Lessons from a nat­u­ral cheese­maker

A cheese­maker with a black sheep rep­u­ta­tion brings all-nat­u­ral in­spi­ra­tion to the farm.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS JEAN MANS­FIELD

Cre­at­ing a re­ally big cheese weigh­ing 4kg or more is some­thing of a tri­umph for a home cheese­maker. It takes 40 litres of cow or goat milk, or 30 or so litres of ewe’s milk (its higher fat con­tent means you don’t need as much), to make a big round cheese. That is a lot of heavy lift­ing for the home cheese­maker to man­age dur­ing its pro­duc­tion.

I have a caul­dron that will take this amount of milk but sel­dom use it be­cause han­dling that amount of milk is not some­thing I can do on my own.

Then Cana­dian or­ganic farmer, cheese­maker and teacher David Asher came to visit. The man who runs the Black Sheep School of Cheese­mak­ing was on our farm run­ning a two-day cheese­mak­ing work­shop. What an op­por­tu­nity.

David and I made a 4kg alpine cheese. We used whey from a pre­vi­ous cheese as the starter cul­ture and a 2cm piece of velle (dried calf stom­ach) as the co­ag­u­lant. This is quite dif­fer­ent to the cul­tures and co­ag­u­lants I nor­mally use, which come in foil packs and spe­cial bot­tles and have been care­fully man­u­fac­tured in a fac­tory.

We used one of my huge, 100-year-old oak coop­ered moulds that I had soaked and sani­tised for about 12 hours. This is a hand-made round mould, the wood steamed to get the right shape. We were re­ally turn­ing back time and hon­our­ing the milk and it pro­duced a stun­ning re­sult.

When you make some­thing in this man­ner, the feel­ing of hav­ing a link to the past is pow­er­ful. This is how the pi­o­neers made cheese.

Af­ter co­ag­u­la­tion, cut­ting, cook­ing and stir­ring of the curd, the cheese was hand-pressed. For most cheeses, you put a weight on top and leave it for a time. But this was a hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence. The work­shop par­tic­i­pants came and pressed their hands down on the curd, press­ing out the whey to form one mas­sive cheese. David folded the curd over on it­self, then scooped it up in the cheese­cloth to place in the mould. It was a per­fect fit. He turned and re­dressed the huge just­mat­ted cheese within 15 min­utes – this usu­ally takes hours – and then it rested overnight cov­ered at room tem­per­a­ture.

Twelve hours later the cheese was per­fectly formed and could have been re­moved from the mould, salted and cured. But David was mov­ing around New Zealand run­ning cheese­mak­ing work­shops. He would have liked to take this cheese with him, but the lo­gis­tics of cart­ing a 4kg cheese around on pub­lic trans­port meant it wasn’t a vi­able op­tion.

In­stead he did a stretch test with a piece of the curd and pre­dicted that it would be about ph 5.2. He was right. This level of stretch­a­bil­ity meant he could turn it into ca­cio­cav­allo (pro­nounced ‘carchee-oh-car-vell-oh’), an Ital­ian stretched curd cheese.

It was very exciting to cut our huge wheel into six pieces. It also gave us a rare chance to in­spect the curd for any prob­lems such as gas for­ma­tion. It looked great, a firm, well-formed curd (and no signs of gas which would in­di­cate some kind of ‘bad’ bac­te­ria).

Each chunk was cut into match­box­sized cubes and put in a large bowl, then just cov­ered with boil­ing wa­ter. We used wooden spoons to meld the curds un­til they were soft and pli­able.

David then used his bare hands – I had to wear heavy rub­ber gloves be­cause of the hot wa­ter – to shape the moz­zarella-style curd into a large bar­rel shape with a neck, a bit like a bowl­ing skit­tle with a fat body.

Each one was then dunked in cold wa­ter for 10 min­utes un­til com­pletely cooled, then put into a sat­u­rated brine for six hours.

We were lack­ing in the re­quired size rope to hang the cheeses. My hus­band Dave went to town to search for ap­pro­pri­ate bind­ing, bring­ing back a per­fect se­lec­tion. The re­sult was our ca­cio­cav­allo looked stun­ning.

But how was David – trav­el­ling by bus – go­ing to get these around the coun­try with­out squish­ing them? Dave thought a forked branch off a tree would do the trick and it did. The large globes of cheese were tra­di­tion­ally roped to­gether to hang over the back of a don­key or horse to be trans­ported to mar­ket. David im­pro­vised by sling­ing his over a forked branch and han­dled it like a swag. ➤



David Asher.

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