Sat, Feb 23, 2019 - Page 13 News List

The slow and ancient art of cheese

Lab Man Mano’s founder Isabella Chen is putting Taiwan on the map of traditional Italian cheese-making

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Isabella Chen, founder of Lab Man Mano, on Tueday stretches still-warm cheese into a smooth and glossy rope. This technique, called filatura, is the most important step for making Italian stretched-curd cheeses.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Lab Man Mano (慢慢弄乳酪坊) is a temple to traditional Italian cheese-making located in the heart of old Taipei. Down a side street in Dadaocheng, its unassuming location belies a dream of Old World taste, charm and hospitality that founder Isabella Chen (陳淑惠) spun out of thin air — and milk — two years ago.

The best time to visit is on a Friday afternoon. If you plan your visit right, Chen will be there behind a glass panel, coaxing mounds of soft, fresh cheese into fishball-like rounds of bocconcini, bars to be shredded for stracciatella and balls of mozzarella so luminescent they resemble light bulbs. Her hands are a blur as they twist mozzarella into knots called nodini — a mark of handmade cheese, since machines cannot produce the shape.

“People say that if you are happy, then the food you make will taste good,” Chen says during a rare break in her day.

Chen became a professional cheese-maker at the age of 40, leaving behind a long career in the media industry. Fluent in Italian, she had already been making cheese at home as a hobbyist, learning from books and Italian artisans on online fora.

When she made up her mind to turn professional, Chen sought out intensive apprenticeships to learn exactly what it would take to run a commercial cheese-making operation. She apprenticed for three months at Cheese Stand in Tokyo and one month at Sapori delle Masserie in Putignano, a town in southern Italy, before opening her own shop.

Two years on, Chen holds resolutely to the conviction that motivated her when she first started Lab Man Mano — that cheese made in Taiwan can be as good as that made in Italy.

“As long as I do my part well, and I use good milk, we will definitely not lose to cheese made overseas,” Chen said.

A DAY IN A CHEESE ARTISAN’S LIFE

The number of professional cheese-makers in Taiwan can be counted on one hand. Before Lab Man Mano, failed ventures led to the thinking that artisanal cheese-making could not be done here, and even if it could, there was no market for it.

It’s a peculiarity of Taiwan that people do not take seriously the skills required to make cheese, “perhaps because we do not yet think of cheese-making as a profession,” Chen says.

Many a young hopeful has found the work too difficult and disappeared after just a few days on the job. Even professional chefs expect to be able to make cheese for paying customers after just one lesson at Lab Man Mano.

“It’s not just physical labor, but emotional and mental labor. You have to use your brain,” Chen says.

Twice a week, Chen and two of her apprentices make cheese. At six in the morning, the delivery from her milk supplier in Taoyuan arrives. There are no dairy buffalo farms in Taiwan, so the milk comes from cows. Dairy farmers are an insular community, and it took Chen months of cultivation to gain the trust of a farmer whose milk was up to her standards.

In the kitchen, raw milk is pasteurized and lactobacillus and rennet added to start the curdling process. When curds have formed, Chen methodically drags a large whisk-like tool called a spino through the curds to cut them up and encourage whey to drain. When enough whey has separated, several liters go into waist-high vats to be cooked into ricotta.

As the most junior apprentice in professional cheese-making kitchens, Chen was tasked with cooking the ricotta, which makes for backbreaking work because of high stove temperatures and the need for constant stirring.

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