'Early next morning, a shrill whistle woke Heidi up. She opened her eyes. A ray of sunlight came through the window, falling on her bed and making the hay shine like gold. Very surprised, she looked round her, trying to think where she was. Then, hearing her grandfather's voice, she remembered what had happened the day before, and her spirits rose. She was longing to see the goats again. Jumping out of bed, she climbed down the ladder and ran out to the front of the hut. Peter was there with his goats and her grandfather was on his way to open the door of the goat-shed. Heidi dashed over to see the goats and say good morning to them. "Come here, you mustn't go without some food," called her grandfather, putting a huge piece of bread and a huge piece of cheese into the haversack.'
Johanna Spyri's Heidi was one of my favourite childhood books. The story of the little orphan girl who is taken to live atop a mountain with her grandfather and a herd of goats intrigued me. Perhaps it was the images painted so skilfully by the author that captivated me so. Or perhaps how the sharing of food helped break down the barriers that the sad old man had previously built around himself in his grief. Fresh goat's milk, bread and hand made cheese featured throughout the tale. And whenever reading the book, I found myself wondering what it might be like to have a grandfather who made cheese for a living, and indeed how on earth did he make cheese in a little hut in such a remote location.
Almost a lifetime on and I'm in a cheese making workshop listening to an artisan explaining to the class that 'if milkmaids can make cheese on a mountain plateau with very little equipment as a way of preserving milk for the winter months, then we can make it in our own kitchens!' I am really keen to learn, as I make ricotta quite regularly, but somehow I imagined that 'real' cheese had to be made in a sterile, stainless steel kitchen by specialists wearing crisp white uniforms, gloves and hair nets. Wrong.
'You don't need to be an expert cook to create cheese,' according to the folks who behind The Cheesemaking Workshop. 'All you need is some common sense, some basic equipment, a few ingredients (including starter cultures), and a little bit of passion,' they explain. Traditionally it was monks or milkmaids who perfected the art of cheese making, but in our consumer-driven world, we rely on the supermarket shelves to provide us with things like ricotta, mascarpone, quark, brie, camembert and feta. Susan and David Meagher, artisan cheese makers from The Cheesemaking Workshop, are on a mission to spread the word that we can all reclaim the simple art of making cheese in our own homes, at a fraction of the cost of buying supermarket cheese, safe in the knowledge that only good, natural, local ingredients have gone in and nasty additives have stayed out.
Sue and David train hundreds of people each year from their home base and when they hit the road to hold regional workshops. Cheese making is in the blood for Sue, as her sister, Lyndall Dykes, founded the original Cheesemaking Workshop on the NSW mid north coast and has also written an informative and totally unique book on the topic. ‘I’m proud to come from a family of cheese makers,' says Sue, a former property developer who loves taking the mystery out of making cheese; and empowering people with the skills to make wholesome products using sustainable methods and local ingredients. 'People come to our workshops expecting cheese making to be complicated and technical. By the end of the day they're amazed that they've made a variety of cheeses with minimum fuss, effort, ingredients or equipment'.
Peter and I are delighted to learn that no cheese making experience is needed for the 100% hands-on workshop. After putting on aprons and washing our hands, we're introduced to our fellow cheese making participants and then Sue explains that the day will be full-on because we'll be making camembert, feta, yoghurt, labne, mascarpone, ricotta and quark, with a lunch break in between. We're also going to be taught how to make butter and crème fraîche, as well as baking a pullapart bread with fresh feta and olives (pictured top). Wow!
As the result of this fabulous workshop, and having purchased Lyndall's book as well as a yoghurt maker and some starter cultures, we now have two rounds of home made camembert and feta in our refrigerator (one of the camembert will be baked for a pre-Christmas gathering). I've been dabbling with making yoghurt and mascarpone, as well as my own butter churned with smoked salt. For breakfast at the weekend, Peter made my hotcakes with home made buttermilk and served them with home made mascarpone. I will share my successes with you in a later post. Let me just say that my dairy-loving Peter is in a particularly happy place right now.
So my friends, I'm not going to elaborate on the point-by-point art of cheese making in this post, as I'd like to encourage you to attend a hands on cheese making workshop in your part of the world if you are interested and are able do so. I believe it is a most worthwhile experience and I'd gladly do it again. To whet your appetite and spark your interest, I will share a handful of postcards from the workshop, together with Sue's recipe for Labne, which appears down below. There are further recipes on the web site and in Lyndall's detailed book. In closing, I agree with Monty Python who said it best: 'Blessed are the cheese makers'.
Postcards and morsels from The Cheesemaking Workshop...
The hands on workshop begins...
A recipe for Labne...
Labne is a strained yoghurt and is also known as yogurt cheese. To make labne, you need a kilogram of Greek-style yoghurt, cooled in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours. Spoon the yoghurt into a cheesecloth-lined sieve or colander. Tie the cheesecloth over a wooden spoon and hang it to drain for 48-72 hours in the fridge (see example below). Then roll the labne into balls and store in a light oil, such as sunflower oil, in the fridge. To serve, roll the labne balls in dukkah or chopped fresh herbs.
The Good Things team enjoyed this full-day 'soft' cheese making class thanks to the kindness and generosity of Sue and David Meagher of The Cheesemaking Workshop. The opinions expressed in this article are ours. For more information about the cheese making workshops or to order a copy of Lyndall's informative book, telephone +61 2 9958 0909 or visit the web site.
Tell me dear readers, have you ever made cheese or attended a cheese making workshop? Do please share your experiences with me and my Good Things readers. ツ
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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- Liz Posmyk
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.