A scientific approach to fermentation

  • Jim Wallace makes wine in the cellar of his home. —StaffPhoto/Maureen O'Reilly

  • Jim Wallace makes wine in the cellar of his home. Staff Photo/Maureen O'Reilly

  • Lennen Sanchez, Wallace'e neighbor and student, breaks up grapes in a wine press. StaffPhoto/Maureen O'Reilly

  • Jim Wallace shows off a the puckered rind of an alpine cheese in his cellar. —StaffPhoto/Maureen O'Reilly

  • A variety of cheese age in the cellar of Jim Wallace's home. Staff Photo/Maureen O'Reilly

  • Jim Wallace holds an alpine cheese that aged in the cellar of his home. Staff Photo/Maureen O'Reilly

  • Jim Wallace, in blue, and his neighbor, Lennen Sanchez, in black, break up grapes in a wine press. —StaffPhoto/Maureen O'Reilly

Staff Writer
Published: 11/16/2019 7:00:13 AM

Descending the stairs of Jim Wallace’s wine cellar feels almost like entering a basement laboratory. A few small beakers are scattered across counter tops. In another room, large glass jugs hold gallons of a deep purple liquid. Monitors read the temperature and humidity.

Unlike a laboratory, however, everything Wallace produces in his cellar is edible: Wine, cheese, beer, kombucha and fermented vegetables.

“I just love fermentation. I love the whole process,” said Wallace.

That process he referenced to takes a few hours to start and can last for years as the wine and cheese age.

Wallace, of Shelburne Falls, is a fulltime recipe developer at South Deerfield-based New England Cheesemaking Supply Co., which sells cheese making supplies and hosts workshops out of its Whately Road storefront. Through his scientific approach to fermentation (cheese, professionally and wine, which he makes as a hobby), Wallace says he has tapped into a global food phenomenon — renewed interest in resurrecting forgotten food tradition. Not only is he keeping alive bacteria that cause fermentation in his cellar, but he’s also keeping alive culturally forgotten culinary knowledge.

“There’s a trillion types of fermentation happening here,” said Wallace, looking around the stores of his cellar on High Street. 

Racks of wine bottles lined the walls. In a small room in the back, no bigger than a walk-in closet, cheese aged. He poured a mixture of grapes that was in the process of fermenting into a graduated glass beaker and held it up to the light, studying its color.

“We live in an age where people don’t have a clue where their food comes from,” he said.

For Wallace, who first started fermenting homemade beer in 1987, knowing exactly what food is made from is both a lifestyle and a profession. Wallace’s love of homebrewing beer drove him to join the local group, Valley Fermenters, which brought him to Belgium, where a trip to learn under a brewmaster piqued his interest in the cheeses made by the brewmaster’s wife. Later, to make a cheese that ages in wine, Wallace started making wine. Before his hobbies turned into a job, Wallace gained experience in the science behind fermentation. 

While at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Wallace says he started off on a pre-medicine track. Before graduating, he switched schools to Niagara University and changed his major to environmental biology. In the process, he took classes in microbiology, which is the branch of science that deals with fermentation. After, Wallace taught science for 11 years, and then for the next three decades, he worked as a wildlife photographer and traveled the globe. 

Through travel, Wallace says he became comfortable in places where he doesn’t know the language — a skill that later helped him learn the craft of cheesemaking. In multiple trips to Italy in the early-2000s, Wallace says he studied under cheesemakers without being able to speak Italian.

“You learn the language of the cheese room,” Wallace said, which promotes learning and communication without fluency in the local language.

Renewing interest in culturally forgotten cheeses

Wallace started at New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and made fermentation his line of work in 2000. The job requires that he spend hours in his cellar, testing the company’s supplies and developing new recipes. Over the past few decades, he estimated he’s created over 130 recipes.

Through his work, Wallace says he observes how little the general public knows about fermented foods, which can aid in digestion. For example, traditional cheeses like Lancashire or torta de casera, are rarely found on supermarket shelves, Wallace said.

“There’s a lot of traditional cheese that has fallen by the wayside, taken over by the cheddars, the goudas, the Swiss,” Wallace said

At the same time, however, Wallace says he’s noticed a renewed and niche interest in learning about ancient cheese and wine-making techniques. Over time, he has seen the demand for homemade fermented products — especially cheese, beer and wine — explode. He attributes this expansion to the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in 1986 and went international a few years later.

“Cheesemaking just blew up. You can tell by the number of cheesemongers in the area,” Wallace said, noting the title “cheesemonger” is applied to those who buy and sell cheese.

In making recipe guidelines, Wallace says he helps bring focus to traditional, abet culturally forgotten, cheeses.

