Lessons from a natural cheesemaker
A cheesemaker with a black sheep reputation brings all-natural inspiration to the farm.
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. ➤
THIS CHEESE WAS TRADITIONALLY SLUNG OVER A HORSE OR DONKEY’S BACK