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.

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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!

Cheese x3

I spent the whole of yesterday making cheese – three types!

I want to have an on-going programme of hard-cheese making, but I’m still experimenting with what works best, so every cheese I make is different. Yesterday I made a cheese using animal rather than vegetable rennet for the first time. I understand that cheeses matured for a long time (which I like) can develop a bitter taste with vegetable rennet, so I thought that I would try the more traditional approach and see what the results are like. Of course it will be months before I know, but all the details are in my cheese-making notebook, so at least I won’t be relying on my memory! I’m starting to feel much more confident about the process involved in making hard cheese, so everything went quite smoothly, although I raised the temperature about three degrees too high at one point, which may have an impact on the final cheese (again, it’s all noted down).

Much of my time, however, was spent making mozzarella. I know that it’s possible to make a quick version (supposedly in 30  minutes), but it doesn’t keep well, so I decided to have a go at a small batch made using the traditional method (which takes about 5 hours). Because it was to be an experiment, I started with just 4 litres of milk. Unlike the hard cheese that I make, mozzarella requires a starter of thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes. In addition, its success depends on getting the curds to the correct level of acidity, so a pH meter is essential; fortunately I already have one of these. I did have a slight hitch part way through the process when the pH failed to change after the required time, but it turned out that the problem was not the curds, but the fact that my pH meter needed recalibrating! Once that was done, I was back on track and reached the required pH of 5.2 without further trouble. When the curds are ready, the cheese is worked in very hot water to get the characteristic stretch. It’s too hot for bare hands, so rubber gloves are required and, even then, it’s not entirely comfortable. At this critical point I was delighted to find that I was able to achieve the correct consistency, indicating that the previous steps had worked.

A final soak for an hour in brine, and the balls of mozzarella can be stored for a couple of weeks in the fridge and up to three months in the freezer. We will be testing the results tonight on a pizza. If the taste is good, then next time I will make a much bigger batch.

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finally into brine for an hour

After all that curd production, I was left with plenty of whey and so the third type of cheese that I made was ricotta. I do this simply by heating the fresh whey and then, once it starts to flocculate, straining it through muslin.

I left this soft cheese unsalted, as I’ll probably make it into a cheesecake later in the week.

Cheese-making does require time and care, but I love having this relationship with my food… knowing exactly what’s in it and what it takes to make it means it becomes a much more valued product.

The value of…

Mr Snail is currently writing a few blog posts on “The value of value“. The other day I asked him whether he was going to write one about the value of a secondhand Kindle and he said that he wasn’t, so here is one from me….

A few weeks ago Mr Snail’s Kindle died. He worked hard to try and fix it, but had no success. So, he wrote a blog post about it (take a look if you want to see what all the electronics inside look like). This post was read by writer and artist Kate Murray, who contacted him with the offer of her old Kindle (slightly physically damaged, but fully functional). Mr Snail asked what she’d like in return and she replied that she’d like to learn to make cheese. So that’s what we did… she came over on Thursday and I showed her how to make soft cheese. It sounds like I got the rough end of the deal (after all the Kindle wasn’t for me) but, in fact, she also gave me a dozen or so balls of yarn and so we were all winners.

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What is a lesson in cheese-making worth?

I love this sort of exchange – everyone gains, indeed everyone gains more than the object or skill acquired. Mr Snail has a functioning Kindle, which means that he can progress with his latest book (he wanted to be able to read the current draft away from the computer and make notes). Kate can now go and try cheese-making on her own with a bit more confidence. In addition, she has off-loaded some ‘stuff’ that was of no use to her (she can’t work with the yarn as she has an allergy to wool and anyway it felts severely when washed so has few uses) and she couldn’t sell the Kindle for much because of the superficial damage. And I not only got some yarn, which is already well on it’s way to being a snuggly blanket (that won’t matter if it felts and shrinks), but also I got to spend some quality time with a friend.

How do we assess the value of this? We’ll, I suppose we could look at the monetary cost of a new Kindle, and of the yarn and we could find a cheese-making course and see how much that would cost, but that would be missing the point. The only money that was really involved was the cost of 3 litres of milk, some cheese culture micro-organisms and 12 drops of rennet, plus Kate’s fuel to get here; but the value was high for all of us. As Mr Snail wrote in his first ‘The Value of Value’ post:

We don’t know the value of anything, only the pounds and pence cost.

So, lets reclaim value and appreciate what things are really worth.

Making chicken food

In the UK it is illegal to feed kitchen waste to your hens. It is ok, however, to make feed specifically for chickens. Our hens really like a mix of oats and whey… a sort of cold porridge… so last weekend I decided to make this for them.

Whey can easily be separated out from milk using a bacterial culture. Thickening the mix by the addition of rennet makes straining the curds off much easier. And if you allow the curds to drain overnight, you maximise the amount of whey that you can extract.

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Even more solids appear if you heat the whey up to nearly boiling

It’s also possible to remove extra solids from the whey by heating it to just below boiling point, allowing it to cool again and then filtering through muslin once again. I started with 3 litres of whole milk and ended up with about 1.5 litres of whey. Of course I had lots of waste curds, but that was ok because I turned them into soft cheese. In addition, the solids that come out of the whey as a result of heating are otherwise known as ricotta.

You see, it’s not illegal for humans to eat the waste left from making chicken feed…. how convenient!

This is my life: cheese, squares and a tiny egg

Please note the comma between ‘cheese’ and ‘squares’ – this post is not about processed “cheese” abominations.

