Cheese Making: An Exact Science

Before our host family left, they introduced us to Joe and Jude, their two dear friends who live on a sustainable, self-sufficient farm and teach two-day organic cheese making courses. We were sold, and quickly signed up for the next weekend’s workshop.

When we received our confirmation email Jude asked us to get there not too early, between 9:30 – 10:45. Wait what? We figured it was some sort of Australian cultural habit, like the loose interpretation of time Italians have, so we choose to shoot for the middle and show up around 10:15. When 10:00 rolled around we got a call from Joe asking if we had lost our way, a clear indication that we were quite late. When we arrived I was mortified to find the three other members waiting for us, but we all had a good laugh as we explained our interpretation of the email and Jude revealed that she had meant to put 9:30-9:45.

DSC02686WOn their beautiful porch and over tea and homemade lemon cake Jude explained about different milks, pasteurization, and the  bacteria and enzymes that we would use to make quark (Australian cream cheese), feta, ricotta, brie and mozzarella over the next two days. She then split us up into two teams: boys vs. girls. It was somewhat amusing as the boys’ team was made up of an astrophysicist and a chemist while the girls’ team was made up of an internet marketer, a nurse and a midwife.

DSC02680WOn the first day we started the quark, feta, ricotta and brie. I was surprised to learn that much of cheese making is dictated by exact milk temperatures and kitchen timers.

DSC02681WAmong other things, the main differences in the cheeses were determined by the bacteria introduced to them,

DSC02683Wthe temperature you keep the milk at and the size of the curds cut. In each case a variation of the following steps was followed. We mixed in bacteria, a coagulator, and enzymes into milk. The milk was kept at a very specific temperature for some time until it became firm.

DSC02685WAt this point, we cut the milk into curds and let it sit some more. The curds were then drained and carefully placed in baskets.

DSC02709WThey were left there and once they had settled, the mass was put into brine to mature.

DSC02711WWhile we were waiting for timers to go off, Joe took us on tours of their sustainable farm.

DSC02703WThe most impressive thing probably was the extensive garden including a self-constructed green house where they grew every vegetable imaginable.

DSC02725WThe spotlight of this class was their two cows that yield 12-15 liters of fresh milk a day!

DSC02714W Joe had recently purchased a beautiful calf that is apparently used to help the cows “drop” their milk each morning so that they release the milk in their blood as well as the milk stored in their udder.

DSC02688WThey also keep chickens, pigeons, ducks, guinea fowl and butcher and roast two pigs a year. Joe also keeps bees in the back which produce a surprising amount of honey for them each month.

DSC02706WDuring a delicious lunch of organic pumpkin soup, split pea soup and homemade bread, we talked about how Joe made their clay oven and sustainability on the farm. I soon had no problem recruiting Erik to one day build me a clay oven and by the end of the afternoon we were buzzing about how we could keep bees in a community hive center, grow all of our own vegetables, and bring homemade brie to dinner parties. It was also an interesting cultural experience as the conversation shifted to include the indigenous aboriginal population and some of the inherent problems involved in the mixed population of Australia.

The second day was almost entirely devoted to finishing steps from the day before and mozzarella, which was probably the most labor intensive of our cheeses.

DSC02684WThroughout the day we had to check the temperature and adjust it accordingly. Hours later, we cut the curds and once they had settled we drained them even more over a few hours until they became a hard mass.

DSC02720WMeanwhile, we cooked the ricotta from the first day and created pizzas from scratch using an array of organic toppings from Jude’s garden and cooked them in the clay oven.

DSC02726WI think mine turned out pretty well.

DSC02727WAfter lunch it was time to stretch the mozzarella. But first we had to slice up our curd mass and then salt it heavily.

DSC02729WWe then put the strips into very hot water and combined them

DSC02730Wand then stretched them!

DSC02733WBy the end of the weekend we had masses of homemade cheese to take back along with fresh bread that Jude had cooked with our pizza coals in the clay oven.

DSC02734WIt would be one week before we could enjoy the mozzarella and four weeks before we could test our brie as the mold has to grow on the outside to form the “skin”, and ripen the middle.

DSC02735WNevertheless, I was still incredibly proud and excited for the cheese indulgence to come.

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