The raw milk cheese­maker

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature Warning: Raw Milk - He­lena Fer­gu­son

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.”

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