Sunday, 26 February 2017

Pictures of Cheese

In this household a cheese free 24 hour period is a rare thing. Cheese on toast for lunch. A slice of Hafod cheddar for a pre-dinner snack. Sprinklings of Grana Padano (the poor man's Parmesan) in risotto or on pasta. A smear of goat's cheese on a cracker for a post-dinner snack. A full blown cheese board, the stinkier the better. We love cheese. Except blue cheese. Dave loves blue cheese and it is a source of deep regret to him that I have a deep and abiding dislike of blue cheese. Bleurgh!

After buying cheese and eating cheese, the next logical step from liking cheese is making cheese. That step would be immeasurably more logical if we had a house cow or indeed any milk producing livestock. I don't count the sheep as I have no intention of trying to milk one of our flock. I've looked deep into their eyes, and am pretty certain that not one of them would be accommodating. But which comes first anyway, the cheese maker or the milk maker? What if we invested in a house cow only to discover I'm lousy with the curd? We've been here before. At least the bread proving baskets can be hidden away on a pantry shelf, whereas neglecting a cow by pretending it's not there could get me into trouble. The fact is, cheese making feels like one of those skills a smallholder must try her hand at. Call yourself a smallholder? Prove it! Show me your soft cheeses. Serve it to me from your hand woven willow basket. Serve it with the spoon you whittled yesterday. Ta da .........!


Don't look at the basket too closely. It's a first attempt and a story for another day.

But seriously, I really, really want to make cheese. Yes, I know we can never be self-sufficient in cheese. Yes, I know the numbers don't add up. No, I don't care, I just want to make cheese.

My cheese making started with a book. A book that was given to me for Christmas, and I'm not talking about the one just past. The book put me off. So much kit. So many do's and don'ts. The dreaded "L" word. Listeria. The book sat on the shelf. Between "Crochet for Beginners" and "The Forager".

Then I met two home cheese makers, a hard cheese maker and a soft cheese maker (the cheese not the maker), both making perfectly good non-lethal cheeses in their own kitchens. Nevertheless, I'm far too cautious of nature for monkey see, monkey do. I'm more of a monkey see, monkey go on course person. So it was that last summer I found myself in the kitchen of a complete stranger in an end of terrace house in Brentford. This was no ordinary end of terrace house, this was Sara's house, known as Hen Corner, and we (for I had to drag along my best friend under the guise of "it's your birthday treat", despite knowing full well that cheese making is not high on the life skills agenda of a city loving girl) were there for "Cheese in a Day" - start the day with a bottle of milk, go home with your own camembert, mozzarella and feta. What better way to persuade the cheese wary to throw away the scary book and get her hands curdy!


Aside from the fun of meeting new people, fellow curd nerds, and making a mess of someone else's kitchen knowing I could leave the mess behind, the real beauty of a course like "Cheese in a Day" is learning by seeing, because if I hadn't seen Sara's curds I would have been horrified with what I ladled out of the maslin when I tried the recipes again at home. I certainly would not have attempted mozzarella at home without having seen her plunge balls of curd into hot whey and then do the stretchy stretchy thing. Sara was right too, when she promised I would go home with three cheeses, and not only three cheeses, but three cheeses, a loaf and biscuits. I think that qualifies as a picnic. Though only the mozzarella was in a snackable state as my cheeses and I boarded a train and headed back west. My introduction to the world of curd was complete. Now it was up to me to take the next step.

As with many hobbies, the next step inevitably involves parting with more cash and acquiring more kit. There are some things David can't whittle or otherwise knock up out of scrap from behind the shed, and that includes cheese moulds (plastic shapes not fluffy coatings), cheese mats, cheese cloth, starter cultures and rennet.

My first task in my new incarnation as home cheese maker was to recreate the cheeses tried at Hen Corner. All of those cheeses were eaten. None of them killed anyone, nor, so far as I am aware, caused the slightest ripple of nausea. That said, given the appearance of each cheese, consumption was an act of faith. That does not reflect badly on Hen Corner, as it doesn't take a cheese scientist to realise that a six hour journey by train, tube, train, train, car, from Gipsy Hill in south-east London to Bethania in West Wales, would not be the best start in life for a ripening young cheese. 

First I tackled the feta. This was made with fresh raw milk from a Jersey herd down Pembrokeshire way, producing curds and whey of a creamier, yellower white than the Abel & Cole milk we used at Hen Corner. The first lesson I learned was that water that is too warm kills rennet enzymes, and no enzymes means no curds. The second lesson I learned was that one cheese mould is never enough. The third lesson I learned is that balancing bags of flour and cans of beans on top of wrapped curds is neither a sensible nor safe method of cheese pressing. Despite all of this, I did manage to make a respectable, though not especially tangy, feta. The secret to the tang is lipase. The tang is less appealing when you discover that lipase is a pancreatic enzyme that aids the digestion of dietary fats and is usually "taken" from kids, calves or lambs to create lipase powder for use in cheese making. I don't like the word "taken" in this context. Interestingly, lipase should be present in raw milk, but can be effected by the health and diet of the animal. So for now I shall steer clear of lipase powder and seek out a tangier tang by experimenting with different raw milks.

Next up, camembert again. For this one I tweaked the recipe with some tips from the Curd Nerd and, courtesy of one of those inspired ideas that tend to pop into David's head when watching me struggle to achieve a simple task, added a new cheese-making tool to my collection - the whey syringe. No more spooning out drained whey with one hand while, with the other hand, simultaneously tipping the tray and trying to stop my cheese moulds from slip sliding away, spilling their precious curd cargo out of their bottoms. 


