anything you want shape-wise. The most important part of the design is that there are a sufficient number of drain holes for the style of cheese being produced, that are regularly spaced.  The holes permit the whey to drain, providing the holes are appropriately sized, and prevent loss of curds.

We loved the Japanese tea cup rim idea in the conception sketches, but sometimes it’s necessary to invert the molds to ensure the whey drains out completely, and that style of rim would be less stable when inverted. After discussing the practicality of the overall design, we arrived at a classic, simple design for our unique, handcrafted, one of a kind cheese molds.

It was so much fun getting occasional updates about their progress as they were being made.

Soon the first prototype was ready, with a beautiful rolled edge to the rim, and plenty of evenly spaced holes to ensure even draining of the whey from the curds.

From paper, to potter’s wheel…the first of the molds, made of Black Mountain clay, takes shape (Image © 2012 – Loren Stirling)

Once the remaining molds were made, a food-safe glaze was chosen, and applied to the molds.

These molds are glazed, and waiting to be fired in the kiln (Image © 2012 – Loren Stirling)

Of course, as is the case in all pottery-craft, you never really know exactly how the finished product will look until the final firing of the glaze.

The finished molds after the final firing

We think these molds turned out beautifully, don’t you agree?

The glaze was applied carefully to ensure the holes in the molds remained open

Each vessel has its own character, with slight variations in size, or the character of the glaze, just as you’d expect from a truly handcrafted piece.  Far more interesting to look at than a generic plastic mold.

These will NOT be hiding in the back of a kitchen cabinet somewhere!

Best of all, turning the mold upside down, instead of being stamped with “Made in …” on the bottom, each of these molds bears the artist’s name instead.

These cheese molds were each handcrafted, locally!

We can’t wait to use these traditional-style molds during our future cheesemaking endeavors. Each time we use them we’ll be reminded that the tools and equipment used in artisan cheesemaking have changed very little over millenia.  Thank you so much for working on this project with us, Loren!

[1] Dunne, Julie et al. First Dairying in Green Saharan Africa in the Fifth Millennium BC. Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. June 2012 486:390-394.

[2] Nash, Lyman. Cheese: Its Delights and Differences in The Rotarian. Feb 1969.