One of the wonderful things about going to Ballymaloe Cookery School is that you really get a chance to understand where food comes from – how its sourced, how it is produced, and sometimes… you even get to see the entire cycle. Its a very humbling process, and incredibly powerful. It makes you stop and think about the food that you eat, and how important it is for body, mind and soul to try and eat as cleanly and carefully as possible.
While I was at Ballymaloe, I dont think I ate very many things that were processed. The milk came from the Jersey cows on the farm, and they provided some of the butter, the buttermilk, and the cheese that we ate too! And we got a chance (if we wanted to) to make our own cheese. Mine is still awaiting me at Ballymaloe … I will pick it up in a few weeks and sample it. I cant wait!
Cheese making is a very zen process. Its all about feeling the milk turning into cheese, and knowing when each step is complete. A group of us gathered in the milking shed to help Tim turn milk into a cheddar style cheese… and it was such a powerfully beautiful process…
You can make cheese on the stovetop, but Ballymaloe has a very cool industrial sized container that heats the raw milk very slowly to the correct temperature. After making sure we had all washed our hands, put on aprons, and hairnets (can you imagine finding a stray curly hair in your cheese?!), Tim added a vegetarian rennet to the warmed milk. This made it solidify … he then checked the temperature.
When he felt the curd was at a proper temperature, he felt it by dipping his hands into it. He told us that once you start making cheese regularly, you can begin to get a feel for when its ready to be cut. There is a smoothness, a responsiveness to it that happens only at a certain moment.
He then got out what looked to be a massive square metal tennis racquet, and started cutting the curd into smaller chunks. This is when it got fun!
The curd started separating from the whey – the liquid obviously inherent in milk. Once the curd had been cut by the metal tennis racquet apparatus, we were allowed to plunge our hands into the container and start squeezing and separating the curds out. A small tap was opened at the bottom of the container for the whey to drain out.
I have to say, the process of separating the curd from the whey was very therapeutic. It felt so lovely to be elbow deep in this textural stuff, knowing that this movement was actually part of the making of the cheese. Tim told us that cheese makers have wonderful skin on their hands! I can believe it … the feeling of dipping into the vat was soft, smooth, warm, comforting. And cheese is a live thing, so you have to treat it with respect, no squeezing too hard, or sudden movements. It was beautiful.
Once most of the whey was drained off, we started packing the curds into round plastic molds, with holes that allowed drainage. Each of us filled one mold full, and then covered the molds with heavy weights.
After about fifteen minutes, we were actually able to take the cheese out of the mold, and flip it over. We then covered it again with the weights (and some extra just for good luck) and waited again for another few hours. This process of flipping the cheese over ensures an even distribution of curd, and gets as much moisture out of the cheese as possible.
After a day or two, and some regular flipping (my housemate Gina and I traipsed to flip cheese at midnight!) .. the cheese would be removed from the mold, salted, and set in this temperature controlled ripening cave. We had the responsibility of coming to flip our cheeses on a regular basis. They would be ready in about three months!
Very thorough notes were kept about each batch of cheese. When it was made, how it was made, how much milk, temperature, time of day. But this was not the end of the process! Gina and I accompanied Tim to distribute the whey on the farm…
It was like they knew we were coming! They were extremely happy to drink up every last bit of the whey, and Tim told us that it is very good for them.
The little ones loved it so much, they actually got into the trough to drink it. There was a little bit of a fight to drink it all up, so the runt took advantage of the ruckus, and went directly to the Mama source.
And this was just one evening in Ballymaloe .. magical, full of learning, part of the cycle, and so very wonderful. It taught me so many things … but most of all that I am connected to all that is around me, and if I treat the earth with respect, and a conscious understanding… well, then, the joy is infinite.