The magic ewes of Win­sam Farm

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS JEAN MANS­FIELD

Ev­ery year, the best of New Zealand cheeses are judged by ex­pe­ri­enced New Zealand and over­seas judges. The NZ Cham­pi­ons of Cheese Awards has been run for many years to en­cour­age the lo­cal cheese­mak­ing in­dus­try.

The en­trants range from those who pro­duce tens of thou­sands of tons, like Fon­terra and Open Coun­try, right down to the ar­ti­sans who pro­duce less than 25 tons a year, of­ten fam­ily busi­nesses that in­volve mul­ti­ple generations.

For an artisan to reach medal-win­ning sta­tus re­quires ded­i­ca­tion and an ab­so­lute love of cheese. This year one of the big win­ners was Cathy Oak­ley of Just Ewe and I was hon­oured to ac­cept the Cham­pion Sheep Cheese Award and Cham­pion cheese­maker award on her be­half.

I met Cathy last year and was charmed by her quiet strength and ab­so­lute de­ter­mi­na­tion. Her cheese im­pressed me so much I rather force­fully en­cour­aged her to en­ter the cheese awards.

That turned out to be a great idea. It was her first time en­ter­ing and Cathy achieved a 100 per­cent score for her Just Ewe Win­sam Farm­house cheese, the high­est-scor­ing cheese in the en­tire com­pe­ti­tion.

Cathy lives and farms on a beau­ti­ful piece of el­e­vated land in Kerik­eri with amaz­ing views. Her flock of East Friesian sheep have been care­fully se­lected and bred by her hus­band, Rod Clarke.

It all sounds idyl­lic and it re­ally is. We sat in the sun, en­joy­ing a de­li­cious cuppa with a fan­tas­tic cheese, sur­rounded by woolly sheep. It’s enough to per­suade you that this is the life.

But I am a farmer too and I know that these mo­ments of bliss are hard won. To make that fan­tas­tic cheese, the leggy woolly won­ders have to be moved, mo­ti­vated and milked. There is back-break­ing, un­re­lent­ing hard work in­volved. It re­quires dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion to go out in the freez­ing rain and save a soggy lamb, or some­times sadly not save a lamb or its mother.

Cathy told me that work­ing in her cheese room was her calm time. She en­joys the slow and me­thod­i­cal steps in the process to re­lax and un­wind, and her care and at­ten­tion to de­tail shows in her award-win­ning cheese.

Ewe’s milk cheeses are quickly gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in New Zealand. A few milk­ing ewes are a vi­able op­tion if you’re on a life­style block – even a small one – and want to make cheese. A small milk­ing stand with a sin­gle elec­tric milk­ing ma­chine will work well for a few sheep or goats (or a house cow).

the milk, then stir gen­tly for 30 sec­onds. Put the lid back on the pot and leave for an­other 30 min­utes, again main­tain­ing the tem­per­a­ture at 30°C. 4. Do a test cut across the set curd. If the edges of the cut are sharp and the curd firm, con­tinue cut­ting the curd into 1cm cubes. These are quite nar­row cuts but be bold and cut cleanly. If it’s not ready and the cut edges look floppy, check the tem­per­a­ture is at 30°C, warm it up to that tem­per­a­ture if re­quired, and leave it for an­other 5-10 min­utes. 5. Leave the cut curds undis­turbed with the lid on for 15 min­utes. You will see a lot of whey weep­ing from the cut curd. 6. In­crease the tem­per­a­ture to 35°C over the next 30 min­utes. This is a very small change in tem­per­a­ture and the eas­i­est way to achieve this is by adding a cup of boil­ing hot wa­ter at a time to the outer pot of the bain-marie. You may need to re­move some wa­ter be­fore you can add more. You can stir very gen­tly to be­gin with dur­ing this time, but the curds are re­ally frag­ile so try not to make mush. If they be­gin to look like scram­bled egg, stop stir­ring and leave them to firm up a bit in the warm whey. When they have firmed up and there is a lot of whey you can stir reg­u­larly (ev­ery few min­utes) un­til the 30 min­utes is up and the curds are at 35°C. 7. Let the curds set­tle for 5 min­utes, then drain off the whey us­ing a sieve. Leave the curds to mat to­gether in the bot­tom of the pot. I el­e­vate one side of the pot by plac­ing a spoon un­der one side. Push the curds up onto the high side of the pot and let the whey drain down­hill. Leave for 10 min­utes. 8. Drain off the whey, turn the mat­ted curds over and leave for an­other 10 min­utes with lid on the pot. Keep the curds warm (35°C). 9. Place the firm curd on a ster­ilised board and cut it into 2cm cubes. Place it back in the pot and sprin­kle on the salt, then use your sani­tised hands to spread the salt through the curd. 10. Press the curd firmly into your lined mould. Place the fol­lower on top and press us­ing a 2kg weight for 30 min­utes. 11. Re­move the cheese from the press, un­wrap it, place the lin­ing back in the mould, then turn the cheese up­side down and put it back into the mould. Re­place the fol­lower and press us­ing an 8kg weight overnight. 12. Re­move from the mould, place on a ster­ilised board and dry the cheese at room tem­per­a­ture for two days un­til the rind is quite dry. Put a cake cover over it to stop dust and in­sects from get­ting at it. Turn once dur­ing this time. 13. Cure at 10-12°C for four weeks. You can wax or vac­uum pack it as soon as the rind is dry.

An East Friesian milk­ing ewe on Win­sam farm.

Cathy Oak­ley.

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