For a different day out, what about a day making cheese?
Monkland Cheese Dairy near Leominster offers a cheese making experience day, and I was lucky to be bought one as a birthday present.
The day starts with a full health and safety check when the budding cheese makers – we were five – are kitted out appropriately – huge rubber aprons, hairnets and wellies – and reminded of hygiene practices to follow through the day.
Into the dairy, we find that the main vat is already full with over 500 litres of freshly delivered milk quietly warming up. Another vat with nearly 200 litres of milk is warming nearby. To both a bacterial starter culture has been added to create lactic acid which helps to build the cheese. When the milk reaches a temperature of about 30ºC the magic begins. A small quantity of rennet – an enzyme – is stirred in to the milk. The warm bacterial soup now divides with the help of stirring into curds, which will be used to make the cheese, and into whey, a sweet tasting transparent liquid.
At this stage we found that the process varies depending on what kind of cheese the maker wants e.g. hard or soft. For soft cheeses, the curds are separated from the whey once a suitable cure has been obtained, and packed into moulds (full of holes) in which the curd cheese solidifies and whey drains off. For hard cheeses, the apprentice cheese makers were found all kinds of manual tasks to help make the cheese – stirring the curds and whey, cutting up the curds into squares after the whey had been run off (called cheddaring), testing the acidity of the lactic acid, and milling down the curd before adding salt. Through these processes we noticed how the curd changed in terms of solidity, structure and taste.
Finally it was time to form the hard cheeses, filling plastic moulds with the curds, and allowing them to firm up, before placing them in presses.
This is just day 1 of the life of a cheese. It now has to mature during which the various components of the cheese including fat, protein, bacteria (yeasts) and salt conspire together to develop its taste. In the gaps in the making process, we were encouraged to help with turning cheeses in the cheese store, and putting holes into cheeses to encourage the growth of blue cheese. It’s fascinating to think that in most food production areas presence of bacteria would be a disaster – not so in a cheese dairy.
We experienced a few things that you don’t appreciate when you eat a craft cheese – the amount of work in the cheese dairy that is manual and arduous, the care taken with each step of the process, the amount of washing up and washing down, and some cheesy jokes.
The softer cheese we made (or helped make) will be ready in about 6 weeks, the harder cheese in about 3 months. The whey will go to feed some very happy pigs.
If you fancy a day cheese making in very pleasant surroundings, find out more at www.monklandcheesedairy.co.uk. Look out for the cheeses we made in coming months!