Last weekend I treated myself to a cheesemaking course. It seems a bit frivolous given I could have a go myself but because I don’t tend to trust myself on food safety (which is probably a whole separate discussion), and this one fitted several criteria, I decided to book a place, and looked forward to it for months. It was easy for me to get to, at the Yarner Trust, not too big a course (max 8 people) and most importantly run by a cheesemaker whose wares we’ve enjoyed from local farmers’ markets.
The day was a good mix of relaxed and busy – with plenty of time for questions and reviewing the process, but no hanging about aimlessly. At the 8am introduction over coffee and biscuits, everyone had their own reasons for coming: some of us just liked eating cheese a lot, some of us wanted to be a bit more self-sufficient, and one person was there just because he “didn’t know how to do it” which is as good a reason as any. Apparently they get a lot of smallholders coming along who want to use their own animals’ milk and it was interesting to discuss later the extra hygiene required if you are doing this.
By 8.20am we were in to the kitchen to add starters to three churns of fresh (2 hours or so old!), unpasteurised warm milk which were fated to become a soft curd cheese, Gouda-style to take home and mature, and mozzarella.
Between each stage we returned to our table to discuss what we’d done and ask questions – this was actually very useful as different people brought up different issues, from sterilising flavourings to cheese with beards…
Through the course of the day we added the rennet (introducing us to the measurement known as a “ribble”…I suspect it may not be found in many science textbooks as it related to the shape of a glass which happened to hold 15mls for each rib on the outside), stirred the curds, washed them by removing whey and adding clean warm water (for the Gouda), strained the curds, lined and filled moulds with muslin, collected rocks from the garden to add pressure (to the cheese moulds, not to the students), mixed flavourings in to the soft cheese, turned the cheeses around in their moulds, with much trepidation and cheering when it succeeded, salted (effectively dry brining) the little Goudas-to-be, and eventually weighed and wrapped our produce to take home. We all got to have a go at most of the stages (including the washing up) and it was as interesting to watch and listen to fellow students as it was to do the things myself. The focus of the day was “home” cheesemaking – so that you wouldn’t have to buy tons of equipment or have a special cheese cave to mature your produce.
Making mozzarella was the most exciting stage of the day for me – it’s a cheese we use a lot, it’s expensive and horribly packaged to buy, and most of all, it’s highly variable in quality. Adding hot water to the already warm curds, beating them smooth, and forming them in to balls of chewy, “chickeny” mozzarella was like alchemy (only, a bit tastier) and I think I can safely say the most fun I have had with a wooden spoon this week.
The mozzarella became one of the highlights of our shared lunch, mixed into a tomato salad. We also had two types of home made bread brought by students, including a smashing fermented dough loaf made by Patrick from Bakery Bits which matched very well with some of the garlic and herbs soft cheese we had mixed up that morning.
At home that night we had cauliflower and pasta bake with some of the soft cheese in the sauce and a topping of mozzarella; the next day, homemade pizza (next year’s project will be homegrown wheat…it can’t be any worse than 2012’s harvest!) with more mozzarella and soft cheese. Meanwhile Gertie the Gouda is living in our spare room (any guests who turn up in the next two months will have to be comfortable in the temperature range of 12-18c). I’m not sure how that will turn out and owing to a complete clot cutting the curds too small (naming no names…ahem) it will apparently need 2 months to mature, but at least she know it had a good start in life. Even if I chicken out of making hard cheese, I will definitely make the mozzarella some time soon, and it’s much more interesting now that I’ve witnessed the work, time and concentration that goes in to making good cheese.
Now to summon the courage to phone some farmers and see if I can buy some milk direct…