Sunday the 15th February 2009 was a monumental day. I made my very first cheese, Feta!
All my life I have wanted to give it a go, but never made the time or found the opportunity. Since trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle, I have seized as many opportunities as I can, and willing to learn new skills where I can. This golden opportunity was too good to pass up.
The Cheese Making Workshop was held at our local community centre. The two ladies who ran the workshop were just fabulous. Dorothy and Loraine made the day a relaxed affair, and no question was too hard to answer. I could see that between them, they had years of cheese making experience.
So, starting at the beginning, I rocked up at about 0950, after having had to turn around once because I forgot my wallet. Yes, readers, I was that excited!
I was not the first to arrive, and met most of the other students. They were a friendly bunch, with 3 men and 8 ladies in the class. We were asked to pick our preference of cheese recipes, and being a clever lad and having done a little research before hand, I decided to ensure that the fruits of my labour were going to be able to be sampled within a few days. Therefore I chose to make Feta.
One lady chose Wensleydale (hush Wallace and Gromit), and would you believe that the majority chose Parmesan. The reason I was a bit shocked was because Feta takes 2-3 days before you can eat it, Wensleydale 1-3 months before maturity, and Parmesan 9-12 months before it matures! All worth while, but if I have learnt any thing on my sustainable journey, it is that if you put effort into anything, you must be able to reap the rewards quickly, which then gives you a sense of achievement that pushes you to carry on.
The other thing to take into consideration is that the harder cheeses must mature at a temperature of 10-15°C for the entire time. It is very hard to keep anything at that temp here in summer without a cellar or modified refrigerator which at the time I did not own.
Anyway, enough babbling, here is what I saw when I first arrived.
On the table is a small gas camp stove, a pot with water, and a 20 litre bain marie with 10 litres of full cream milk. The pot acted as a double boiler. Next to the spoon is a cute hair net (no photos of me wearing it either) that we had to wear so as not to get hair in the cheese.
It is illegal in Australia to make cheese out of unpasteurized milk. Pasteurisation kills certain bacteria in the milk that can breed when the temperature of milk is raised during the cheesemaking process. To pasteurize milk, simply bring the temperature up to 68°C, hold it there for 1 minute, then cool rapidly. We were already using store-bought milk, so it was already treated.
Next we had to reverse the homogenization process. Apparently homogenization shrinks the milk fat globules, which makes it nearly impossible to make into cheese. To reverse this process, we added 1 teaspoon of calcium chloride to 2 tablespoons of boiled rainwater which was then added to the milk and stirred for 25 seconds.
I then had to raise the temp of the milk to 32°C, and keep it there. Once at temperature, I got to add 10 grains of Mesophilic starter culture and a quarter teaspoon of lipase powder mixed with 50 ml of boiled rainwater. Here is the milk at temperature with the starter and lipase mixed in (not very exciting). You must not let the milk get over 40°C or it will kill this type of culture.
At this stage it must ripen for 45 minutes. The starter and lipase gives the cheese its distinct sharp flavour. After the time had elapsed, the rennet is added. The temperature had to be raised again to 32°C, and then 2.5ml of rennet is added to 16 ml of boiled rainwater, then added to the milk with a quick stir. At this stage you cannot reheat the milk, because something magical happens.
The milk starts to change composition into curds and whey (Miss Muffet’s please stand). For my cheese this process took about 40 minutes. I was told not to stir it during the setting. This is what it looks like when set. Click to enlarge and you will see where I had to put my sterilised finger in to test the firmness.
Once firm enough, I then had to cut the curd into 1 cm cubes using a whisk. Basically you gently stab the whisk vertically into the curd until you reach the bottom. You repeat this all over the curd three times. Then you leave it to sit for 5 minutes. Here is the cut curd.
Now the boring part. You then have to stir every 10 minutes for about 2 minutes for two hours! You also have to maintain the temperature at 32°C again during the process. It was during this time I decided to buy a cheese making kit, because I was determined to make more types other than Feta. The kit was $122 and from looking at other cheese making web sites, it was great value. I believe I managed to make at least 60 kg of cheese with the kit ingredients!
This is what it looks like after the two hours. You will notice that the curds and whey have really separated and the curd sinks to the bottom.
The whey looks a little yellow doesn’t it. I bet you are thinking that this is why some cheeses are yellow. Not so my friends. The yellow in most cheeses is a food colouring. Real cheese is usually off-white!
Next the curds are strained through a cheesecloth and the whey kept for later on. Don’t throw the whey away (that is a mouthful), because you can make something special out of it. I will show you later. The cheese (finally) gets returned back to the bain marie and you massage it a little until rubbery. Here is my rubbery feta.
Now it gets strained for a second time and put into the basket (mould). Luckily they had a cheese press and we could speed up the process. Here is my semi finished cheese.
It was still a bit watery, and had a little whey still oozing from it. I wrapped it in foil for the journey home.
I said goodbye to my classmates, thanked Dorothy and Lorraine for a great class and told them I was coming back in three weeks for the mould cheese course. They gave me 3 litres of whey to take home.
Upon arrival at home, I placed the Feta on a wire rack to dry. It must be fairly dry before you brine the cheese. The tray is to catch any excess whey still trying to escape.
Now for the surprise! If you add a cup of milk and bring the whey to a temperature of 80-90°C and hold it there for 30-50 minutes, the excess protein in the whey coagulates into Ricotta cheese! What a bonus. It tastes fantastic as well. Nice with crackers, but Kim thinks it needs a little salt to sharpen it up.
Back to the Feta. I left it on the kitchen bench overnight with a vinegar soaked tea towel (wrung out tight) covering it all. This morning it was quite dry and about 50ml of whey was in the drip tray.
I then added the Feta to the brine solution. The brine is simply 3 tablespoons of non-iodized salt to 1 litre of rainwater and bring it to the boil. Here is the photo from this morning with the Feta in the solution. The brine must be cold before adding the cheese to it, otherwise the cheese absorbs too much salt.
I used a food grade plastic container, and then put it in the fridge until I got home from work. My son Ben met me at the door and was so excited that I was home. Not because he wanted to see his Dad safely home, but to taste Dad’s first homemade cheese! And taste it we did. It was wonderful and had a firm consistency. I liken it to a texture in between the softness of a Danish Feta and the crumbliness of a Greek Feta. In the middle of the two textures and just right. It was so nice that my wife Kim and I had some more in our home-grown garden salad for dinner. It was a great feeling that I had made or grown everything in the salad bowl!
The feta should last for a few months in the brine solution, as long as I keep it submerged. To keep it longer you can cut it into 1 cm cubes and place it in some olive oil seasoned with herbs and garlic. It takes about a week for the flavours to infuse when storing it in this method.
So stay turned over the next few months (and years I hope), as I show you how to make other cheeses that I have made since this initial cheese making workshop.
If you ever get the chance to do a cheese making workshop, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It was a great day, fantastic fun and very fulfilling. I have never looked back since!