Close encounters with the kindliest curds
I’ Mstanding over an enormous stainless steel stockpot filled to the brim with fresh raw milk that rests inside a larger stockpot of water. The chap standing next to me is stirring a smaller pot of full cream milk and, opposite, my husband turns the handle on an antique timber butter churn containing two litres of pure cream.
‘‘ Who had a blood test before they came?’’ quips one of our group.
We’re participating in the weekend dairy workshop at Dreamcatcher Lodge in rural Picton, NSW. The workshop, organised by Kathy and Greg McCombie of Wollondilly Farmgate at their B& B an hour’s drive south of Sydney, combines an introductory cheesemaking course with yoghurt and butter-making.
Wearing smart black aprons, nine of us — four couples and a young single guy— are gathered around the kitchen’s huge recycled-rimu island bench, listening intently to our softly spoken instructor, Margie Carrick. A certified organic farmer and Slow Food enthusiast, she urges us to concentrate.
‘‘ Pasteurising takes precision with temperature and time,’’ she says, sounding like a kindly but firm midwife. An appropriate analogy, as it turns out.
Carrick became interested in making cheese about seven years ago when a farming friend had an oversupply of fresh cow’s milk. Rather than see the milk go to waste, Carrick used it to make cheese. When she realised the process was simple for people to follow in their own homes, she began teaching others.
‘‘ I love seeing people’s amazement at how easy it is,’’ she says, which is good news for someone who barely knows the difference between pasteurised and homogenised.
We’re making camembert, quark, ricotta and curd cheese as well as yoghurt and butter. We all take turns, round-robin style, preparing the different products, which is just as well as my arm soon tires. I’m pasteurising 10 litres of fresh milk for the camembert, gently stirring to ensure it heats evenly, while closely monitoring the temperature.
The person next to me is heating milk for the ricotta and, after adding white vinegar, is waiting for it to curdle. I was under the impression curds were a bad thing (well, they’re awfully smelly when they appear spontaneously on neglected milk products in my fridge), but apparently curds are required to make all our cheeses. Once we’ve heated and cooled milk for yoghurt, we add a tablespoon of a commercial variety as a starter culture before placing it in a sterilised jar inside an incubator. ‘‘ There’s to be no peeking or bumping it for six hours,’’ Carrick says, as she puts it out of harm’s way. Cheeses and yoghurts can be temperamental, she adds, sometimes not doing what they are supposed to for no apparent reason.
None of us wants to be responsible for any such disaster, so we’re careful to follow her instructions.
‘‘ I think I’ve got lumpy bits,’’ declares my husband proudly as the handle of the butter churn becomes difficult to turn. I’msurprised he’s even helping with this, as for years he’s regaled us with hard-luck stories of how he had to make butter as a young boy, laboriously rotating it by hand in an old wooden churn.
Getting the butter to form is just the first part of the process; it then has to be washed repeatedly with water to remove all traces of whey, otherwise it goes rancid. Pushing water through the butter is strenuous work, an observation my husband willingly shares with others.
Camembert proves the most difficult of our cheeses to make. We pasteurise the raw milk by heating it to 68C and holding it there for one minute, then cooling it to 40C-42C before adding starter culture and rennet. We maintain this temperature for several hours, during which time we cut and turn the curds multiple times before placing them in hoops that must be turned at regular intervals throughout the next eight hours.
I don’t think I’ll be making camembert at home but, at lunchtime, as we sample our freshly made ricotta topped with grated lemon zest and black pepper, I’m enthusiastic about giving this a go.
The rest of our lunch is a delicious Wollondilly Farmgate platter filled with local olives, nuts, smoked meats, breads and cheeses, including a roasted garlic cheddar and marinated fetta from Carrick’s advanced cheese-making course.
The following afternoon we brine our camemberts before placing them in an incubator to take home with our butter, yoghurt, other cheeses and a gorgeous rimu cheese board handcrafted by McCombie. We will need to nurture our camemberts for a few more weeks before they mature, but Carrick provides us with detailed notes and follow-up emails.
Which reminds me: it’s time to turn our baby.
The dairy workshops run on demand, so register your interest with Dreamcatcher Lodge or gather a group of eight friends and set a date. Weekend workshops (two nights): $650 a couple or twin share; $400 single. Includes Friday night dinner, gourmet breakfasts and Saturday lunch. Weekday workshops: $590 a couple, $350 single. More: www.dreamcatcherlodge.com.au; www.wollondillyfarmgate.com.au.