My area of London is quite trendy these days, with artisan producers popping up all over the place. We’ve got micro-breweries, had a flirtation with a wine collective and I can get honey from a lady round the corner. But cheese? Aha – no! There seemed a clear gap in the market for some urban cheese round here. And so my quest to produce a nice tasty cheddar began. I’d even thought of a name – Tooting Gold. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
My previous attempt at home cheese-making can best be described as ‘technically accurate’. It was produced by the simplest cheese-making method of all – adding acid (lemon juice) to hot milk to separate the curds from the whey. So far, so good, except that taste-wise it managed to be both nauseatingly creamy and utterly bland. So for my next excursion into cheese creation, I tooled myself up with the proper gear – starter cultures and rennet.
Starter cultures are healthy bacteria which change lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid and so start the process of solids forming. They also encourage flavour, so I hoped would give this cheese a bit more je ne sais quoi than the first attempt. I made a ‘mother culture’ by heating a litre of milk to 90˚C, cooling it quickly to 20˚C, mixing it with dried culture and pouring the mixture into a sterilized thermos flask. By the next day, I had a flask full of yoghurty milk – slightly sour-smelling but not at all ‘flat-mate left the milk out on the side all weekend’. The mother culture had landed. (And stop right there if you’re about to make a gag about this being ‘the only culture in Tooting’. Just stop.)
Let the cheese-making commence!
First of all I had to heat 5 litres of milk to 32˚C (well, okay, first I realized I didn’t have the right thermometer and had to go begging round my neighbours – an inauspicious start, you might say). I then added 100ml of my precious mother culture, stirred well and left it to ripen for 30-45 minutes.
Next came the rennet. I love the idea of food discoveries and rennet has to be up there. Rennet comes from the stomachs of animals. The theory is that people used to use the stomachs as bags and that someone left some milk in there a bit too long, with the result that the rennet created cheese by forming curds and whey. Can you imagine the conversation?
‘Mate, you’ve got to try this.’
‘What is it?’
‘Well, I left some milk in my bag and it went off and formed a big wobbly lump…’
I added the diluted rennet, stirred it well for a minute and, maintaining a temperature of 32˚C, left it for 45 minutes until you could cut through the curd with a knife. Except after 45 minutes I couldn’t cut through the curd so had to wait another 45 minutes until it set (this can happen with pasteurized milk apparently). So now my timings were out of the window and I had to be at a children’s birthday party in an hour. Oh dear.
But the good news was that finally I had a big old mass of curd, so I cut it up into cubes of 1cm, which helps the curds to further expel the whey. Look – magic!
At this point came mistake number two. I was meant to ‘warm the contents slowly over 30 minutes to 38˚C’ but instead the gas came on with a woof and within about a minute the thermometer was registering nearly 40˚C. Oh bugger. Never mind, the curds shrank further just like they were supposed to so it seemed that everything was going to be fine.
I let it all rest for 5 minutes to let the curds settle and then suspended it to drain. I even know that this knot in the cheesecloth is called a ‘Stilton Knot’ so I’m on fire by now. This cheese-making malarkey is easy, right?
Oh – except that I was supposed to let it drain for just sixty minutes but I had to go to a children’s party…and then someone offered me a little glass of chardonnay and a sausage bap…and I ended up staying a teensy bit longer than intended. Okay, so I left the curds draining for, ahem, four hours. But they were in a nice big lump so no harm done, right? I put the curds into a bowl, added 1 tbsp of salt and broke up the curds into walnut-sized pieces.
This is what the recipe told me to do for cheddar. What it didn’t tell me to do is the actually ‘cheddaring’ that helps to create cheddar, which involves slicing the curds and layering them up. Does it matter? I presume so, what with cheddar being called ‘cheddar’ and all that.
Finally, I put my cheesy bits into a cheese-cloth lined mould and pressed it with 1-2kg for 10 minutes. I hadn’t got a proper cheese mould (can you see a pattern forming by now?) and so I put it into a bowl. Which was fine until the next step where I had to take it out, turn it over and put it back in the mould. Obviously , it didn’t fit so I had to unceremoniously shove it back in and squash it down.
After another 10-minute stint in the ‘mould’, I had to turn it round again and this time press it for 12 hours, after which I was to take it out and leave it to dry at room temperature so ‘a rind can develop’, turning it a couple of times daily. What actually happened was someone-who-shall-remain-nameless moved it onto a recently-used hob where it got really warm and sort of gave up the ghost. Three days later and we have gone from this:
It’s not looking very rindy or cheddary, is it? It’s fair to say that Cathedral City are not quivering in panic on the phone to their marketing men. I think this is what we call a prototype.
So what have I learned from this week’s foray into home cheese-making?
– You know when teachers always used to say ‘read the instructions before you start?’ Well, annoyingly, they were right. I would have realised I needed a thermos flask, a thermometer and a non-bowl-shaped mould.
– I should gently heat the new curds over 30 minutes, rather than blow-torching them for two.
– Don’t accept wine and barbeque items at parties thus leaving your curds to cool down and dry out.
– I need to learn about the proper ‘cheddaring’ process of layering the curds.
But, on the positive side, I have also learned about the effects of starter cultures and rennet and how to tie a Stilton knot, so it’s not all bad, right? Right?
And the good denizens of Tooting? You’ll just have to wait a little longer…