The art of cheese
By SALLY KIDSON - The Nelson Mail Last updated 05:00 27/05/2009
SALLY KIDSON ALL EYES: Workshop participants watch as Irma Jager makes paneer.
Cheesemaking is another age-old art enjoying a renaissance.
It's a frosty Friday night in Mapua, and little Miss Muffet would be in heaven.
In the Mapua Hall kitchen, a small group of student home cheesemakers are about to separate large stock pots full of curds (the white solids) and whey (the liquid left-overs) as part of the feta-making process.
The class has already witnessed the surprisingly simple steps needed to transform milk into paneer cheese and yoghurt. Now they are watching tutor Irma Jager carefully lay the feta curds into a specially made kahikatea frame to set.
Jager, who with her partner, Jan-Albert Droppers, started the popular Nelson gelato store Penguinos, started making cheese after selling up the ice cream business and buying a farm in the Motueka area, where they live from the land as much as possible.
They buy only those products they don't make themselves, like toilet paper and olive oil. Most of what they eat they've either raised or grown, choosing to live that way because they enjoy it.
"It makes me feel happy that I'm not dependent on others so much; it's fun.
"If the supermarkets were to disappear, we would live very happily," Jager says.
Jager has three jersey cows, which can produce up to 15 litres of milk a day, depending on the time of year and whether they've just weaned a calf.
With a ready supply of milk, she makes her own yoghurt, cottage cheese, ricotta, paneer, mozzarella, feta, icecream, sour cream, gouda, quark and more.
Jager is hooked on the health benefits she sees from eating products made from whole milk.
The less "tampered with" a food product is, the more she enjoys it.
She knows several people who couldn't eat dairy products who are amazed they have no problem eating her cheeses or drinking her milk.
Jager is keen to make it clear she's an amateur cheesemaker. However, she has a wealth of knowledge and her "excitement about spreading the word" in helping people make their own, less-processed, cheese is infectious. Jager is a fan of using non-pasteurised milk to make cheese, but says those without a supply of farm milk can just as easily make their own cheese and yoghurt from milk that has been pasteurised (heated to destroy harmful micro-organisms). They just need to ensure the milk they use has not been homogenised (where the fat content has been broken down and spread through the milk).
For successful cheesemaking the fat needs to be separate in the milk, like it was in the old silver-top glass bottles, she says, for those who are old enough to remember.
Some supermarkets sell non-homogenised milk calling it farm or raw milk.
While only the curds are used in the final cheese product, none of the milk Jager uses to make her cheese goes to waste.
She feeds the whey to her chooks and her pigs, who go crazy when they hear her coming with it.
She also uses the whey that has not needed heating to high temperatures in the cheesemaking process to condition her hair, leaving it in overnight.
Jager says home cheese doesn't require fancy or expensive equipment.
Aside from culture, the coagulant rennet and muslin cheese cloth - all of which is relatively easy to source locally - most of the other equipment needed - a colander, large stock pot and large slotted spoon - would already be in most kitchens.
Mapua Country Trading owner Heather Cole, who organises cheesemaking courses, says she found Jager to run the classes after running a course with Auckland-based cheesemaker Katherine Mowbray.
Cole says the classes have been hugely successful, something she puts down to a resurgent interest in learning the basic skills to provide for families, like putting in a vegetable garden and fruit trees, and preserving fruit.
The soaring price of cheese and a growing awareness of what goes into commercial products has also sparked interest in making cheese at home, she says.
Cole has sourced the milk for the courses from real milk provider Karen Trafford. She says that after years of running a large commercial dairy farm, Trafford now enjoys having a small herd of cows to provide milk to home cheesemakers. The law allows an individual to buy up to five litres of milk from the farm gate.
Cole has also worked with wood-turner John Fry to make the kahikatea wooden frames used for making feta cheese. They are currently working on a press for hard cheeses.
Cole says people probably are overawed at the thought of making cheese, but they shouldn't be. "It isn't that difficult or daunting at all."
Equipment to get started
A pot that holds 6 litres
Cheese cloth and string
Spoon/ladle with holes
Metal sieve or colander
Food-grade bucket or large bowl
Making paneer cheese
Paneer, used commonly in Indian cooking, is one of the simplest cheeses to make. It is fast and easy and provides a good meat replacement, as it is high in protein, while its relatively bland flavour makes it good to cook with because it takes on the flavours of other ingredients.
5 litres of un-homogenised milk - ie, whole milk with the cream on top
lemon juice or vinegar.
Step 1 (optional) - Pasteurise the milk. If you have raw milk (sourced directly from a farmer) and you wish to pasteurise it, heat it to 72 degrees Celsius for 30 seconds and remove from heat.
Step 2 - Heat and add vinegar. Heat milk to 80C. Gradually add approximately 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice while stirring.
Keep stirring while curds form.
Step 3 - Drain the whey. When the whey is clear and the curds are well formed, put a colander over a large bowl or bucket.
Line the colander with a double layer of cheesecloth then tip the curds and whey into the colander, draining away the whey.
Step 4 - Hanging the cheese. Push a little whey out of the curds, but don't press it too hard.
Tie the cheesecloth with string around the curds into a pudding shape and hang it to drip for at least three hours. Do not put it in direct sun.
Step 5 - Storing and cooking with paneer. Once it's drained, paneer will be quite firm. Stored in a container in the fridge, it will keep for seven days. It also freezes well. It can be sliced and fried in butter then drizzled with honey for a sweet, dipped in herbed salt and eaten uncooked, marinated in tamari and ginger and then used in stir-fries.
For more information on courses, visit mapuacountrytrading.co.nz.