So, in reverse order…

Lorna and Tiffany's eggs flanking today's contribution

Lorna and Tiffany’s eggs flanking today’s contribution

This morning I embarked on the usual chores. Once it’s light enough (and sometimes well after) I pull on my Wellington boots and venture out into the mud (known as ‘our garden’ in the summer) to let the hens out. I open their pop hole and the door that lets them out of the small run, then I go into the shed to get a handful or two of corn to scatter for them as a morning treat. Whilst they are pecking around in the corn I take a scoop of layer mash from the feed bin and go and fill up their feeder in the run before returning to the shed with the scoop. It was as I was exiting the shed after putting the scoop away that I noticed what I, at first, thought was a small, slightly muddy potato where the hens were eating their corn . I closed the door and stooped down to examine the object, which turned out to be hard and warm. As far as I can think, there is only one warm ovoid object that might appear suddenly in our garden and that’s an egg… but this one was tiny. So clearly, between the corn being scattered and me finishing the feeding (a period of less than two minutes) an egg had very quietly been laid. It’s so small I’m sure the hen responsible barely noticed – she certainly did not announce its arrival. Who laid it is a mystery… such tiny eggs used to be laid by Perdy, but she is no longer with us. Since Lorna and Tiffany are currently laying normally, I think it must be a first post-moult egg from either Esme or Anna. My money is on Esme as the colour is closest to the eggs that she normally lays. For comparison, the picture shows a Lorna egg (left) and a Tiffany egg (right) with the tiny one in the centre.

Beautiful squares from Jenny at Simply Hooked

Beautiful squares from Jenny at Simply Hooked

Not having solved the mystery of the egg, I returned to the dry and got on with breakfast… homemade yoghurt, homemade granola and home-bottled apple (from apples grown by my dear friends at Highbank). I do love the feeling that I am managing to deliver such a large proportion of my diet without using commercially processed foods. I settled down to work and not long after that the doorbell rang… Henry the postman delivering a new insert for my diary, a book about cheese-making and a lovely parcel of crochet squares. Not long ago, I had an offer of some unwanted crochet squares from Jenny over at Simply Hooked. She has been having a love-hate relationship with this particular project and had decided to let it go… offering the squares to me to use for our friendship blankets that are raising funds for Denmark Farm Conservation Centre. The squares she sent are made of gorgeous, soft merino/cotton yarn… I really hope we can do them justice. If you want a chance to win the resulting blanket, or one of our other creations, I still have raffle tickets on sale and you could also win a long weekend at Denmark Farm in the lovely eco-lodge… details of the raffle here.

I must mention, at this point, that despite a lack of posts, my hands have not been idle in recent weeks. Amongst other things, I have been working on a very large granny square in my palette of blues. This is going to have its corners folded (like a traditional envelope) in to form a sofa cushion cover. It’s nearly large enough and has been a lovely relaxing project… easy on the fingers and the brain!

So, what about that cheese? Well, my first attempt at cheese-making has been a success. I was able to turn the cheese on the evening that I made it (this had to be done twice) and it could be handled easily by the next day. I salted the surface and left it to drain further on Sunday. That morning I used some of the whey (non-salted and pre-treated the night before with lactase enzyme) to make raspberry and white chocolate muffins. The young cheese is firm and crumbly, with a mild creamy flavour. Sprinkled with some freshly ground pepper yesterday and served with homemade bread, it provided me with a very acceptable lunch. In the evening, I crumbled some into baked potato scooped out of its skin, then mashed it up and added a little fried bacon. The resulting mixture was returned to the baked skins, topped with a little local cheddar and grilled for a very tasty dinner.

My friend Snufkin tells me that  she does find the unpredictability of cheese-making frustrating and that’s why I’m a little nervous of the volume of milk and time required to make hard cheese, but I shall give it a go soon. In the mean time, I will be settling down with my new book on cheese-making to drool over all the different varieties and try to work out what I might try next…

-oOo-

I’ve had a hard time writing this post today. I heard the news about the shootings in France when I was part way through and I wondered whether to continue as I was so upset. But, in solidarity with all those who write – and draw – about the world around us and continue to have the freedom to do so, I completed my post (with tears in my eyes). Let us continue to prove the the pencil truly is the most powerful weapon.

 

A cheesy birthday present

The second of January may be the worst possible day to have a birthday. Mr Snail, however, does his utmost to ensure that I have a good day and this year was no exception… a lovely lunch at The Harbourmaster and then an evening at home with a glass or two of something sparkling.

Although we don’t do presents for Christmas/Yule/Chanukah, we do give each other birthday gifts. This year I asked for a cheese-making kit. I thought it might be a fun skill to acquire and it is something that I have never tried before. Proper cheese, especially the hard stuff, has relatively little lactose in it and so I am able to eat it in moderation.

Cheese-making kit

Cheese-making kit

So, today I have been playing with milk. My first attempt is a soft cheese as this is quicker than a hard cheese and is easier to make in small quantities… I decided that starting with a recipe that requires 6 litres of milk was just too ambitious! There has been heating of milk and subdividing the ‘starter’… there has been a water bath, rennet, lots of sterilising (using boiling water so as not to taint the cheese with chemicals) and quite a bit of mess. I didn’t manage to achieve the cubes of curds described in the recipe, but I have finally got three molds filled with curds so that the whey can drain off. The next step (in about an hour) is slipping the developing  cheese out of the molds and turning it… that sounds like something that could go horribly wrong! Anyway, here is progress so far:

 

By tomorrow I may have three small soft cheeses … or I may just have a pile of curds and a bowl of whey… only time will tell. Anyway, thank you to Mr Snail for buying me such an interesting birthday present… I’ve never wanted perfume and flowers and it’s a good job he understands this!

Now, I’d better work out what I can use all this whey for.

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