When I told a friend I was to spend a Saturday learning how to make cheese, she told me that cheesemakers are among the professions given priority on Australian visa applications. More’s the pity for those Down Under, I thought. My teacher Mandy Nolan at The Cheesemaking Workshop learnt her trade when working as an editor of food magazines in Australia, then she moved back to the UK.
I first met Mandy at Brighton Foodies Festival. I thought, you don’t learn cheesemaking just anywhere, particularly not from a sharply dressed, entertaining woman with joie de’vivre – where do I sign up?
My aunt Sarah and I join Mandy at her home near Arundel, West Sussex to learn how to make seven types of soft cheeses, well six, and Greek yoghurt. The main thing she teaches us is that making cheese is not just a means to source delicious, fresh-tasting food with no added nasties – or of getting an Australian work permit – but that it can also be therapeutic.
‘While I was living in Australia,’ says Mandy, ‘I had a personal tragedy and a good friend who was a high-flying businesswoman spotted I needed a change of life. She sent me on a cheese-making course and I fell in love. It was a bit like falling in love with a man.’
Mandy is the only person in the UK offering one-day courses at which you learn how to make seven different cheeses, and when you’ve mastered the soft ones, she also runs a course in hard cheese.
As Mandy says, ‘Women used to regularly make cheese in their own homes: it needs to be easy, not a trial or a tribulation.’ Her courses might be full on, but making cheese is not difficult.
‘This is utterly infallible, you cannot not succeed,’ says Mandy, as she shows us the equipment and ingredients we will need. The most important element, of course, is good quality full-fat milk.
Also on the ingredients list is freeze-dried bacteria or ‘mesophilic starter’ that looks like popping candy, penicillium candidum to create the skin on our brie, vegetarian rennet as a coagulant and lipase, which breaks down fats in feta cheese.
‘Since the day I learnt to make feta I have never bought a slab again since,’ says Mandy, ‘I defy you to say you’ve tried some more delicious.’ The other ‘major cheeses’ we are making, Brie and Camembert*, are great for everyday eating but not best for dinner parties as Mandy tells us ‘there is a difference’.
Cheese making basically involves pouring milk, or combinations of milk and cream, into a saucepan and heating it to a precise temperature before stirring in a small quantity of bacterial culture with a slotted spoon. To make lighter cheeses, the mixture is strained through muslin and kept at a constant temperature.
The major cheeses like feta and Brie are left in polystyrene incubation boxes for long enough for the fatty curds to begin separating from the watery whey. After a 90 minutes or so the curds are cut with a knife, or a cooling rack, and then we start ‘jiggling’.
Jiggling the curds is a ‘soothing’ process. I agree with Mandy who says it ‘really is the loveliest feeling.’ You have to be gentle though, Mandy warns us, ‘During my first course my cordon bleu cook smashed hers to bits while I was answering the door to a courier; it broke my heart!’
While the major cheeses do their thing we whip up some quark, or German soft cheese, at 3% quark has the lowest fat content of any cheese. We also make mascarpone, what the Italians say should be half-way between butter and cheese as well as ricotta and Greek yoghurt.
Our hard work is rewarded with a delicious and surreptitiously cheesy lunch of feta salad, fresh bread, salmon, ricotta and leek fritters with asparagus and homemade chicken and feta sausages. Mandy’s food is as she likes all things to be, indulgent, and so has been the day, which although busy, has been far more inspiring than I imagined it could be. Don’t ever let anyone say that making cheese is for old maids.
The Cheesemaking Workshop is based in Poling, near Arundel, West Sussex. One-day courses cost £95.00 and include coffee, cake and a delicious homemade lunch with cheeses and course notes to take home.
Mandy’s top tips:
- Use un-homogenised milk only and ‘go with blue’. Un-homogenised milk is often produced by smaller dairies and can be bought at Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and elsewhere, check the label.
- 3.5% fat UHT milk is great for making quark and mascarpone and saves time because you only need to heat it to 40°. UHT has a slightly reduced quality of taste as a drink, but this is indiscernible when used to make cheese.
- If you substitute cow for goats’ milk you have to compensate for its thinness by adding extra cream.
- Traditionally leftover whey is used to make ricotta. When you boil whey the proteins knit and sit at the top, these are then strained to make ricotta cheese. The cheese must be eaten straight away if made using the traditional method, but it keeps a little longer when made as we did, using milk and white vinegar.
- Leftover whey is also great for making bread, soups, as pet food and even in the bath. The pharmacist in the group, Mar, told us that whey is the perfect pH for the skin, and when used in the bath it makes skin very soft.
- The yield varies each time you make cheese depending on the quality of the milk.
- In January and February the weather has taken its toll on the cows and their milk is of lesser quality, this makes it harder for cheese to set.
- Substitute a polystyrene insulation vat with a cold bag lined with towels, it will take a little longer but do the job just as well.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend The Cheesemaking Workshop free of charge.
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About Chloe King
I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.
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