The raw milk cheesemaker
Wednesday morning in Helena Ferguson’s Okoia kitchen means batches of tasty raw milk cheeses. On her 100ha property, several litres of fresh milk comes into the kitchen at 6am and goes straight into the pot to make halloumi, ricotta, feta and gouda-style hard cheeses.
Being able to collect the milk warm is a bonus (most cheese recipes require the milk to be warmed to around 30 º C or so) and makes the process easy says Helena.
“I like eating it, using it in recipes and giving it away. It’s fun... all the things you can do with it without any other ingredients, the different cheeses and how you can use them. Cheese is so expensive - I wouldn’t normally buy the cheeses I make.”
This morning Helena has left a fresh batch of halloumi to press for half an hour under a bucket filled with 10 litres of water while she takes the children to school. After four years of making cheese she can whip up halloumi in two and a half hours.
“Halloumi is the easiest, it requires 10ml of rennet and no culture. While it’s getting pressed I usually make my ricotta by putting some salt and vinegar in the whey. I use it in an awesome cake recipe, in cheesecake or lasagna and truffles with no sugar.”
Rectangles of halloumi curd wait while she heats the whey for the final cooking. The pieces float to the top when they are cooked, then she cools them on a tray. The brine in which they will sit is already made and in the fridge. Helena has several batches on the go and it is ready to eat after three days. She dry fries it, uses it for barbecues, pizza toppings, ratatouille, and salads, and gives some away to friends.
Feta is also underway. The Greek cheese can take a week to reach eating point. Some she marinates in olive oil, fresh herbs and garlic. She taste-tests a feta she made a couple of days ago.
“That’s perfect. When it’s warmer the process can be quicker in your kitchen, sometimes it can be a bit stiff. The longer you leave it, the better it gets. You change the salt water if it starts going a bit cloudy - 50g of salt per litre minimum. If it tastes too salty you can rinse it (in milk).”
Helena has some DIY gadgets. The feta moulds are made from drain pipe drilled with holes. There’s a wooden, hard cheese press made for her by the husband of a local woman who taught her cheesemaking. The press is weighted with anything heavy enough to hand - in the pictures at right it’s a box of wine in a plastic bag - and she presses the curd for up to seven hours. All her equipment is sterilised to avoid unwanted bacteria.
Her cumin seed-flavoured hard cheese is kept in a fridge in the garage.
“People love it, but I can’t give much away, it’s like gold really. It gets yellower and yellower. I smear a bit of butter on it instead of wax – it seems to be working, and the cheese tastes great.
“My doctor wanted to do a cholesterol test last week and I wouldn’t let her!”
She stopped making hard cheese for about a year because it was going mouldy. While a bit of mould can be cut off, she discovered she was putting too much rennet in.
“I was using a recipe from somebody else. I hardly ever measure now or use the recipes.”
She buys the cheese culture from Cottage Crafts in the Far North.
“I think a lot of other farmers would like to make their own cheese, it’s just a matter of getting round to it or having somebody show you. Once you know how it’s so easy, and if you have access to raw milk like I have, people would do it.”