Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cheesemaker for a Day!

Last week, Jeremy and I attended an amazing cheese workshop at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. (www.fifthtown.ca) in Prince Edward County. It was a whole day workshop, the majority of the time spent in scrubs, hairnets, rubber boots and with hands/arms sanitized to the elbow. Fifth Town had received their largest shipment of milk to date the night before, and when we arrived, the milk (flash pasteurized on site) was filling up the vats where they would be turned into cheese curds.

The milk of the day was goat (they also make cheese from sheep and cow's milk) and it was collected from two goat farms within a 100 km radius of Fifth Town the day before. The plan was to turn about 1800L of the goat's milk into Cape Vessey (a firm cheese with washed rind), and the rest into Nettles Gone Wild (a soft surface ripened cheese).

While we breakfasted on bagels with a sampling of their various chevre cheeses in the cheese store, we watched Fifth Town's cheesemakers add rennet and culture to the warmed milk. After we had eaten and gotten all suited up, we were allowed to enter the cheese plant. We scrubbed our arms and hands and then sanitized them by dipping in iodine solution. We then helped get the cheese moulds ready to receive the curds. We also packaged up quark (a German cheese somewhere between yogurt and cream cheese) and got to taste it. So delicious! I can imagine it making a very decadent cheese cake.

Jeremy and I also got to help the plant's staff take swabs of various parts of the facility to send to the lab to make sure no unsafe bacteria had contaminated the plant. This was when we first set foot in the cheese cave which greeted us with the pungent smell of cheese molds. It was actually quite a heady smell which definitely made me want to eat some cheese! Amazing to think that as a kid, I couldn't stand the taste or smell of blue cheese, or any 'stinky' cheese ;P

Once the curds were set, we got to help cut it. The consistency was like silken tofu and the curd would break with a touch of the finger. At this stage, the size of the cut curds is important for what kind of cheese you want to make, with a smaller curd yielding a harder cheese (less moist) after aging. After the initial curd cutting was done, we stirred them in the giant vats with a large paddle as they were heated again to further solidify the curds.

Now came the wet part, packing the curds into the moulds. We would take a 'hat', a nylon mesh basket and run it through the vat, filling it with curds and draining off the whey. The hat would go in the mould where we would squeeze the mound of curds to press out some of the whey, and perhaps add some more curds to make sure the mould was nice and full. Then the caps (which press on the curds) were added.

By the time we had finished emptying the first vat of curds and put them all into moulds, it was already time to flip the first moulds that were filled! This involved flipping the moulds onto their caps, removing the mould and hat and then dropping the flipped cheese back into the hat/mould without having it break apart. I was quite nervous flipping my first cheese but soon got the hang of it. I was amazed by how much the curds had stuck to each other with so little pressure and time. These cheeses would be flipped 2-4 more times before they would be ready for brining and then aging for about 3 months. That day, our workshop helped to make over 120 Cape Vesey cheeses, and also 3 trays of Nettles Gone Wild.

After clearing all the cheese vats of curds, we got to sit down to a late lunch prepared by Fifth Town's in-house sommelier and chef. We had a mixed green salad with a dressing made with the rind of a hard cheese, crostini with cheese on top, lamb shepherd's pie (with cheese in the mashed potatoes), little shortbread cookies made with cheese and vanilla pana cotta. After our meal, we had a wine (all from Prince Edward County) and cheese (all Fifth Town's, of course!) tasting where we educated our palates on the best pairings. So much cheese for lunch! I was definitely in heaven :)

When we had cleaned up from lunch, we re-sanitized ourselves and helped with the 3rd turning of the Cape Vessey cheeses. Then we went into the cheese caves to learn about the ripening process, and to pick the cheese rounds we'd be taking home with us. I picked a brushed rind hard cheese called Fellowship that had been made back in November and is almost ready to eat. It's made of sheep and goat's milk and is currently finishing its ripening in my summer kitchen/basement. I check on it almost daily, but really only need to brush the mold around and turn it once a week or so until I'm ready to cut it open. I plan to eat it for my birthday with a strong red wine. With help of course...it is a 5 lb cheese round! If you're in my area the Canada Day long weekend, stop in for some cheese and wine :D

Washed rind cheese cave. Rack of Cape Vessey.















Jeremy standing in the brushed rind cheese cave.




















The best thing about taking this cheese workshop was getting a real feel for the different stages of the cheesemaking process. Reading about it is one thing, but knowing how things should smell and feel at the different stages of the process gives me the practical knowledge to get started making my own cheese! On a much smaller scale of course. Perhaps there will be some Black Sheep Farm cheese to serve along with Fifth Town's Fellowship for my birthday :)

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