Is cheese making a science or an art? The ‘secrets’ of handcrafting artisan goat’s cheese
Our latest blog post is written by Amanda Woolmer A.K.A. Mandy, one of the key members of our cheesemaking team.
It’s 9am on a cold, wet Monday morning. The faint sound of distant bleating can be heard from the goat barn, and as a cheesemaker at Norton & Yarrow, I’m ready to start a new week of cheesemaking. It has been two years now since I first set foot in the cheese making room. As a complete novice, I was a little nervous, a little clumsy, and unable on day one, to even turn the tap on without assistance! Now, two years later, I consider myself an important part of a small but brilliant team that make up to one thousand five hundred cheeses per week, all lovingly, by hand. Like most people, I have always enjoyed eating cheese, but now my passion lies in the art of making it. I say ‘art’ with careful consideration…
As with any recipe, there is a certain undeniable science to cheese making. For example, to make our award winning Sinodun Hill, there are a set of measurable, quantifiable steps we need to take. We first heat the milk before adding starter cultures, yeasts and rennet, which when left overnight, will form into a jelly like set. The acidity of the milk drops considerably, and the lactose has turned into lactic acid. The mixture is then ladled into draining bags and after another night, the curd, which now resembles cream cheese, is now ready to salt and mould up. After unmoulding the next day, the cheeses are left in our hastening room for a couple of days to encourage their rinds to develop, before being moved to the cooler maturing room. So it becomes evident that a scientific chain of events needs to occur to get to this stage.
However, what interests me as a cheesemaker, is the absolute care that goes into the process of making artisan cheese. Combining the correct, measured ingredients and keeping the cheese in favourable conditions, for me, is only part of the process. What is just as relevant, and often not considered enough, is the importance of handling the cheese with respect. For example, when ladling the curd into the draining bags, it is imperative that the curd is broken up a little as possible, in order to be drained effectively. Similarly, when moulding the curd, we always check that there are no unfilled gaps, so we can be sure of creating a beautifully perfect cheese with sharp corners and edges. In the same way, when making our creamy, slightly denser Brightwell Ash, the ladling process needs to be done very gently so as not to break up the curd, and the salt and ash applied carefully so as not to damage the cheeses in the process.
Another consideration is that milk can alter its make-up due to external changes, for example goats kidding and herd health. Therefore it is important to be able to recognise when and why this may happen and react accordingly, for example by tweaking levels of certain ingredients. It is also good to taste the cheese regularly (definitely a perk of the job!). Many a happy Friday afternoon has been spent sitting out by the field, watching the goats graze, whilst tasting the product of our labours! In fact, making use of our senses is actually really important in this job. Thermometers, pH meters and make sheets all play their part in our work, but I find it is just as vital to get a ‘feel’ for the curd. What should it look like? How should it smell? How should it feel when I mix the salt in by hand? How should the milk taste and smell? These things are hard to teach, but are things that have come with experience.
To summarise, the way I feel about cheesemaking, is that it takes so much more than going through the motions of the accurate measuring of optimal conditions, meticulous record keeping and hygiene (the ‘science’). It is very much also the cheese maker’s continued care, creativity and an intuitive ability to interpret these observational conditions (the ‘art’) that make our cheeses what they are. For all cheeses at Norton & Yarrow, are not only made with goat milk, live cultures, yeasts and rennet, but they are also made with love.