Making Cheese with Herbal Rennet
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Dave Burley
Posted on: February 13, 2004

I am interested in vegetable coagulants for making cheese. Which Richters products do this and how do I use them?

Rennet is the enzyme that breaks down milk protein to form curds, the first step toward making cheese. Most cheese today is made with rennets obtained from the stomachs of slaughtered newborn calves or from bacteria and fungi. It is a little known fact that the "vegetable" rennets from bacteria and fungi are increasingly derived from genetically-modified organisms.

Herbs have been used to curdle milk in the past. Safflower, artichoke, teasel, thistles, stinging nettle, fig leaves and melon have all been used. But the most commonly used herb was yellow bedstraw (Galium verum), also known as "cheese rennet". It is said to contain a milk curdling enzyme that is effective enough to make cheese.

According to the 16th Century English herbalist, John Gerard, ‘the people of Thuscane do use it to turne their milks and the cheese, which they make of sheepes and goates milke, might be the sweeter and more pleasant to taste. The people in Cheshire especially about Nantwich, where the best cheese is made, do use it in their rennet, esteeming greatly of that cheese above other made without it.’ Apparently, Cheshire cheese was made with bedstraw rennet up until the 19th Century.

Because yellow bedstraw is the source of a yellow dye, it’s use in cheese-making also added a rich colour to cheeses. According to English herbalist Mrs. Grieve, author of "A Modern Herbal", people from the Scottish Highlands and from Gloucestershire were known for making richly-coloured cheeses with yellow bedstraw.

I was unable to locate details of how yellow bedstraw was used to curdle milk or what part of the plant was used. I suspect the flowering tops were used, the same part used to dye fabrics yellow. And because the responsible agent in bedstraw probably is an enzyme, the procedure may have been as simple as steeping the fresh tops in milk to start the curdling process.

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