Finessing my affinage

Affinage? That’s maturing your cheese once it’s made.

In my experience, this is where the real skill is when making cheese. Up to this point you are scrupulously clean,  follow a recipe, watch your pH and handle your cheese appropriately – trying to standardise as far as possible from one batch to another to avoid variations in your end product. But what you do next can turn a simple cheese into a masterpiece. At this point, variations in temperature, humidity and surface treatment can create wildly different cheeses even from a single batch.

This was exactly the point of bringing home the four small brie cheeses that we made this week. Each of us has four cheeses and each of us is going to record what we do with them and report back.

A. is going to keep things simple and taste hers at different ages, although she might decide to try something different with one or two of them. P. is going to taste one at a young stage, surface treat one of hers with extra white mould (there’s already some in the cheese) and keep the other two under slightly different temperature regimes to see whether they develop differently. My four cheeses are going to be treated as follows:

  1. Charcoal-coated, kept at about 10-12C
  2. As-is, kept at about 10-12C
  3. As-is, for 3 weeks at about 10-12C, then tasting and trial storage in oil (with herbs?)
  4. As-is for 3 weeks at about 10-12C, then wrapped in calvados-soaked nasturtium leaves and matured for a further 3-4 weeks at 10-12C

Ash-coating of cheeses is common on the continent and I have enjoyed eating many such products, so the first treatment makes use of some food-grade charcoal powder that I already have. The third treatment is the sort of thing that you do with feta and I thought it might result in a good flavour. The final treatment is my most experimental, but using alcohol-soaked edible leaves or flowers is an approach used by various artisan cheese makers. I toyed with using nasturtium flowers rather than leaves, but I decided that they were a bit delicate for a first try, although I may give them a go in the future. The leaves are currently macerating in calvados, where they will stay until I’m ready to wrap the cheese.

As for the big cheese, I’m keeping it simple. It’s currently on a rack drying at room temperature. By tomorrow the surface should be nice and dry and it should no longer be weeping any whey. I’m then going to use cheese coating on it – this is a breathable coating that protects the cheese from unwanted micro-organism contamination, but still allows the production of a rind with surface growth. I’ve never used it before, but the cheese is so big that it would be difficult to wax, and a challenge to store without risking surface contamination.


It’s like waiting for cheese to dry!

Over the coming weeks I will report back about progress… wish me luck!


The big cheese (and the little cheeses)

So, about those large quantities of cheese in yesterday’s post…

I’ve been making cheese at home for a few years now. All my learning has been gained from books – until this week I’d never actually been shown the process by a real person and I’d never had the opportunity to ask questions. This week all that changed, when I went for two day’s training at The Food Centre Wales. Just 25 minutes from home, this amazing resource provides training and support for small-scale food producers in Wales, as well as having a R&D facility which can also be hired for production. I was lucky enough to be able to arrange training under the auspices of the Welsh Government’s Project HELIX, which is intended to support small and medium business in the food sector in Wales… including people like me who are at a very early stage of considering setting up a business.

I invited two friends who have smallholdings to join me and Tuesday saw us donning hair nets, white coats and white wellington boots to start our cheese-making adventure. We weren’t doing this small scale, either. The plan was to make two types of cheese – a hard Tomme-style cheese and a soft brie-style cheese. The first we made using 100 litres of milk and the second using 50 litres. These are tiny quantities if you are working on a commercial scale, but a huge step up from making cheese in a home kitchen like I normally do.

So we weighed cultures and mixed and added rennet and left the curd to rest and stirred, and waited and drained and filled moulds. We talked about pH and different cultures and temperatures and affinage. We turned our cheeses (the hard ones in big moulds once and the soft ones in small moulds twice) and then we went home with our heads full of new information, leaving our cheeses to drain (Brie-style) or in the big press (Tomme-style).

We returned the following day to take our cheeses out. We salted the small ones with dry salt and we made up brine for the big ones… which needed to be soaked for a total of 37 hours!