Camembert is an attention seeking cheese. Drain it, turn it, wipe its box, pat its downy white fluff, give it a little squeeze. The camembert is also a sensitive cheese, needing the right balance of temperature and humidity at the right time for the right bacteria to do its thing whilst holding back the work of the bad bacteria. The trouble with all of this is that until you learn the signs of over-ripening, what's on the outside conceals what's really going on on the inside, until you open the ripening box to be greeted by the distinctive whiff of ammonia, rush to Google for advice and know for sure that your cheese is literally melting from the outside in inside. 


If you put a peg on your nose it's still edible. At least it's easy to spread too. Another important lesson learned this time round was that putting a home made very ripe camembert into the oven does not produce a baked camembert. It produces a cheesy water bed for fairies. Not even David, with the constitution of an ox and a love of cheeses that honk to high heaven, could stomach a cheese milkshake.

More tap, tap, tapping for more cheese wisdom and I produced a new plan for my camembert ripening schedule. This time I used different raw milk, switching to Penlan Y Mor, a farm set up on the coastal fields south of Aberaeron, overlooking New Quay. I had the added bonus of a private tour of the dairy too, and a peak at some young calves, and got to practice my rusty learner's Welsh. The paltry scale of my cheese making attempts is never going to keep a business afloat, but I can't deny that my first trip to Penlan Y Mor left me with the warm glow of having done a good thing, a reaffirming (if it were needed) of the importance of supporting small family dairy farms, a hope that there will be a source of raw milk here for me for years to come, though if the investigations of Gareth Wyn Jones, BBC Milk Man, come even close to the difficult truth, that cannot be taken for granted.


However, a warm glow does nothing to help me achieve the perfect camembert, so it was back to the cheese drawing board and the third attempt. This time I would be taking detailed notes because somehow Father Christmas had known to bring me a new notebook for that very purpose. It pleases me immensely that a cheese notebook has been added to my notebook library.

I duly followed the exact same recipe as before, this time tweaking only the ripening process. I noted down pantry temperature and humidity. I recorded the number of turns. I logged the date of first fluff formation. Rate of fluff development was documented as an aide memoire for future reference. God damn, I had high hopes for camembert number three. Tasting day, exactly four weeks from date of pantry to fridge transfer, was marked on the kitchen calendar. Despite this, David regularly asked "can we try it yet", a day later, "can we try it yet". You can't rush a work of art.

At last the day dawned. The free range bacon was ready and waiting in the fridge for the bacon and camembert lunch time butty. We bought a President camembert for a compare and contrast tasting. We lined them up on the counter, bringing them up to room temperature for maximum creamy tastiness.

The moment came.... a slice of each .....

David closed his eyes for a blind tasting. Which to give him first? I popped a wedge of Banceithin camembert into his mouth. "That's yours!". Dammit. He'd seen the initial slice. He knew mine was more granular, the curds less uniform and creamy. I resisted the urge to throw the slice of President at him, and popped it into his month grudgingly. "Yep, that one is definitely the commercially made cheese." He sat down for further reflection and pronounced the home made camembert to have a "more complex flavour profile" (he listens to Kitchen Cabinet on Radio 4) but with a more bitter edge to it. I'll take that! But most annoying of all, despite careful planning of the ripening schedule, my cheese still suffered from slip skin, ripening too quickly under the skin yet again. If at first you don't succeed...... keep making cheese until you do.

Mozzarella is the showy cheese. The making of mozzarella is a performance, a display of dunk and stretch, dunk and stretch, with your hands sweating inside Marigold gloves dripping with near boiling whey. Oh, but it's fun. If you're into instant gratification, this is the cheese for you. Don't do what I did though. Don't invite an ex-Neal's Yard Dairy Maitre Fromager (fancy name for a cheese expert, like a sommelier is to wine, but disappointingly not known as a cheesier) to watch and help. Her mozzarella balls will only embarrass your mozzarella balls.


For my most recent cheese exploits, I went off piste with another batch of Penlan Y Mor milk, trying my hand at halloumi, the squeaky cheese. This time there was no previous experience to judge my results against, just the recipe and a knowledge of how a block of halloumi should look, cook and taste. Lack of proper curd draining moulds and a cheese press were the major stumbling block. My curds wouldn't knit under the weight of two tins of beans and a stone pestle and mortar. The other mistake I made cannot be blamed on lack of kit and was down to simple stupidity. Halloumi is made by cooking blocks of curd in whey kept just below boiling point. When you buy halloumi, you buy a block of this cooked curd. You then slice that block, and griddle the slices to eat. When you make halloumi, you cook a block of curd, you don't cook a slice of curd. I skipped the block stage going straight to the slice, and cooking slices of curd in hot whey gives you melted slices of hot curd. Doh!


The situation was not irretrievable, the halloumi unattractive but not inedible. Of course, the ultimate test of a halloumi is the squeak. If it doesn't squeak between the teeth, it cannot go by the name halloumi. Did it squeak? It sure did!

Making halloumi has the benefit of being a two cheeses from one batch process. The first curd makes the halloumi, and the second curd from a second "cooking" of the remaining whey with a dash of vinegar and a sprinkling of salt, makes ricotta. This would be obvious to any Italian speaker. Ricotta. Re-cooked. One of those slap the forehead light bulb moments.


None of my cheeses have been perfect, but I set out wanting to make cheese, and that's what I've done, and will continue to do so. My cheese moulds will not yet be joining the bread proving baskets on the out of reach pantry shelf.

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