Leaning Oak Cheesemaking Workshop

Two sunny winter days in the country, making cheese with my mum, is a pretty good way to spend the weekend. Mum met Gloria, the cheese maker at Leaning Oak  at the farmers markets in Orange (I think) and, a few months later, we found ourselves at her farm in Mudgee, watching a stubborn goat refuse to  be caught. I should probably have put a photo of cheese here, but the stars of the visit really were the goats. It’s baby season, giving us a soundtrack of ‘baas’ to make our cheese to.

I love going to cheese workshops, you can learn so much more than from books, you can ask questions, see the different techniques that people use and work out why things have gone wrong in the past. Using  fresh goats milk, we made four cheeses over the weekend: a fresh chevre-type cheese, feta, a bloomy camembert-style cheese and a blue.

Gloria, who ran the course, and her enthusiastic assistant – her 11 year old daughter – stepped us through each cheese, from milking and pasteurisation to maturing at home.

We tasted her cheeses as well. The one that really stood out for me was the lemon-marinated feta. It’s not a combination I’d had before, and the citrus hit against to the creamy, salty cheese, has inspired me to make some preserved lemons today. Once they’re ready in a few weeks, I’m going to make some more feta and see if my marination works anywhere near as well.

As she runs workshops  on a monthly basis, we also got to try the blue made by last month’s students. It’s a really soft cheese, with a chalky centre that will get softer and softer over time. I’ve got mine maturing at the moment, so hopefully in about a month it will look something like the one below. The penicillin in blue cheese grows with exposure to oxygen, so to get veins into the cheese you need to stab it with a sharp and sterile metal spike. I’ve decided to leave my blue without the veins, as I really like the idea of having a bluey/grey outside and then the clean centre, but I think mum plans to put holes into hers, so hopefully I’ll be able to show and compare the  results soon.

A small wedge of New York cheese

Ok. so it was a little while ago now, but as part of our travels we went to New York and I wanted to tell you about the cheese.

Going to cheese mongers when you’re on holiday is a form of torture in some ways. There are rows of these amazing cheeses, all begging to be tried but I have nowhere to keep any of them, so have to somehow limit myself to buying just one cheese per store. It is almost impossible!

The first stop was Saxelby Cheese. If  you’re walking down Essex street from East village, it would be quite easy to miss the doors into the Essex Street Market. We got half way down the next block before I realised we’d somehow not found a cheese shop.

Once you make it inside the market however, you find a crammed world of edible and imbibable substances, too many to try in one visit. At the southern end is Saxelby Cheese. This tiny store, the brain child of Ann Saxelby is exclusively devoted to artisan cheeses from the North Eastern states of the USA; states that are full  of small cheese makers and this store provides a way to try lots of them.

I was really excited about trying cheeses from this region. As you’ve probably worked out by now, I’m very partial to a good washed rind cheese, and I tried an amazing cheese day called Humble Pie. Produced in Vermont by Woodcock Farm, my small wedge was oozing from the moment it was removed from its wrapping, sticking to my fingers and coating the inside of my mouth. Being brine-washed, with smatters of mould, it has a reasonable strong smell but it is creamy and smooth to taste. I wish we had more.

The second visit was to Lucy’s Whey and their store inside the Chelsea Markets. Another specialist in American cheeses, it was packed on the Saturday we visited with people buying cheese as well as the toasted cheese sandwiches. It was blue cheese for me today. After trying a few options, I settled on a Jasper Hill blue. It was lovely and salty, with a slightly dry texture (although thining back, I;m not sure if this was primarily relative to some of the creamier blues I tried). It turned out to be a bit of a mistake going on the weekend, as there wasn’t much of a chance to ask questions but it was still good to make it there. Another good reason is that the Chelsea Markets are right next to the Highline Park – an restored raised rail line that is now a park that weaves thgrough the new York skyline. A perfect picnic stop after buying your cheese.

An English and Welsh cheese tasting

I tend to talk about cheese at work. A lot. So, having made everyone listen to me and having inflicted the smells of my various purchases, I tried to make up for it by holding a tasting night.

We worked out way through eight cheeses from England and Wales (the 9th piece above was one of my Camemberts), starting with a fresh English goats cheese from the Cotswolds called Cerney. Ash-coated and only a week old, this was fresh, lightly lemony and mild

The soft-cheese representative was one of my favourite cheeses of 2011: Tunworth. A full,meaty camembert style cheese – it is creamy, slightly firm and leaves an almost cabbagy flavour in your mouth. It was met with almost universal love from my colleagues.

We moved onto some semi-hard and hard cheeses next. We started with Gorwydd Caerphilly, with its layers of texture and taste from the fresh and firm centre through to the smoother paste edges and the rind. This was followed by Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, which was mellow and nutty  and Pendragon, a firm buffalo-milk cheese made in Somerset that has a clean and mild taste. Wanting to offer something a bit sharper, we  ended the hard cheeses with a Montgomery Cheddar.

