Left to right: Nick, Ben, Liz, and Kay
Monday, August 28, 2006
It is Bank Holiday Monday. The last Monday in August is a holiday in the UK. Sort of like their Labor Day. It means that summer is drawing to a close, autumn is upon us, and school is about to start. We don't have the day off. There is cheese to be made. We're gearing up for Christmas.
I feel like it's my first day of school. Or the prelude of the play has finished, and the first act has just begun. All of the players are in place: The cheesemakers are Nick and Ben; the supporting, production staff is Kay and Liz; the occasional appearances by the cheese shop staff of Moreno and Will; and then there is Ant, short for Antony, the recluse who lives in a tatty caravan behind the dairy. I have yet to see Ant, but I hear him driving around late at night.
Robin warned me not to be alarmed by Ant's appearance. He's got wild hair and a beard and has lost all of his teeth. Like with many iconoclasts, he's well educated and speaks eloquently. Each person in the dairy has mentioned that Ant used to be a set builder for the theatres in London. He also used to be married. Ant is the man that Robin turns to when he needs something fabricated for a special job. He build special cheese harps for the cutting of the blue cheese curds, he built the pneumatic spiker that we use to pierce the young cheeses in order to make channels for the blue mold to form. Apparently he's not a total recluse. He spends the evenings in a local pub, and stays up the rest of the night working on inventions and other building projects. That would explain the sound of hammers and drills that I hear at odd hours behind the apartment.
Two other supporting players in this drama are George and Nicole. George is Robin's son, and Nicole is his partner. George is a fisherman, working primarily with shellfish like mussels, oysters and cockles (oh my!) His partner Nicole is German. They have a nine month old daughter named Lotta (Charlotte.) There are nets and other fishing related paraphernalia scattered all around the dairy. Bins stuffed with rope, floats, and mesh cages used for the growing of oysters are set on a pad next to the driveway below the dairy.
So the work week begins. Ben seems to arrive first, at about 7:45AM, and he has Kay with him. Kay doesn't drive, so she catches a lift in with either Liz or Ben. Ben hops right to it, getting the cow's milk ready to be pumped into the pasteurizer. Kay preps the salting room, where the cheese gets prepared for salting, scraping or wrapping for shipment. Nick shows up gets the Making Room in shape for the day's work. If there is cheese draining on the making tables, he counts them and turns them. Turning involves flipping the cheese in its mould, so the bottom becomes the top. This helps them drain evenly. Then he turns his attention to the cheese that was made on Saturday. They are stacked on plastic trays, like what bread is delivered in. One tray holds six cheese moulds. Nick takes a tray of cheese and turns them one by one, out onto a table and rubs dry salt (it is labeled culinary salt) all over them. This stage is called Salt 1. Then he pops the salted baby blue cheese into the moulds and puts them back into stackable white trays. The number of cheeses sitting in the Making Room varies from morning to morning. During the course of the week there have been as few as 15 Harbourne Blues (goat) and 21 Devon Blues (cow), to 26 Ticklemore Goats, 21 Harbourne Blues, and 30 Devon Blues.
I follow Kay around for most of the morning. We are salting four day old cheese. I also get to spike the six day old cheese and put them into the Cave (large walk-in refrigerator with a humidifier.) Spiking is fun. The device looks like a strange medical instrument from Star Trek. It has a bunch of l0 inch long nails that pierce the cylinders of cheese, creating air holes. Blue molds are happiest when they have lots of pockets in the cheese. The spiker is a pneumatic device that slowly plunges the nails into the cheese and then you flip the toggle switch to extract the nails. It makes this nice, whooshing sound. Sometimes the Harbourne get stuck because they are a bit smaller and more firm. When that happens, I've got to pry them off gently. I've got to be gentle with them, because they are a bit fragile and can crack along the edges if I'm not careful. I like to spike.
Into the cave go the spiked cheese. The cheese is placed on its side on aluminum rods that are wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap.) Seven cheeses per row, three rows deep per shelf. They are left here to develop blue mold for three to six months, depending on the cheese. As they mature, they will be scraped in order to keep the blue developing in the interior of the cheese. The Ticklemore Goats are not a blue cheese, but they are also stored in the cave. They mature much faster and are ready to go at about four to six weeks of age. Because they mature in the same room as blue cheese, they can pick up a blue mold on the outside. Normally, they have a pale whitish, grey mold.
The first two hours fly by, and we've done a ton of work already. Cheesemaking is very demanding physically. I'm already feeling it in my biceps. We are called into the Making Room to help Nick with the Devon Blue. I just love having my hands in curds.
