It was a filthy, cold, wet day in Kariong as the small group of us shuffled into the Rotary club premises, our home for the next 8 hours while we talked cheese. And made cheese, photographed cheese and ate cheese.
The Home Cheesemaking Co are a knowledgeable, delightful & friendly bunch consisting of two Spanish chaps based in the Hunter, John and Juan (actually, Juan and Juan, but Juan became John some time ago so as to avoid confusion). They run courses around the state, sharing their extensive experience of cheese making in all its forms from the basic (the course I was on), to a 2 day masterclass. Along the way, the charismatic John sharing his tales of boyhood cheese making in his native country – amongst other gems tales of how his grandmother would stick her (probably unwashed) paws into the curds to test temperature, and how everyone used to drink raw, unpasteurised milk – and it never done him no harm.
Because if there’s one thing Juan and John are completely obsessed about, it’s hygiene. From the minute we walked in, and all day long, we were boiling, Milton-ing and alcohol-gelling ourselves and everything else in sight with operating theatre strictness. This appealed to me greatly as I once saw a picture of a bacteria culture of a hand print, teeming with micro-organisms, and I’m still scarred.
I know that cheese is full of live stuff, and this is good, but, only the right live stuff is the good stuff and the other stuff is Bad. (This reminds me suddenly of a conversation I had with a council official last week about the local water quality. She informed me sagely that the discolouration I experienced was due to excess manganese in the supply, but not to worry; it was a naturally occurring mineral so it was all safe. I pointed out that uranium is also naturally occurring, but that didn’t make it safe. There was a long, confused silence on the other end of the phone. But I digress).
They have 25 cows on their farm and are currently milking Daisy (yup, she really is called Daisy. All their cows have names – one labours under the mighty title of Lady Gaga) and so it was thanks to Daisy that I snuck my first ever drink of raw, unpasteurised milk while no-one was looking.
I was expecting essence of waving, knee deep grassy fields; actually it tasted like milk. Lovely, creamy, tasty milk, but basically milk. Juan pasteurised the milk we would be using for the cheese as the first step in the class – they are thorough, these guys, and knew at least one of our crowd had their own goat – and described the hygiene measures they take during the milking process. Daisy even gets her udders alcohol gelled after milking (delightfully, John referred to these throughout as her teats – but with his accent, I heard ‘tits’, & I prefer my interpretation).
Lovely fresh, raw milk being pasteurised. See the cream!
After pasteurising, we took up a station in pairs:
Cheese stations for the day – cheese hoops and special draining cloths on the right
and watched while Juan showed us how to create a ‘starter’ from a culture called flora danica – mesophilic, ie mid temperature, for soft cheeses such as camembert. As this process takes 24 hours, he whipped out one he’d made earlier; a runny, yoghurty mix which kicks off the cheese.
Behold! The starter Juan made earlier! John checks the water bath temp
And then it was all go to start making our own cheeses. First there was the heating of the newly pasteurised milk to exactly the right temperature, using a water bath. The characteristics of different cheeses can be influenced by these temperatures.
Using a water bath allows you regulate the temperature very closely
We added calcium chloride, to reduce any potential ammonia taint caused by the action of the camembert mould, and then the starter culture, and finally the vegetable rennet. Rennet made the milk set to a blancmange like texture, which, following a wonderfully detailed instruction sheet, we left until it was ready to cut into cubes of about 1.5 inches.
It’s important not to cut too early, as that affects the quality of the cheese enormously, so Juan showed us how to test the curd first:
The cut curd
As the cubes of curd set, they leaked more and more fluid and grew much smaller, leaving the yellow tinged whey which we used later to make ricotta.
There were intervals of moving the curd gently and leaving the curd to set, during which time we all tucked into salad and pasta cooked by John, with home grown veggies and using ricotta, caerphilly and boccini all made by the pair previously. Followed by creme caramel with cream from – you guessed it – Daisy the cow. Can’t say I’ve ever been on a course where there was a hand cooked hot lunch provided, plus dessert, and it was delicious!
Once the curds had been oh-so-carefully ladled into the drainage hoops, everyone’s whey was collected and placed in a large saucepan for Juan to demonstrate making our second cheese of the day, whey ricotta.
Although not essential, he added whole milk to the whey in order to increase the yield and make for a creamier result, and brought it slowly to temperature, stirring all the while. He added a splash of plain old vinegar (see Milk + Vinegar = Cheese, previously), and the milk split, pretty much immediately, into curds. Alchemy!
Small particles of curds in the whey ricotta
Unlike the camembert, where gentle scooping to preserve the form of the curd was super important, it seemed less so for ricotta, as Juan ladled the curds deftly into a special colander-like mini basket. After draining for 10 minutes it was ready to eat. Like magic – a second cheese from the leftovers of the camembert making.
Handily, the ricotta demo filled some time between the ladling of the curds and the first 2 turns – the cheeses are carefully picked up, held firmly and whipped over as fast as possible.
It was surprisingly slippery – as well as being wet from the draining curds, the special blue plastic ‘cloth’ – a sort of modern cheese cloth – is quite low friction. I froze with indecision when it came to turning mine – did I have a firm enough grip? was I about to spatter hours of work all over me and the workbench? – but I did it, and the curds settled back to further draining. It was astonishing how much the cheeses reduced in size injust a couple of hours – from being level with the top of the hoops, to, having lost an inch after an hour, and reduced by half in 2.
The curds lost liquid steadily, from freshly filled, to half the size
Finally we gathered round Juan one last time, as he described what we’d be doing over the next 2 weeks to our precious baby cheeses. Sterilising things featured heavily, as did precise temperatures for the ripening. We’d be turning the cheeses every 2 days for the next 8 – 10 days until the mould started to grow and cover the whole cheese. Then storing them in special breathable paper for another fortnight, at cooler temperatures still. (All the equipment, moulds and tools are available to buy from their website).
Then it was time to eat again. And eat we did – despite being fairly rammed from our enormous lunch, glasses of wine and a big plate of cheeses appeared, complete with homemade quince paste, and a selection of fruit. All the cheese – obviously – made by John & Juan; a rustic young orange cheddar, a 6 week old camembert, and a fabulous blue that was creamy and soft, and not at all ammonic. If this is what the calcium chloride does for a cheese, it’s a damn good idea! The whey ricotta, still warm from its birthing, we scooped onto crackers and ate with grapes. Lovely.
All in all, a terrific course – I’d already read a Home Cheesemaking Book by an American author, but there’s absolutely no substitute for being able to ask constant, probably inane questions, and seeing something come to life in front of you. And it was great fun too!
Home Cheesemaking Co