Grim up North? Hardly!

Well it’s a month on since I last wrote and it seems like eternity – in a good way I hasten to add.  After leaving the cosy family of Neal’s Yard Dairy, I spent a couple of weeks packing a very large number of boxes and loading them into a van which my sis drove up to my parents house (currently the place where my worldly goods reside) as she had her own cunning plans to return with some of their old kitchen cupboards.  However I have to say I am indebted to her and Jon for kicking me up the ass to make me pack when I really really didn’t want to and for helping pack and load the van and strong arm some of the larger items like chest of drawers and (dismantled) bed not to mention the ginormous mattress.  It’s lovely to sleep on but my god is it a bugger to move!  So I had a couple of weeks around and about London using up my gym membership (thank goodness I did prepare myself for the lifting to come) and just enjoying London as a sort of holiday rather than the way you see it as a commuter.  I even started to wonder if I really did want to move but I have to say that feeling didn’t last long once I’d got back to Marple and the parental home and any vestiges of it were entirely banished once I’d got up to my current lodgings in Newland, outside Ulverston in Cumbria.
I know everyone loves the Lake District but can I just add to the adoring voices and say it is absolutely beautiful here.  Admittedly it’s barely had a rainy day since I arrived a fortnight ago (I know – who would have thought it?) and that never hurts but I get home to sit outside my back door and drink a cup of tea looking out at hills, the wind farm over to my left which may be a contentious issues for some NIMBYs but I love them as they spin around in the wind, the sheep grazing outside my garden and the Southern Fells of the Lake District in the background.  My daily commute these days sees me driving down twisty lanes and over the river estuary before heading down into the section of land the other side of Morecombe Bay where Martin & Nicola’s farm is, just onto the Holker Estate outside Cark.  I get coastal and mountain views in the one thirty minute drive (I don’t drive very fast I should point out – most people manage this in under 20 minutes).
But enough of the rural idyll, onto the cheese.
I’ve been working at the dairy on Holker Farm for a couple of weeks now and Martin did warn me on day one that I was going to be thrown in at the deep end.  In addition to making cheese, he and Nicola’s father Ian run Cartmel Cheeses in Cartmel which has taken off in popularity and sales rather quicker than they expected.  That combined with spectacular weather over the Easter weekend and the fact that there has just been a four day Royal Wedding Bank Holiday weekend for the beginning of May has meant a rather unprecedentedly busy shop in the past fortnight.  To be honest this has not bothered me, it has just meant I needed to get with it a little quicker than I might have otherwise and that’s no bad thing.
We are making two cheeses side by side both of them sheeps milk using Lacaune milk from Martin and Nicola’s flock.  St James is a square washed rind cheese weighing about 1.6kg and has a rennet set and Swallet is a little lactic set disc and in flavour probably the milder of the two.  St James is the first one I’ve got my head around the recipe of, largely because it’s quite immediate and there’s a routine to learn.  The mystery and fascination of lactic cheeses is that it largely happens due to the milk just doing its own thing.  You add starters and leave it to its own devices then later that day add some rennet and a combination of temperature, time and acidity does the rest until the following day when you ladle it out into moulds and the whey drains out.  St James on the other hand sees you adding starter and following this on with the rennet quite early on so that it sets in about an hour or thereabouts.  Following that the curd is cut allowed to give off a litttle whey and then ladled into cloth lined moulds where it drains comparatively quickly. I’ve been cutting it a tad on the large side on the days I’ve been training up on curd cutting – yesterday is I think the first time I got the sizing right and this is important for the cheeses to drain properly later.  But I digress, my point is that at the end of day one you have something that recognisably looks like it’s going to become a cheese and with the cutting and ladling under you belt you feel like you’ve made something whereas the lactic cheese just does what it does and you steer the process.
For the first fortnight, my main impact has been to up the cheese care ante in the cold stores and I’ve been doing a lot of rind washing.  In the dairy we’ve been concentrating on St James drainage which is impacted by the size the curd is cut to, manipulation of the draining cloths that the moulds are lined with (I call it faffing around with them and it basically means pulling them up at regular intervals and therefore yanking the curd around a bit as it knits together and thus getting more whey out) and finally leaving the finished cheeses an extra day to drain in their moulds with wooden blocks (followers) on top where we used to turn them straight out onto shelves.  Draining the whey out at the right stage in the process means that the cheese does not then acidify too much during maturation which in turn affects the calcium content and that itself affects the texture and would take it from a lactic cheese type texture which is firm in the centre with runny edges to the texture Martin is aiming for which is an even creamy breakdown right the way through.  There is obviously more to the technical side than that, but I’ve only just finished week two so there’s a fair bit for me to understand in the whole balance of acidity, drainage, texture and flavour development.  One thing’s for certain though, I’m in a great place to learn.  Martin’s a very patient teacher and he knows his technical shit so he’s happy to explain along with graphs of acidity / time curves drawn into the condensation of the dairy window.  We have to keep the place hot and humid for the Swallets to drain well and for them to then grow a nice wrinkly coating of Geotrichum candidum so condensation is a way of life until the heat of the day gets up.
Well frankly that, I think, is enough to be getting on with.  In the next couple of entries I’ll introduce the cheeses a little more fully so next up will be an introduction to St James.  Stay tuned.

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