At 10:30AM it's time for tea. We all go into the apartment and have tea. They mean it, too. No break goes by without the electric kettle boiling away and the 240 count box of PG Tips being pulled out. I love it! We all stop for 20-30 minutes, drink our tea, and nibble something. Kay eats part of her lunch. Ben has a sandwich. Nick has a leftover sausage roll. I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Tea time is over and we go back in to the Dairy.
I tackle the cleaning of the moulds and cheesemaking instruments. First you rinse off everything in cold water to get the sticky curds off of the items. Then into the hot soapy water for a good scrub. After they're clean, the moulds go into barrels full of a mild acid to descale them. It's always difficult the first few days in any job because I don't know the systems yet, and I don't know where anything goes. Everyone is very helpful and patient with me.
Scraping is another task critical in the maturation of blue cheese. It is a messy task, and is best handled by two people. When the cheese is at a certain point in its bluing, they get pulled for scraping. Scraping is like shaving the cheese. You use a sharp hatchet knife and scrape it along the surface of the mold covered cheese in order to reveal a fresh, clean surface. After they're scraped, they get wrapped in plastic wrap and moved into another cage where they will age for a couple more months. During this stage, they develop their distinct flavors and soften up a bit. In other words, this is when they go from blah to delicious. The smell of fruity blue cheese is overwhelming in the cold cave.
We break for lunch around 1:00PM. Nick has to leave early in order to drive back to Stoke Fleming for the Stoke Fleming Horticultural Show. His family has several things entered in this village competition. Being a baker, he's got cheese rolls and bread entered. He's also got a runner bean of 43 centimeters entered in the Longest Runner Bean category, a huge sunflower in the largest bloom category, his daughter made a Stoke Fleming-asaurus out of zucchini, yellow squash, and mushrooms. She also made a miniature garden out of moss, cardboard, and twine. It's a big event, so he's got to be there for the judging later in the afternoon. I have noticed that the local villages often have fairs or shows, where the locals show off their baked goods, flowers, vegetables, and preserves. Widecombe Fair is a famous one immortalized in a traditional song. It's coming up on Tuesday, September 12th.
I like the communal breaks that we take. Everyone sits around the table and talks, reads the paper, and eats. One person takes on the task of making tea. It really draws everyone together. I take a while to make a salad for lunch and realize that it will be far easier if I make my lunch ahead of time, like everyone else. There are no cafes nearby, so we all must bring lunch and eat together. This is good for me, as it will force me to plan ahead and eat my leftovers. The tiny fridge also makes me be more selective about what I buy. There is no stocking up on items, because there is no room to store it. I shop a lot more frequently here.
The afternoon is spent cheesemaking. Ticklemore Goat, the semi firm, goat cheese and Harbourne Blue, the goat blue cheese in the continental style. I am given the task of smasher, and Kay is the mule. Nick fills the moulds. Kay scoops the curds and dumps them onto a table where I gently break them into smaller bits as they begin to clump and mat. I then pass them to Nick who fills them into the plastic, cylindrical moulds. We kept the production line going until all of the curds are out of the vat. We then flip the newly made cheese so they can continue to drain. They shrink and incredible amount in the first few minutes because the curds just want to bind and draw together. As they shrink, they expel whey. Whey is still full of lactose and protein and if you have a boiler, you can use it to make ricotta. It is also excellent for baking. I take my feta and store it in the whey from goat's milk.
Next we make Ticklemore Goat. Ben's making this batch. Nick has left for the day. A counter balance device is set up. A jug full of pre-measured water is attached to a chain that is hooked up to a rod suspended from the ceiling. On the other end of the rod, three chains are suspended. A large metal colander is attached to the three chains. The Ticklemore curds are scooped into the colander until curds and the jug are of equal weight. Then the curds are dumped into a bowl, three tablespoons of salt are added and mixed by hand, and they're poured into plastic strainers. We whip out about 15 Ticklemore Goats. When they're all done, we then flip them all in order to keep them draining evenly. They will get flipped a few more times today.
It's clean up time. We scrub everything down. The floors are scrubbed then we splash buckets of "Active," a form of hydrogen peroxide, on the floor to sanitize it. The sinks get a dose of Active, too. We're done.
It's almost 4:00PM. Everyone is going home. Kay and I drive down to the supermarket, Morrison's (formerly Safeway) to do some grocery shopping. I need bread and some staples for future lunches and suppers. I load up on pasta, cans of tuna, lunch meat, etc. I discover a Weight Watchers treat. Rice pudding with caramel sauce. Sounds good. Turns out it was too good. I ate both pudding cups for dessert. Oops! Can't bring that home again.
I have one more chore to do. At 6:00PM, I must give today's cheese a final turn. I have to turn the cheese every day. Even on my day off I must be back between 5:00 and 7:00 to turn the cheese. I find it's kind of like tucking kids into bed. You kiss them goodnight, turn out the lights, and close the door. Same thing, but I don't kiss the curds.