It’s fair to say that on hearing about Miss Muffett’s troubles, most people don’t give much thought to the whey that’s mentioned. (Or indeed the curds; I think most of us are thinking about the prospect of a great hairy arachnid landing on us.) But when you realise that to produce one kilo of cheese it takes about ten litres of milk and you’re therefore left with nine litres of whey, you can start to ponder about what happens to it all.
Back in history, when cheese was made on farms, the whey was fed back to the animals – it’s no coincidence that dairy farms also tended to produce bacon. It was also a popular drink, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when ‘whey-houses’ sprang up all over London. It was considered healthier than milk and sometimes herbs or fruit juices were added. The diarist Pepys, never one to miss an opportunity to go out on the razz, wrote one night: ‘To the Royal Theatre.‥Thence to the Whay-house and drank a great deal of Whay.’
As cheese-making grew in scale, so too did the amount of whey produced. It became a waste product, to be thrown away. But where there’s muck, there’s brass and whey is now used in a myriad of ways; from protein shakes and bars for body-builders to baby food, alcoholic drinks and road-clearing. Here is what whey looks like, by the whey (Ha! see what I did there?)
When I made paneer last week, I was left with a litre of whey and figured that this was probably not quite enough to start my own food empire. It seemed a waste to just throw it away though so I looked into what I could do with it and came across lacto-fermentation. Essentially a cousin of pickling, lacto-fermentation uses water, salt and a little liquid whey to preserve food. People were using this method long before we were able to refrigerate or can our food; apparently some Norsk cultures even used it to preserve fish. These ingredients trigger the production of Lactobacillus (probiotics) bacteria cultures which help to preserve food through releasing lactic acid.
First of all, some herbs went into my jar: a bay leaf and some dill, as well as a few peppercorns.
I chose some vegetables; a chunky peeled carrot, a few peeled garlic cloves and some cucumber sticks.
Into the jar they went, packed fairly tightly. I then made my fermenting solution, mixing 235ml cooled boiled water with 65ml of whey and a tablespoon of sea salt. I poured it into the jar, ensuring it covered all the vegetables. I then left it in a warm corner of the kitchen for four days. It was starting to look a bit murky by then and I didn’t hold out much hope; I’d read that you can tell if it’s gone off as soon as you open the jar by the stench, so I prepared myself for the worst.
Surprisingly it opened with a satisfying ‘pop’ of gas and lots of little bubbles rose to the surface. There was no stench, other than the dill and so I braved a try. The cucumbers were slightly soggy (apparently adding a vine leaf can help to keep things crispy but it’s not really that time of year) so I took a bite of a carrot. It tasted…well…different. Not putrid or horrible or even pickly but it put me in mind of a hospital smell for some reason; sterile but with ominous undertones. It’s possibly an acquired taste or it could be because I used acid whey (i.e. from a fresh cheese that used acid – lemon juice in this case – to coagulate the curd). So the lid went back on the jar to see if it improved with age. I opened it the following day and the ‘pop’ nearly took my eyebrows off, so there’s definitely some fermenting going on. Next time I make a cheese with a culture, I’m going to have a bash at lacto-fermented ginger beer, although apparently you have to use the right bottles unless you want a hole in your ceiling…
By the way, for the last five days, the song ‘Picklin’ Time’ from Going Live’s Trevor and Simon has been running round my head on a loop. Is there anyone out there at all that remembers this comedy gold (alas, YouTube is no help)?
I am adding this to the Cooking with Herbs Challenge, hosted by Karen at Lavender and Lovage.