Monday, May 3, 2010

Cheesemaking 101

     As a celebration of the completion of the annual package bee frenzy I took the day off work today (Tuesday 4/27/10).  I left the bee store in the capable hands of a friend while I attended a cheesemaking class with two of my daughters (Rachel and Lia). The class was the result of bartering with Gretchen Wilson, a friend from the spinner's guild.  It's truely amazing what can be purchased using honey as currency.

      Gretchen raises Friesian sheep, a milk breed, and makes the most wonderful pecorino cheese.  She operates a custom carding business known as Gretchen's Woolen Mill and is also a weaver.  Gretchen and her husband live on a small subsistance farm they call "Quiet Waters Farm" located about ten miles east of Monroe.  Rachel, Lia, and I, together with four year old Lance, made the trip to Quiet Waters Farm for the cheese making class.

            When we arrived, Gretchen already had 2 gallons of sheep milk warming on the stove in large enamelware pot.  Since she had used this morning's milking it hadn't taken long to get the milk to the desired temperature. When the milk reached 90 degrees fahrenheit, Gretchen added the rennet and the bateria culture and set a timer for one hour. The rennet is made from the stomach lining of young calves and contains enzymes which cause the milk to coagulate or set up. While we waited for the rennet to do it's magic, we enjoyed a brief tour of Quiet Waters Farm and watched a Martha Stewart video on cheesemaking.

     The next step involved cutting the newly formed curds into cubes, (approximately) so as to facilitate separating the curds (solid) from the whey (liquid).  After the curds were cut, the mixture was gradually heated to 118 degrees in order to further shrink the curds and make a drier cheese.  A timer was set with 45 minutes being alloted to the shrinking process.  The curds were periodically stirred very gently during this process to keep them from clumping together.  However, the curds were removed from the heat as soon as the mixture reached 118 degrees fahrenheit.  The temperatures are very critical to the success of the cheese and vary according to what sort of cheese is being made.  Each particular bacteria culture needs a certain amount of warmth for it to grow.

    Upon completion of the shrinking process, the cheese press was lined with cheese cloth and the whole mixture was then poured into the press.  The press is used to squeeze more of the whey from the curds. The cheese is removed from the press the following day, rubbed in salt and transferred to the "aging cave", a special type of refridgerator set at 45 degrees.  After about a  week of aging the salt is fully absorbed and the surface has dried to form the start of the rind. At this point the cheese is rubbed with olive oil, then aged for about 4 months. When the cheese is fully aged it is transferred to the fridge.

      Gretchen had about six cheeses aging in her "cheese cave".  She had a finished cheese in her fridge that she kept in a ceramic cheese bell. She served us some pecorino cheese, with sliced apples and homemade bread as a light lunch.  Gretchen actually makes several types of cheeses in addition to the pecorino we saw her make.  She also makes a harder grating cheese, a sheeps milk version of mozzarella which she calls Ewesarella, and yogurt.  The sheeps milk is much higher in milk solids than either cows milk or goats milk.  Two gallons of cows milk would have produced a much smaller cheese.

  This is a somewhat simplified version of the whole process.  I didn't take notes at the time so I wanted to write this down while it was still fresh in my memory.

      When I retire for real the plan is to sell our house and move to a place on acreage where real estate is much cheaper than it is here in Snohomish County.  If I had 5 or 10 acres to play with I'd like to keep a small flock of sheep. I've given a lot of thought to various breeds and right now I'm thinking the Friesians would be  a good choice. I really like the idea of being able to do homemade cheeses. (Gretchen's cheeses are absolutely wonderful.) The crossbred Friesians are also fairly thrifty and tend to have at least twins if not triplets. I've spun wool from Gretchen's sheep and they seem to have a decent fleece for spinning.

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