I should have taken up yoga. Isn’t that what a good mother does these days? Prance around in tight, velvet pants, sipping kombucha and discussing terrifying things like the “downward dog?” That would have been the trendy thing to do. But due to my passion for cheese, I could never pull off those tight, velvet pants. So for my mid-life hobby, I bypassed the yoga. Instead, I became Slave to the Curd.
My husband Peter and I live in New Zealand, a land where top-quality milk is abundant but good imported cheese is not. It is possible to buy French Camembert at our local grocery store, but the price — once it has passed through the hands of several importers — is tragically prohibitive. For awhile we made do by purchasing “expired” cheese, because a Stilton that is rotten by New Zealand standards comes close to approximating a stinky Roquefort. But in the end, these were pale substitutions, and I never could scratch my cheese-loving itch.
Then we moved to Purua, a tiny rural community just outside of Whangarei, the northernmost city in New Zealand. The rolling green hills around us provide juicy pasture for hundreds of cows, goats and sheep, which serves as the source of my inspiration. I am an immigrant, after all. Like the hardy Kiwi settlers before me, I could live without luxuries like runny French cheese, but I didn’t want to. Instead, I would concoct my own.
In A Remote Spot
Since we’re so remote from, well, everybody, New Zealand has a long tradition of do-it-yourself ingenuity. Sometimes this works out fine, producing an admirable can-do spirit in the locals. Other times, it’s more problematic, such as when people improvise their own electrical connections, or fix a plumbing problem with a soda bottle and a prayer. I speak from experience on that last one. Peter was startled to find a full plastic drink bottle wedged into the toilet of our new home. Was this an attempt at water economy? An innovative way to cool drinks on a hot summer day? The reason remains mysterious. But I digress.
Likely, I should have been more cautious. People take apprenticeships in France to learn about cheesemaking, but here I was planning to wing it with a smile. I was encouraged in this reckless decision by enthusiastic authors like Ricki Carroll, whose classic book, Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses, makes artisan Camembert look like a breeze. It is not. Make no mistake, do-it-yourself cheese is fraught with peril. But here I will reveal the potential pitfalls so that you can produce cheese with a minimum of horror.
To begin with, there is the set up. Making Camembert at home requires the construction of a “mold sandwich,” a concept that first sent shivers down my spine. The reality isn’t that bad — just a cheese board, a cheese mat and a steel mold set on top of one another so the curds can drain. But let’s be clear: when you produce your own cheese, you are encouraging fungus to grow in your home. Sit with that for a minute. It’s a sobering thought.
Of course, the key is to get the right mold to grow on your cheese — in this case Penicillium Candidum, the snowy white culture that forms the rind of a delicious Camembert. But if you don’t clean your equipment properly, you won’t get white mold. Instead, you’ll harvest a rainbow of nasties. The first time I attempted Camembert, I made pink mold, yellow mold and a grey, fuzzy growth called poil de chat. That last one means “cat hair” in French, and no one wants cat hair in their food.
Then, if you choose to make your own cheese, you will come up against the reality of what it is you’re spreading on that slice of crusty baguette. Like a sausage, you might not want to know what goes into your favorite cheese. Consider rennet, for example. Do you know what it is? It’s an enzyme extracted from the stomach lining of a dead baby cow.
Of course, you can purchase vegetarian rennet, but I never have. This is because a) I’m ghoulish, and b) I’ve heard that it doesn’t work quite as effectively as the original, so I’m left with a bottle of dead baby cow in my fridge. Which I’m fine with. Totally worth it for delicious Camembert.
Once I confronted the cold, hard facts of home cheesemaking, it was time to secure the milk. It wasn’t long before I met Graham and Alex Wright, a longtime local dairying family who were happy to sell me fresh milk from their Jersey cows. Jersey milk has a higher butterfat content, and because the cows do not completely metabolize the beta carotene in their pasture, their milk is tinted a beautiful pastel yellow. It is also stupendously delicious.
But if you are not a crazy person who lives on a remote farm, you may not have a direct connection to a dairy farmer. That is not a problem at all. In fact, congratulations — unlike me, you probably have a regular job and an active social life. But do try to secure the highest-quality, full-fat milk you can. Go on, get the expensive stuff. Treat yourself. You will be saving so much money on cheese that it’s definitely worthwhile to get the very best milk.
Top-quality milk secured, I was well on my way to producing my very own Camembert. The first time, as I mentioned, things didn’t go swimmingly. I produced many molds, but not a whole lot of Penicillium Candidum, and though the result was edible, it was not quite what I’d display on a cheese board alongside some toasted walnuts and a dusty bottle of Calvados.
Made A Grave Error
What’s more, there was this: I became Slave to the Curd. Never having done this before, I made the grave error of starting the recipe in the evening. Once they have settled into their molds, the milk curds must be flipped for the next six hours. This meant that my alarm went off throughout the night, at one hour intervals, so I could get up to flip the dreaded curd. Increasingly rumpled and exhausted, I began to suspect the mold culture was torturing me, deliberately withholding sleep with a cruel, alien intelligence.
Later, I took a nap. And realized that was silly.
But now, as a veteran cheesemaker, I can pass along this wisdom: unless you are a vampire, start your cheese in the morning. The whole process takes about eight hours, so you need the whole day if you intend to get some rest.
Beyond that, there is but one pearl of wisdom you must remember. Besides top-quality milk, it is virtually the entire key to cheesemaking success. And now I am going to share the crucial secret to making fabulous mold-ripened cheeses at home. Are you ready? Wash everything carefully.
That’s it. When you make a cheese, as I mentioned, you are creating an ideal environment for certain cultures to grow. In the case of Camembert, it’s Flora Danica and Penicillium Candidum.
So: sterilize your tools. Everything that can be boiled, like wood and metal tools, should be. The rest, such as items made of plastic, should be soaked in a gallon of clean water with 2 tablespoons of bleach, and then rinsed again in clean water.
As long as you follow the recipe, keep everything scrupulously clean, and don’t panic at the thought of rennet — the right molds will grow and you will get cheese instead of cat hair. Which is a good thing. CC