Leaving the cheeses to get on with it, we went off for a theory session and some questions and answers. We discussed suppliers and talked more about cultures and equipment. We returned to the dairy after the brie had been coated in salt for 2 hours and washed each cheese off and packed a few to take home. We turned the large cheeses in their brine, but 37 hours was a bit long to hang around for, so once we’d finished some paperwork, we sealed our buckets and each of us returned home with a large wheel of cheese and four small soft cheeses.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The big cheeses in the brine had to be turned again on Thursday morning, before being allowed to soak for the rest of the requisite time. This meant removing them from their brine late on Thursday evening… which we each did. At the same time, the small cheeses had to be put in a suitable place to begin to mature.


Out of the brine to drain and allow the surface to dry

The next part of the process will be different for each of us. The idea is that we experiment to see what maturation conditions and affinage (finishing treatment) we like best. We’ve compared notes and in my next post I’ll tell you what we’ve each decided to do.


What an exciting week it’s been. And the best thing is that I’m now confident that I was doing it ‘right’ before!

Apple time

Yesterday we went to pick apples just down the road…

since then the kitchen has been a hive of activity…

There was a little time yesterday to do something that didn’t involve apples. I made harissa paste with some of the abundant chillie harvest…

A right old caper

Years ago I planted some nasturtium seeds in the garden… I have never needed to do so again, because they self-seed every year and I continue to get them growing all over the place. They provide a riot of colour, good ground cover and they are edible. The leaves can be added to salad or used in cooking (nasturtium leaf pesto, for example) and the flowers are also edible and look stunning as a garnish. The seed pods too are edible: until now I’ve never harvested them to eat, although I have eaten them elsewhere.


today’s little harvest

Today I had a bit of a headache and decided to go out in the garden. Looking round I noticed the abundance of nasturtium seeds. So I picked some – it didn’t seem like many, but turned out to be about 140g. Consulting the River Cottage preserves book, I found that to make a couple of small jars of “nasturtium capers” I only need 100g, but that they do have to be soaked in a light brine for 24 hours before they are pickled with peppercorns and herbs. I, therefore, can’t actually pickle them until tomorrow. In the mean time they are soaking and I no longer have an excuse for not getting on with some work…


24 hours to go



Hard to Swallow

As you know from many, many posts on here, I am a big fan of ‘real’ food. I love cooking, especially using ingredients I have grown myself or that have come from producers I know. Of course, this isn’t always possible – we’re short of wheat-growers in Ceredigion, for example. However, most of what we eat Chez Snail, I make from scratch and processed foods do not feature much in our diet. This  happened gradually over the years and has been helped by the fact that, for the last 10 years, I have mostly worked from home, so that I can intermingle earning a living, growing food and cooking. I do understand the challenges of living in a city and going out to work every day when it comes to sourcing and eating good food, so I’m really not criticising anyone who can’t do what I do.

IMGP3955My motivations are many, but mainly I like to know what’s in the food I’m eating. My suspicious about the content of processed and packaged foods have, however, been not only confirmed, but greatly surpassed by a book that I read recently: Swallow This by Joanna Blythman. I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is a real eye-opener, revealing, for example, the fact that anything that can be classified as a “processing aid” does not need to be declared in the ingredients of a product. This means that things like enzymes that can be used to change the flavour or consistency of an ingredient/product but none of which remains in the finished food do not need to be mentioned – not even if that enzyme is derived from animals and the product is for vegetarians.

From ‘clean labelling’ to ‘modified atmosphere packaging’, the food industry abounds with ways to dupe us into thinking that the food we buy is ‘fresh’ or ‘natural’ when it is anything but. For years we have been told that saturated fats are bad for us, so the food industry has gone out of its way to create low fat foods that are, instead, heavy on the carbohydrates to give them desirable ‘creamy’ textures (low fat, Greek-style yoghurt, anyone?). There is an ever-growing body of evidence, however, showing that saturated fats are not the health problem that we have all been led to believe but that there are issues associated with eating loads of carbohydrates and that polyunsaturated fats are not the panacea they have been made out to be…. and as for margarine, let’s just not go there!

If you are looking for motivation to cook more and source more products direct from producers, Swallow This may be just what you need to read… you will certainly never read the ingredients on a flavoured yoghurt or look at a bag of salad leaves the same way again. Whatever your position, though, I highly recommend this book – it is in all our interests to be knowledgeable about the food we eat.


