Hospital Corners

It’s been a crazy few weeks since the last post on the 22nd May with Cartmel Races and Holker Festival pulling all hands to the shop and leaving me a cheesemaking flying solo a lot of the time.  However just because at the end of that I haven’t really had the spare brain to write anything, doesn’t mean that work has not been being done.  Far from it in fact.Shortly after the last post we had a visit from the Neal’s Yard Dairy crew which on that occasion were Bronwen (the buyer), David (one of the directors), Sarah (cheese maturation and allocation of correct age profile and flavour profile for each sales department) and Charlie who works in the shops.  They came with an issue to discuss – moisture levels in the cheese and drainage.  This of course was something we were looking at ourselves but the issues at NYD were that they were maturing the cheeses longer and finding on the cheeses from end of April that they became very very runny at the rind to the extent in fact that the rinds weren’t stable and fell off very easily if handled.  Unfortunately we hadn’t had that issue ourselves in our stores but certainly it was a problem.  We shared a few ideas about storage (are we storing drier than them?) and age of selling but ultimately didn’t reach a conclusion, especially as we’d made quite a few changes since the end of April already.  By the time of the visit we’d moved on from turning out cheese from the moulds onto shelves on day 2 to having a day draining on racks in the dairy in the moulds still then a day draining on racks again while 1 side is salted, then on day 4 finally making it onto the shelves for salting on the other side and then after that on day 5 a further day out on shelves to allow a nice coating of yeasts and fledgling B. linens to grow before they went into the cold store.  Since that visit we have also turned the cold store up a little so the temperature is warmer and the rinds develop quicker.

However having heard back from London and given that we’d been worrying about drainage now for a few weeks, I decided to go for advice to the dynamic cheese duo of Hodgson & Cordle (Randolph Hodgson & Dr Jemima Cordle that is) who had visited Martin earlier in the year to get him started with the MT36 starters and had given some advice on use of the cloth liners to the moulds to help get better drainage.  They had made their own test cheese and taken it away with them after the day but the experiment had made them both feel strongly that using the cloths enough was pretty key.

First off I checked whether they had done more cloth faffage (pulling really) than we were currently doing and at what intervals it had been done.  Pretty much the same as we were doing, yet their cheese had ended up pretty darn dry (admittedly partly due to being kept in an unrefrigerated and unhumidified environment but partly drainage) whereas ours most definitely weren’t.  It had also had a close knit texture and again that wasn’t something our cheeses were doing at the time – they were quite open textured.

Going back then to ask what they’d done differently, Randolph came back with the suggestion of pulling the cloths tighter.  He said ‘We are talking about hospital corners and taught sheets’.

The aim of the exercise therefore was to give a squeeze and put pressure on the curd rather than agitate it.  Fortified with the information I set off to give it a go the following day and pulled the cloths up so damn tightly that every morning still (as the cloth pulling continues to be tight) I have fingers that won’t bend properly from the muscles being so stiff.  And I have to say it did work and continues to work.  It also highlighted that we really needed new cloths as the older ones had weakened through use and were ripping with every cloth pull.  More were on order and in fact had been for a fortnight but the suppliers were being rather slow about getting them to us.  Even with daily chasing, it took a further 10 days for them to arrive!

So what has the change been?  Well there’s still the odd bit where the curd doesn’t knit together.  The problem with relying on cloth pulling so much for drainage is that if your tension isn’t equal across the cloth and the whole side of the cheese then you get a less drained area.  Sometimes the constraints of the space you’re working around on the draining table and number of moulds you need to fit onto it, just means that some are harder to get at and work with than others.  As a general rule though, they are more closely knit together in texture and certainly smaller at the end of the day than the cheeses I used to make.

We just had a follow up visit from Bronwen and the NYD crew this time with Joe Schneider (Stichelton cheesemaker for those of you who don’t already know) which meant our discussion had another point of view in the mix too and was very interesting.  Joe also uses cloth liners when draining his curd although they are used at a different stage and before the curd makes it into the moulds, but it means he knows what the aim of the exercise is.  That is, reducing free moisture (pockets of it in the open texture of the cheese) so that the starter bacteria can’t continue acidifying the curd as much and as a result the curd retains calcium.  If there’s enough calcium, the curd will hold onto moisture but it will be locked into the curd structure and will allow for the cheese to breakdown better during maturing.  If there’s too much acidity, the calcium dissolves and the curd, having lost its calcium, has less ability to lock in that moisture and it won’t break down so well.   Or to put in another way, here is what Jemima Cordle emailed to me as an explanation and I won’t try to paraphrase any further:

‘Basically the quantity of calcium left in your final curd along with the moisture content give you your texture. The more calcium you have the more elastic or rubbery the cheese will be. British cheeses contain less calcium than the continental types due to the fact that the curd that makes them loses its moisture over a greater portion of the acidity increase.  The curd that makes Comte for instance loses most of its moisture before the pH has dropped further than  6.5 whereas for cheddar to reach the equivalent moisture level the pH will have got down to about 6.0. The bit of chemistry that is important is that as the pH decreases calcium is released from the casein into the surrounding whey. As the whey is lost the calcium goes with it.
It is this loss of calcium that gives all our cheeses their characteristic textures so it is important to achieve. However it is very easy to overdo. If too much moisture is still being lost when the pH is much below 6.0 too much calcium will be released and the cheese will end up being chalky. It will also be dry because the decalcified curd cannot hold the moisture correctly.
More often than not this happens because too much starter is added so that the curd acidifies too quickly for the drainage to keep up and the moisture is not got out in time. In the case of St James, with the starter quantity you are using, this is not an issue as long as you give the curd the help it needs to drain.’
The help needed is those cloths and making sure they are hospital bed tight.
It’s been a fun & exciting few weeks as well as a crazy few weeks!
Cheeses just ladled and ready to start draining.  Photo taken on 21st May and I’ve been cutting and ladling smaller pieces since then too which also helps drainage.
Drained cheeses the following morning, also from 21st May.  The cheeses with cloths pulled tighter are about half the height of these ones.
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