this (cheesy) life
IN need of a little down time, we sign up for a cheese-making class and head for the hills on a glorious spring day.
We start with two litres of warm goats milk. Our master cheese-maker encourages us to smell it, enjoy its warmth, love its whiteness. Everyone introduces themselves.
We are all here because we love cheese, of course. My husband announces he is here because his wife loves cheese. It is true: cheese, especially the soft goat varieties, is up there for me with slow-cooked tomatoes, fresh nectarines in season and vanilla custard tarts from stall 23 at our local farmers market.
We wash our hands and pour our milk into little portable coolers and we add things (rennet and starter). We put timers on and we wait. Ours is a patient teacher; we feel confident about our adding, stirring, waiting.
While we wait we are invited to the cheese connoisseurs’ table to contemplate our cheeseboards of four specialty cheeses. Interspersed with feta making, we will learn some more secrets about artisan cheese.
Our instructor, Kris, manages to stretch out the appreciation process across three sumptuous hours. To accompany, there are wines and olives, crackers, sourdough bread, handmade butter, slices of pear and apple. But no one dares to galumph into anything. We’re instructed to focus on the uniqueness of each cheese, taste the soft centre of the ashcoated cheese, with and without the rind, compare the gloss on the two camemberts. How do they taste with the red wine, or do we prefer them with the white? This is cheese at its absolute most sensuous, and I finally understand why I love the entire experience of eating goats curd.
Kris has been cheese-making for almost 20 years; she’s a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge on the subject.
From a family of winemakers and olive growers, she has made cheese-making her art and passion, with knowledge gained mostly from observing and listening. ‘‘As soon as you stop listening,’’ she says, ‘‘well, life is really over, isn’t it?’’
Back to our coolers, we are allowed to feel the surface of our milk-transforming-into-cheese; pat its contented little stomach, smell its baby milky smell. We cut and watch the white jelly wobble into discrete slices and cubes, we observe the whey separating from the curd. Old nursery rhymes ring in my head; I’m pulled back into sleepy childhood.
Back to the table, Kris tells more tales: ‘‘first cheese’’ stories; the difference between brie and camembert; how the holes in Swiss cheese originate. We talk about temperatures, air flow, humidity, ageing processes, vine wraps and ashes; why you should use a non-serrated edge to cut cheese and how a cheese once cut won’t continue to ripen.
We are told to buy cheeses past their use-by date and to put a clove of garlic in our camemberts with their lids off.
Their first gorgonzola is to be launched at Christmas and it will be four months old. It’s complicated making gorgonzola and their variety has surely earned its feisty name of ‘‘blue bitch’’. I can’t wait.
But wait I will: this is what I have learned today. As we leave with our little pouches of soon-to-be-feta I think I have hardly noticed the hours pass. I will sleep well tonight.