It’s good to know what’s in your food…

8 Meals 8

… and even better to have grown it yourself

Apple time

Although I was given some windfalls a couple of weeks ago, yesterday saw the arrival of the first of the big apple harvest: lovely eaters given to me by Katy the Night Owl. We eat apple all the way through the year because I bottle it, but there are some recipes that demand fresh fruit, so I can only cook these for a limited time. I absolutely will not buy apples out of season, although some varieties last a good long time if undamaged.

Anyway, I have started our apple festival with an apple plait. This fabulous cinnamon and apple bread is delicious fresh, and once it’s a couple of days old makes the most wonderful French toast. Just the smell of it baking is enough to make me start salivating.

Basically it’s an enriched dough (i.e. it contains egg and milk and butter and take a long time to rise), filled with apple, brown sugar, a little butter and cinnamon. I always make it as a plait, but you could easily adapt it to any shape – swirls, buns, a rolled loaf, whatever you fancy.

The second recipe on my list of things to make when we have fresh apples is Dutch apple pie. This is really nothing like the apple pie I grew up with, and I only discovered it a couple of years ago (recipe here), but it has become a firm favourite in our house… especially since it requires no pastry-rolling and is like a cross between a pie and a crumble. In fact, now I’ve mentioned it, I want to make one for dinner tonight… excuse me, I could be some time…

Time to ketchup

… apologies for the poor word-play, I’m not feeling entirely myself…

Anyway, after a few days away from the screen, I thought I would return with my latest culinary adventure. You may recall that I had a surplus of mushrooms… I was just going to use them for ‘normal’ cooking, but then Kate Chiconi planted the idea of mushroom ketchup in my mind and the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in making it. So, after not finding anything suitable in my cookery books, I resorted to the internet and located a recipe that seemed promising here at Revolutionary Pie, which looks like a very interesting blog to follow.

The basic method is to chop up your mushrooms and sprinkle them with salt, before mashing them up a bit and then leaving them for the liquid to seep out overnight. The next day, you boil them up with a chopped onion, lemon zest, spices, horseradish and vinegar, then extract the liquid by putting it in muslin and giving it a good squeeze. The liquid is them heated up, bottled and processed in a hot water bath to preserve it. The solids can be oven-dried, whizzed in a food processor and used to flavour soups and stews.

When I told Mr Snail that I was going to make mushroom ketchup, he said that he didn’t think it would be as nice as tomato ketchup on his chips. He was much happier when I explained that it was to use as a flavouring for meats and other dishes (similar to Worcestershire Sauce). Of course, the proof of the ketchup is in the eating, and I haven’t used any yet. However, it was easy enough to make and it lends itself to experimenting with adding all sorts of spices. Also, unlike Worcestershire Sauce, it is suitable for vegetarians.

So, thank-you, Kate for the inspiration – I will report back.

Filling the store cupboards


plenty to choose from

I was planning to spend this weekend doing crafty things, but Friday morning dawned bright and sunny and I decided that it was an ideal time to take a trip to Newcastle Emlyn to buy cheap fruit and vegetables. I’ve written previously about the stall that appears early every Friday morning, and the bargains to be had. I visited a few weeks ago, but I wanted to take advantage of the summer produce once again… especially now I have those new cupboards to fill. So, I bought boxes of tomatoes, mushrooms, nectarines and pineapples as well as a small sack of onions; I added a couple of bunches of carrots, a cauliflower and some garlic to my haul and this is what the back of my car looked like for the trip home:


no chance of those tomatoes and nectarines escaping!

That was Friday morning and since then I have spent most of my time in the kitchen chopping and peeling, roasting and milling, boiling and bottling. I’ve used most of my purchases, as well as veg from the garden and limery.

And now I have bottles and bottles of passata, pineapple and nectarines, a big pot of vegetable Bolognese sauce and another (almost – it’s actually still cooking as I write this) of courgette and carrot soup. I’m going to freeze the latter two in portions as I need to keep the rest of my bottles for apples later in the season.

And now I need a good long sit down. Have you had a busy weekend too?

