After researching of a number of options (located anywhere between Brisbane to Coffs Harbor), my course of choice was a "Beginner's Cheese Class" with Green Living Australia. It's a great way to start your cheese making adventures and I was hooked with the promise that I would: "Learn to make cheese in an ordinary kitchen with your own, every day, kitchen utensils!" I was in, and after an enthusiastic description of what I was about to learn, one of my friends was on board too.
Valerie Pearson, Director, Green living Australia
Held in Underwood, south of Brisbane, our course was taught by Valerie Pearson, author of Home Cheese Making in Australia. It was interesting to hear how Valerie came to be a cheese maker and the Amish influence in her cheese journey. Classes are for a maximum of 8 students, which made it easy to ask questions during our 5 hour (10am – 3pm) session. Extra hygiene was emphasized and the hand washing regime quickly established. After a run down of the equipment to use, and a discussion regarding reducing the bacteria you don't want getting into your milk and contaminating your cheese, it was time to don the aprons and get started.
Cheese making is both an art and a science and there was a revision of pH and its role in cheese making. We started by making Feta - 2 types in fact; a soft moist Danish and a drier, crumbly Greek. Although feta is traditionally made with goat's milk, we used "normal" cow's milk you can buy at the shop.
Cheese making thermometer
During the session the class was introduced to calcium chloride, mesophilic and thermophilic starter cultures, the temperatures each requires and the use of the enzyme rennet. We learned how to "cut cheese", avoid "shattering the curds", how to "check for a clean break", and much more.
As the class progressed, I soon realised that a "Drop, Smidgen, Pinch, Dash or Tad" that you see in recipes, actually equate to roughly 1/64th, 1/32nd, 1/16th, 1/8th & 1/4 of a teaspoon. I just hadn't realised that these were a standard measurement, for which a "mini measuring spoon" existed. I am now the owner of a set of said mini measuring spoons.
Mini measuring spoons
We realised that although we were using precise measurements and following the same method, the resulting cheeses from our 2 student groups were, in fact, somewhat different. Add-in variables, once you are back in your own home, concerning ingredients, weather or even the grass the cows were grazing on to produce the milk, all alter what is produced. These subtle or distinct differences make each cheese unique. I rather like the idea of producing a cheese unique to me and my kitchen.
Another factor in the process that I also enjoyed, although hadn't anticipated, was the time and the patience it takes to create cheese. When the recipe says "Stir for 30 minutes", you stir for 30 minutes. A quick check of emails, answering a ringing phone or anything else that takes your mind off the task at hand, can result in milk burning. So there you are - you can't be forced (even by yourself), to be doing something else, as you are actively "making cheese", which allows you to be off in your happy place, stirring in a meditative fashion, in a surprisingly calming manner. The classroom had no windows so was timeless, adding to the time-suspended atmosphere. The company was good; there was talk of sharing a bottle of red and the opening of new cheeses, of friends gathering around the kitchen table sharing their common love of cheese. So, both quietly solitary and socially connected, the cheese making process is a wonderful mix.
Beginners Cheese Making Class
Time to taste our feta
We put our fetas aside, set timers (as there were a couple of steps that needed it to rest for an hour before proceeding) and moved on to make a ricotta and also mozzarella – a mozzarella that any Italian would be happy to put on his pizza. Again stirring was encouraged to be performed in a slow, gentle motion and the kettle was always there for bottomless tea. Crackers appeared for tasting our cheese, along with dips, a quince paste made with honey and an onion and apple chutney. I had been reading about the health drink Kombucha and discovered there was a jug happily fermenting, with a tap to draw some off and sample. After our ricotta had been hung up and drained, we mixed one with a basil pesto and the other with a chilli sauce.
The mozzarella was our first encounter with a stretch curd. There we were, pulling our hands wide with a stretch of the hot cheese, just like real cheese makers. Well, perhaps I exaggerate our beginner ability, but it was certainly fun. There was a lot to take in, too and I was glad of my notebook, although you are provided with 2 recipe instruction booklets to take away with you. There is a fair amount of information to digest (pun intended) and lots to learn.
Tada, our finished mozzarella
It seems you can't rush a good cheese, just as you must wait for a wine to mature. So cheese making appears to me to require following a pretty specific process, while at the same time requiring a relaxed atmosphere to allow the cheese time to respond to the processes and reward you with a fine tasting cheese.
The birth of cheese is lost in legend but there are many references to it throughout history. What is rightly (in my opinion) considered an "art" began when primitive man decided to practice agriculture and kept animals, not only for their meat but also their milk. The Greeks believed Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, was taught the art of curdling and transforming milk by Nymphs. Homer described the technique used to make cheese in his Odyssey (late 8th century BC). However, it is believed that it was the Romans who perfected the dairy technique and spread it throughout the empire. By the time of Julius Caesar, literally hundreds of cheese varieties were being produced and traded across the empire and beyond. Others will argue cheese originated in the Middle East, Central Asia or the Sahara. Valerie talked of pottery shards with fermenting milk on them, from 8 ˝ thousand years ago and as Wikipedia correctly reminds us: "The production of cheese predates recorded history", so suffice it to say the art of cheese making has been around for a very long time, basically since man domesticated animals and began to use their milk.
Creamy, fluffy Ricotta
At Green Living Australia, there are cheese making box kits for sale which contain the key ingredients you will need for certain cheeses or you can buy your requirements individually in the well stocked on-site shop. You are encouraged to make use of the helpline, where you can call in with any issues that may arise, once you are flying solo on your cheese making adventure back home.
When you see the sign you know you're there
If you want the chance to unleash the turophile in you and become the ultimate cheese lover, hop on to the Green Living website or visit their Facebook page for more info. You can also see shows listed where Valerie will be demonstrating her art and be sure to look out for her cheese making session dates in the Gold Coast libraries catalogue.
The location of the teaching venue is easy to find, only minutes off the Pacific Motorway. Use the exit after Ikea, if you are heading north (from Gold Coast to Brisbane). Look for the Eucalypts Industrial Park sign and you will find Green Living at unit 23. There is plenty of parking too.