Oxford Isis was next up. I first tasted this cheese at this year’s British Cheese Awards and, as often occurs with washed-rind cheeses, the smell is enough to put some people off, but once you pass through, it becomes a much milder, with an earthy bite with just a touch of bitterness.

The final cheese of the night was Beenleigh blue. This ewes milk cheese can look quite white and may be missing the strong vein-lines you see in many other blues but don’t let this mislead you. It is salty, tangy and crumbly but almost sticky at the same time.

So what was the verdict from the night?

Overall favourites: Beenleigh Blue and Tunworth

Best matches: Beenleigh Blue and dessert wine

The room splitters: Oxford Isis, Pendragon

A USA cheese roadtrip! (suggestions welcome)

(source: http://www.50states.com/us.htm)

Over the last few months we’ve been making lots of decisions – about jobs, where to live and travel. In the end, we’ve decided to move back to Sydney. It seems to make sense for a lot of reasons but at the same time it’s really sad as we have to move away from friends all over again and leave London behind. The exciting part of this decision though is that we’re not going straight home. Instead we’re going to travel for a number of months, with a couple spent driving along the west coast of the USA.

It puts a slight hold on my cheese making but I’m hoping to make up for it by trying lots of new cheeses and learning about cheese-makers in California, Oregon and Washington. This is also where I’d love some help. I’m new to American artisan cheese and would love any suggestions of places I shouldn’t miss.

Cooking with curds

Alessandra Zecchini writes, amongst other things, a New Zealand blog that is full of food that I want to cook. My recipe for haloumi came from her site. Recently, I saw that she had started a monthly blogging event called Sweet New Zealand, which is for kiwi bloggers cooking sweet things, and it made me think that I’d like to be involved in something like that, only with cheese.

So I’ve decided to start doing a monthly post of cheese-related recipes. I’d love others to take part too – so if anyone else happens to be keen, let me know (360degreescheese(at)gmail.com) and we can start posting a collection each month. Admittedly, it might end up just being me but if anyone else has old or new posts where cheese is a key ingredient, send me a link and I’ll put them together into  single post – like a recipe log of cheese that can be shared.

To start, I made these blue cheese and walnut shortbread. The recipe comes from Leite’s Culinaria and it seemed like a good use for the large chunks of blue cheese that I had in my fridge. We had a few the other night with a 2004 Rioja, and the combination brought out the pepper in the biscuits and the spice in the wine; a goodway to spend a wet and cold evening at home.

Blue cheese and walnut shortbread ( via Leite’s Culineria)

Take around 110 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature (I had only slightly salted butter, so used that and left out the extra salt I mention below) and around 250-300g of blue cheese, crumbled. Put these in a bowl and cream together with a wooden spoon until it is a smoothish paste (you could also use a food processor but I don’t have one).

Get 1.5 cups of plain flour and mix with 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper and 1/2-1 teaspoon salt (if using). Add some of this dry mixture to the cheese/butter paste and mix with a wooden spoon in a fast (but light) chopping motion and keep adding more flour the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. (The ‘fast-light’ chopping motion might sound odd, but  I found dashing the spoon through the mixture meant it didn’t clump together and let the large bits break up).

At this point, take 1/4 cup of walnuts and chop/pound/break them up into small bits. Put aside.

Add 1 tablespoon cold water and mix until the dough comes together. Put the dough onto a floured work surface and roll it into a log that is about 3-4 cm wide in diameter. Brush it with a lightly beaten egg and roll it in the chopped walnuts so that they cover the length of the log. Finally wrap it in cling wrap and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Once you are nearly ready to cook the biscuits, pre-heat the oven to 175C (the recipe says 176C but my oven is nowhere near that precise!) and cover a lightly-greased flat baking tray in baking paper. Remove the log from the fridge and cut it into1-1.5cm rounds. Place these on the baking tray and cook for 20-22 minutes. You want them to be all golden, so check them around 10 minutes or so, and spin the baking tray around. Once they are ready, remove and let them cool. Eat!

British Cheese Festival

I haven’t disappeared, but have been taking a bit of a break. In that time I did go to the British Cheese Festival and found I do have a limit to how much cheese I can eat in one day. It turns out that 5 tastings may be too many. So here are a few shots of the day – held in the grounds of Cardiff Castle.

So how do judges pick their favourite cheeses? According to Juliet Harbutt, this is the way to taste:

1) Don’t smell or taste yet. Instead, look at the texture, maybe squeeze the cheese a bit, and, if you can, break a small amount off  and push it around a bit with you fingers, making it warm.

2) Now you can smell it. If you want to do this properly, tilt your head back slightly and inhale

3) Now comes eating. Bite a small amount, seeing how it tastes on different parts of the tongue, and whether there are after flavours or spikes.

Apples and apple juice are the key to cleaning your palate inbetween.

Cheese and dumplings in Bratislava

Our weekends have lately been made up of various end-of-summer excursions. Although we have eaten far more than is good for us, cheese hasn’t been much of a feature; the exception is Bryndzové Halušky, a national dish of Slovakia.

Bratislava sits on the Danube, resting in between its larger neighbour cities of Budapest and Vienna.  If you happen to be heading to Slovakia’s capital, it’s worth trying this dish. A hefty dish to eat on your own, it involves crispy bacon cubes (or alternatively fried fat cubes) balanced neatly onto top of a substantial body of soft sheeps cheese (bryndza) and fingernail size potato dumplings (Halušky). Sleep-inducing it may be when combined with an afternoon beer, but that seems a perfectly good use of a holiday.

Although it is probably available in other places, it seems to appear most frequently on the menus of many of the ‘traditional food’ restaurants that populate the old town and the sides of the castle. We tried a few places, and a good one was Prasna Basta. My favourite dish was Bravčová panenka na paprike v zemiakovej placke (Pork tenderloin with paprika in potato pancake). The light wasn’t great, so I don’t have a photo, but it was gooey, spiced pork, rolled into the pancake and the plate was clean without even trying. Slightly less successful was the starter, Nakladaný encián (translated as Pickled camembert style cheese), which doesn’t really match the translation. It’s fine as a block of soft cheese with lots of pickles but not quite as great as it sounded.

Cheese board games

I turned 31 a little while ago. My parents back in Australia sent me a cheese voucher – such a good present! The problem was, I ordered everything all in one go. So when our vegetable draws were overflowing with fragrant, paper-wrapped packages, and the mingling of odours were becoming all bit much, we decided we really needed to invite people around to help us get eat it all.

We started in near the Alps with comte and some extremely  ripe vacherin mont d’or. Comte is fast becoming one of my favourite cheeses. It is nutty, slightly springy, fresh. The vacherin was almost too ripe. Its prime season is October-April – so the last rounds at the end of May were always going to be potent. Almost overpowering, it  I would prefer to try it younger, maybe next February.

Back in England, we went for harder cheeses next. The cheddar is the Somerset made Keens Chedder – cloth bound, 14 months old, with a strong flavour and moist texture. We made our own interpretations  and then looked up various commentaries. The suggestion of onions did seem to fit, once it was mentioned. The other hard cheese was Old Winchester (or also known as Old Smales). This was more flaky and dry, described as a aged Gouda-pecorino style cheese. It’s also a bit nutty, but much drier than the comte.

Finally, there was the gooey Baby Wigmore. Made from unpasteurised ewes milk, it oozed over the board, and was quickly scooped up with bread.

There was also some really excellent Beenleigh blue but I forgot to take photos. Oh, and some broccoli salad, just to make sure we didn’t have coronaries.

A match made in cheese

Back in the Sydney summertime, I missed the wedding of two very good friends. Not to be completely left out,  we got up at 2am in our cold south London flat, turned the heaters up high and dressed in a summery grass green, we listened to the ceremony on skype. It made me miss home.

But, when I went back to Sydney last month I found out they had kept some wedding cake for us. A vacuum packed wedge of Monta dei Pascoli, a semi hard Italian alpine cheese, was sitting patiently in the fridge. It was the bottom layer of the amazing vertical cheese board that they had as their wedding cake. Who needs fruit cake when you can have  of tiers of cheeses?

As you can see from the photo above, the layers included a mix of washed rind, white mould, and blue. The full collection was made up from:

  • Munster
  • Camembert
  • Delice de Bourgogne
  • Ocello brie
  • Tarwin blue (we had a bit of this too when we were in Sydney, fresh rather than saved from the wedding cake)
  • Monta dei Pascoli

Being quite numerically minded, I had an idea of trying to find some statistics on the number of weddings that have started having cheese wedding cakes.  I had no luck. I did find that the British Cheese Board offers tips for what to use and how much to get – the key thing I took away was that if you allocate around 100g /cheese per person, you should be set.

King Island Blues

If you head down south from the Australian mainland towards Tasmania (the southern island state), you need to cross the Bass Strait. Through this strip of water blows the roaring forties  –   strong westerly winds that  occur between the latitudes of 40 and 49 degrees – and in the middle lies King Island. A friend of mine once kayaked across this stretch of water…I have no idea why.

The powerful winds have made King Island the location of  more than 60 shipwrecks, but the island’s fertile soil has also made it home to the King Island Dairy and its many cheeses.

(source: Tasmania Online)

King Island Dairy makes a number of farmhouse and specialty cheeses ( I’m not sure if they are too big a dairy to be called artisinal), including a number of blues. The strongest is the ‘Roaring Forties’ -a  creamy rather than crumbly blue which is not quite spreadable. It has slightly sweet and salty veins that bite just a little in your mouth. It is aged for 10-12 weeks and wrapped in blue wax.

They also make a softer, blue-laced white mould cheese – the blue brie. A milder sister to the roaring forties, it was almost too creamy for me. It needs to be left out of the fridge for quite a while – we left it overnight in Autumn Blue Mountains weather (so maybe around 14-16C) which was good but it really got better once it softened up even more.