A wealth of knowledge

Fermenting foods requires attention to detail and knowledge that not everyone has — that’s where he comes in.

"You have to be a bit of a mad scientist. (As) a mad scientist, you need to be answering questions," Wallace said.

On the technical side of things, Wallace helps cheesemakers around the globe troubleshoot their cheese-making blunders.

In total, he estimated that one-third of his emails come from the Middle East and Africa, Wallace said, as cheesemakers seek out how to produce cheese locally once more. 

“(People) tell me, ‘I remember my grandma made this,’” Wallace said, and ask him for guidance.

Mondays are Wallace’s busiest days, he says, when he receives over a dozen emails, often from home cheesemakers who had trouble during their weekend tinkering. A few times a year, Wallace hosts workshops in his cellar. A group of up to 15 people navigate Wallace’s cellar, from home cheesemakers to dairy farmers trying to increase their sales as their herds dwindle in size. Notably, Wallace said that attendees are hardly ever from Massachusetts.

In his line of work, there’s an important clarification about the title of his work station: He works in a cellar, not a basement.

“A basement smells of wet shoes that were put away wet,” Wallace said. “A basement is a very bad place to (ferment). A cellar is where you make cheese and wine.”

This distinction goes beyond language and smell, Wallace says. A cellar can confer flora, or microbes, which are beneficial to fermentation and have a positive effect on its final products.

When the underground part of his house was still a basement, Wallace recounted that his friends who tasted his cheese could tell.

They’d tell him, “’Ugh, this tastes like your basement,’” Wallace recounted.

Wallace scraped flora off of cheese rinds that appeal to him and brought them to his basement. “Now, I have this beautiful mold that actually smells like mint,” Wallace said. 

In the cellar with Wallace on Monday was Lennen Sanchez, Wallace’s neighbor who was learning the ins-and-outs of making wine. Wine press handle in hand, Sanchez squished mashed grapes, as deep purple liquid drained into a bucket.

As the bucket filled, Wallace took it to another room in the cellar and pour the liquid into a giant glass jug. Scores of wine bottles lined the walls.

Wallace gets his grapes from a distributor in Hartford, who can supply Wallace with grapes from California that have origins world-wide. Wallace told stories of certain grape varieties that were brought over to the United States by immigrants over a hundred years ago, who traveled with grape vines in their suitcases.

Once in his cellar, Wallace uses a machine to destem the grapes and puts the them into a large white plastic bucket to rest. Wallace adds yeast and the fermentation takes off. Like baking a yeast-bread, the grape mixture “rises,” creating a layer of grape product above a layer of deep purple liquid.

Instead of kneading, Wallace punches the grape products into the juice and tests for scientific factors, like the acidity and absence of mold, as well as qualitative factors, like the flavor and color.

’Raw’ materials

Although cheese can be produced year-round, the taste of cheese changes through the seasons of when the cows produced the milk.

The first milking of the spring, where the cows have their first tastes of fresh grass, produce milk that’s higher in moisture. That, in turn, makes soft cheeses, Wallace said.

By contrast, cheese produced in late summer to early fall are alpine cheeses and finer pressed cheeses, Wallace said.

Cheeses made in the dead of winter are often hybrids that Wallace concocts.

“You can use pasteurized or raw milk,” Wallace said, adding that he prefers raw milk because those cheeses “have a lot more character to them.”

Wallace, who won’t share his sources of local raw milk, said that the milk is fresh.

“I know the cows,” he said.

Raw milk, which is unpasteurized, is a tricky subject.

In Massachusetts, state law granted local municipalities and their boards of health to determine if raw milk can be for sale. If so, farmers must follow a series of state regulations that guide the production and sale of raw milk. Farmers that sell raw milk are subject to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources testing and inspections.

“Raw milk has got to be responsible,” Wallace said.

Wallace’s wife, Robin, who descended into the basement, offered her view.

“I guess it’s controversial — it’s safer for the consumer” but harder for the home producers, she said.

Notably, Wallace does not sell any products he makes in his cellar. They’re consumed by his family and friends. For Wallace, fermenting foods is a passion that extends into many facets of his life. He and Robin are members of a few groups that share interests in wine and cheese and mutually share products they produce in their own homes.

“There’s a lot going on down here,” Wallace said, taking stock of his cellar. “If I wasn’t working (in cheesemaking), I’d probably be doing it anyway.”

Reach Maureen O’Reilly at moreilly@recorder.com or at 413-772-0261, ext. 280.

How to connect

Wallace’s recipes are available on the New England Cheesemaking Supply’s website at cheesemaking.com/collections/recipes

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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