30 Dec 2014

Elbow deep in curds at the School of Artisan Food

Hair nets à go-go: making a lactic cheese
We've barely had time to pull on our wellies and natty blue hair nets at the School of Artisan Food's cheesemaking course, before tutor Paul Thomas has us emptying a churn of raw milk into a shiny steel vat.

The milk is still warm from the cows that roam the Welbeck Estate in Nottingham, where the school is based (it's also the home of top blue cheese Stichelton), so we quickly add starter cultures to kick start the cheesemaking process. 

We're making a tomme-style hard cheese, similar to Comte, so we don't have to wait long before the rennet is added to the milk and the magical transformation into jelly-like curd takes place. It's then all about cutting, heating and stirring the curd to release the whey, before we all crowd round the vat to shovel it into moulds with out hands.

Put your back into it: moulding curds for the tomme-style cheese

For a cheese nut like me, getting the chance to spend time elbow deep in curds is a sheer joy, but it also gives me a real insight into the different steps involved in making cheese. Thomas explains that taking this kind of hands on approach is by far the best way to learn, although it is also vital to get to grips with the science.

Top teacher: Paul Thomas
The aim of the course, he says, is not to learn recipes, but to understand the fundamentals of what is happening in the vat and the maturing room. “This course is all about how to adapt and change as the milk changes, and depending what kind of cheese you want to make,” he says.

Over the next two days our small group of wannabe cheesemakers, who range from a dairy farmer looking to diversify to an osteopath with an interest in nutrition, make three different types: the tomme; a small lactic cheese; and a Brie.

We spend plenty of time lugging churns, ladelling curds and rubbing salt into cheeses, as well as stopping for regular theory sessions. It's surprisingly hard work – my back aches (in a good way) from leaning into the vat and being on my feet for long periods – and gives me renewed respect for Britain's cheesemakers who do it day in day out.

You might think that this kind of artisan course would no longer be needed. After all, curd nerds in Britain have never it so good with more than 700 varieties of cheese to choose from. That's more than even France. But while these are golden years for artisan cheesemaking in some ways, there also remains a surprising lack of technical understanding, says Thomas.

White gold: stirring the curds

Part of the problem is that a wealth of dairy knowledge was lost after the Second World War when farmhouse cheesemaking fell into almost terminal decline. The new wave of cheesemakers, who have set up in the past 10-20 years, have not been able to draw on the experience of older generations as they can in France or Italy.

Counteracting this loss of artisan food knowledge is one of the reasons why the School of Artisan Food was set up five years ago, and not just in cheesemaking. It runs similar courses in baking, brewing and butchery.

The beautiful School of Artisan Food on the Welbeck Estate in Notts

“A lot of cheesemakers still slavishly follow the recipe without really understanding the process,” says Thomas, who has a degree in biochemistry and worked as head cheesemaker at Lyburn, before setting up his own cheese and consultancy businesses. “They will write off variations in their cheese as seasonality – they don't really understand why they make terrific cheese in the summer and why it's not so good in the winter,”

So as well as bending our backs during the course, we also spend a lot of time exercising our brains through sessions on the science of cheesemaking in the little classroom next door to the dairy. Thomas is an excellent teacher, managing to explain technical issues in plain English and giving us a good grounding in what we need to do to make cheese ourselves - whether that is at home on the hob or in a more commercial setting.

'Nothing beats a good graph'
It would be impossible to detail everything we cover on the course, but one of the key messages is how important it is to chart and control pH levels as demonstrated by countless graphs scribbled on the whiteboard (Thomas' love of a good graph becomes something of a running joke amongst us all, including the tutor, over the two days).

The pH level of cheese is affected by everything from the temperature of the milk and the amount of starter you use to when and how you cut the curds and mould them. Understanding all these elements and using them to control acidity levels is the secret of a good cheese.

As Thomas says: “It's a detective story – you have to look for little clues in the milk that help you adjust and improve the final cheese.”

The two-day Introduction to Cheesemaking course at the School of Artisan Food costs £350 and includes a terrific lunch (the cheeseboard and pizzas baked by the school's bakery were particularly fab).


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