Cooking without


it’s usually about abundance

For me, cooking has generally been a positive experience – I don’t just mean that I enjoy it, but that it is associated with abundance (often from the garden) or a desire to cook with a specific ingredient or create a particular dish. In recent years, however, I have increasingly found my cooking constrained – dealing with restricted diets or needing/wanting to avoid particular ingredients. From my own perspective, this has been mainly related to making more ethical choices – supporting local producers, avoiding processed food, considering animal welfare, not using ingredients associated with habitat destruction and so on. But when I cook for others, there are other limits. Vegetarian cooking is never a problem – I used to be a vegetarian myself and anyway there so many wonderful dishes that don’t include meat that this, in itself, is never an issue. Gluten-free baking, on the other hand, is a challenge and this is something I have been exploring over the past few years as a result of cooking for one particular friend.

My most recent excursion has been into vegan cake-making. If you search the internet, you are overwhelmed by vegan cake recipes and so, at first sight, making a vegan cake seems entirely straightforward. However, the restrictions that I put on the ingredients I am prepared to use make it much more difficult. For example I never use margarine and many vegan cake recipes rely on this for both cake and frosting. Many recipes also make use of ingredients that have ethical issues linked to them – avocado, for example, is something I never buy because of the social problems and environmental degradation associated with the huge western demand for this fruit (you can read more here). And then there are ingredients like aquafaba (the liquid from cans of chickpeas or other legumes), which sounds great, but since I never use canned chickpeas, is not particularly something I wish to buy. And that’s before we get on to how I feel about food miles and the packaging certain ingredients have associated with them. Life is complex for the ethical cook!

So, when I offered to make a cake to take to yesterday’s tea party, my heart sank slightly when I remembered that the person whose birthday we were celebrating is vegan.  I put aside my happy hens’ eggs and organic butter wrapped in paper and searched for a recipe using ingredients that I had in my store cupboard. And finally I found a chocolate cake recipe that I was happy to make. I first tested out a gluten-free version and that was a bit dense, but the wheat flour one (modified a little from the original recipe) that I took to the tea party was light and moist and very easy to make. So, if you want a vegan cake, look no further…


vegan chocolate cake

200g plain flour
200g caster sugar
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
250ml water

Simply put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and whisk them together by hand with a balloon whisk to remove any lumps and get some air into them. Add the wet ingredients and gently whisk them together until they form a smooth batter. Pour the batter into a lined loaf tin (13 × 23cm) and cook for 45 minutes in a preheated oven at 180ºC.

I wanted to put some sort of frosting on the cake, but I simply couldn’t find a recipe that I was happy with, so in the end I made ganache. Usually this involves heating cream to just below boiling point and then, off the heat, stirring in very dark chocolate. Vegan dark chocolate is the norm, but a cream substitute is more of a challenge. I don’t use soya products if I can help it (for both environmental and social reasons), so I trundled off to the wholefood shop and examined the alternatives. In the end I selected organic coconut cream in a recyclable carton. I put a couple of dollops of this in a pan, heated it to below boiling, removed it from the heat and then stirred in chocolate until I achieved a nice gloopy consistency, before pouring it over the cake.

I was hoping to retain some of the coconut flavour, but sadly this was swamped by the dark chocolate. However, the verdict was good and I produced a moist and decadent cake despite all the limitations.

It’s certainly a cake I would make again… although not whilst we have an abundance of eggs!

Ruby Tuesday

Last autumn my friend @CambridgeGoats (not her real name) introduced me to the joys of steam-juicing and, as a result, I ended up buying a Mehu Liisa. By the time I got it, the only fruits that I had in abundance to juice were apples. We are still enjoying the results, although we’ve now consumed all the apple and ginger juice and there’s only plain apple juice left.

Today I decided to have a go with some of the red currants that have grown so well this year. I didn’t have enough to fill the whole basket, but as it was an experiment, I was happy to try with a small amount and to include the last of the frozen ones left over from last year (it’s always good to rotate your stock).

This method of juicing is single-step – it produces hot liquid, which can be drained straight into hot, sterilized bottles, ready for storage once cool.

The juice is very tasty and a beautiful ruby red colour, as you can see from the first bottle.

Now, I wonder how it mixes with white wine… or fizz…

%d bloggers like this: