Vacherin, Sancey Richard

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(Vacherin production at Sancey Richard)

If you’re selling British cheese, then Christmas is all about Stilton.  Even with the advent of Stichelton, Colston Bassett is still a major player on the Neal’s Yard Dairy counter and at Mons, we get several customers per day asking for Stilton and needing to be directed to the Neal’s Yard Borough Shop, which we happily do.  Many people ask if Neal’s Yard Dairy is competition, but to be honest that’s not the attitude.  Neal’s Yard Dairy will happily direct French cheese lovers in our direction so we will happily return the favour.  It goes beyond that too, we all want to promote small cheesemakers who are making artisanal, traditional cheeses.  We’re a team.  Nationality isn’t all that important.

However, I digress from my main point, which is, that if you’re selling French cheese at Christmas, it’s all about the Vacherin.  Most cheeses adhere to the usual seasonal pattern of when the cows / goats / sheep go out to grass and production happens over the summer.  This is particularly evident in the mountain cheeses where the summer season is so short and the difference between grazing the amazingly varied pasture of the alpine meadows versus the hay of the winter housing is so pronounced.  Vacherin is very different in that case because its season begins as the animals go indoors.  To an English person this smacks of winter.  Cows here went in to their indoor housing fairly recently because the weather has been quite mild so far this winter.  I was at Nettlebed at the end of October and the cows were still outdoors on pasture, although it was recognised that this was due to the mild weather.  Meanwhile in the Alps, it has been snowing at pasture level since September.  This summer, I spent some time in Vigo di Fassa in the Dolomites and while there, I set the app on my phone to monitor the weather.  It’s a ski resort so it’s available.  While there, I realised it’s at the right altitude to be interesting from a cheese point of view as well and indeed I saw plenty of very happy looking cows there grazing away while I was on my walking holiday.  I kept the app monitoring Vigo di Fassa’s weather, long after the end of my walking holiday,  just for interest and I noticed that fairly early on in September it started snowing and temperatures plummeted into the minus degrees.  The cows they have there, whose milk contributes to Cuor di Fassa and Puzzone di Moena (amongst others), were most definitely indoors at this point.  I can’t really imagine that over the border in the mountain areas of France things were hugely different.

Some people romanticise the milk that goes into Vacherin production, claiming that it’s the richest milk that is produced when the cows go in to their winter housing and as such is reserved for Vacherin.  I have to be honest and say I think that is not a reflection of their housing but just a lucky coincidence.  In mountain areas, it still makes sense to have seasonal grazing and seasonal calving, meaning that the cows are calving in the late winter and getting to the end of lactation towards August through to October.  The end of lactation milk is always richer in fats and proteins.  It’s probably nature’s way of getting the last bits of nutrition into the calves.  If only we weren’t nicking it to make cheese!  A higher fat milk, however, isn’t great for making Comte which is the summer cheese in Vacherin areas.  To make a long maturing cheese, you don’t really want too much fat as it hinders drainage in the cheese and that ultimately means a moister cheese which can go a bit leftfield when maturing over many months.  It is, however, great for a quick maturing soft cheese.  So the enterprising mountain cheesemakers who, due to the early onset of winter in the mountains, have to house their cows indoors when they still have rich end of lactation milk to give, developed a recipe to showcase this milk and turn it into what we now call a marketing opportunity.

Vacherin is a high moisture cheese.  It is set very quickly and firmly which allows the rennet to trap in the maximum moisture.  The spruce cambium binding actually serves a practical purpose, to stop the cheese from overflowing its rind and spilling out as it matures.  The bonus is that it also adds to the flavour.

Sancey Richard, personified by Patrick Richard the head cheesemaker, make their Vacherin particularly well.  Interestingly they make their cheese using a vegetarian rennet.  I’m sure there are other Vacherin producers using animal rennet which would basically be the more traditional way but vegetarian rennet is often more proteolytic than animal rennet (more prone to protein breakdown) and this causes a more liquid and runny texture.  If you think of the Spanish and Portuguese sheeps milk cheeses that use a thistle rennet and need to be spooned out of their rind, you get the idea.  The choice of rennet has been due to technical reasons, however it does mean that for the vegetarian cheese buyer coming to a French cheese stand, they can buy a Christmas Vacherin!  Commercial bonus.

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(Vacherin on the Mons stand with Max in the background)

Patrick is also apparently a great character.  There is no shortage of these in the cheese world and particularly when you venture into the cheese world of France which while it may have strong traditional standards in its AOC certification also has its fair share of iconoclasts.  However nearly everyone I spoke to on the Mons stand when asking about the Vacherin, remembered fondly the time Patrick was convinced to do a promotion at Selfridges Food Hall.  A couple of hours in and he was autographing the cheeses for his customers and proudly pronouncing

‘Je suis le producteur!’

Vive le Vacherin de Sancey Richard.

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How do you cook?

As the milk amounts decline (the tups went in last week and half the ewes are now served), I’ve been thinking back to when I started making cheese in April and how the way we make cheese now has changed.The biggest change is that we’ve slowed the recipe right down.  Whereas we were heating the milk up to achieve a set time of an hour and then having to work the draining cloths hard to get the free moisture out of the mass of curd bits, we’re now getting a set time of more like an hour and a half or longer.  We’re not heating the milk as much now.  In fact I’m not heating it at all.

I do take the temperature of the milk when the starter goes in and from that, I’ll work out (in a slightly guess-work style it has to be said) how much rennet I want to add to get the set time of an hour and a half.  Sometimes this works out and sometimes I get it wrong and it goes slower than that but, on the whole, it does seem to work out that if the milk is around 27C then 1ml rennet to 5l milk seems to be the right quantity.  If the milk is warmer, say around 30C, then 1ml rennet to 7l milk seems to get a set time of an hour and a half.  If hotter, still like 33C which was the temperature on the occasion I first got the hour and a half set  by adding too little rennet by mistake, 1ml rennet to 10l milk.  So I adjust how much rennet to use roughly based around that scale.

I think that this suits me better because I’m not the sort of person who can cook to a recipe every day.  I like to get the gist of a technique and then cook it my way. Certainly looking ahead to when I’m doing my own thing, this is something I’d be interested in continuing.  At the beginning of the season, of course, I couldn’t apply this attitude to cooking, to cheesemaking.  I needed to stick to the recipe religiously because I didn’t have the experience and also because I’m making cheese for someone else.  It wasn’t my sales on the line if I messed it up.  I suppose with a bit of experience and practice I’ve got more confidence now to react more to the circumstances of the milk temperature on the day rather than make it do what I want and heat it to a specific temperature every day.

It seems to be a more forgiving recipe that we’re using now with the longer set.  There’s more moisture but it’s not free moisture.  The curd is more fragile and needs more gentle cloth pulling but still seems to drain appropriately anyway.  Even moister cheeses still don’t have the levels of free moisture.  The first cheeses made with this sort of set, are maturing rather nicely.  I like the texture of the one cheese I’ve kept back in the stores (and that I’ve marked for me to buy for myself  when it’s ready).

The other thing is that we’re leaving the starter for about an hour to mix and get working in the liquid milk before adding the rennet.  The idea behind this is that the bacteria can get going better because it should be easier for them to get distributed and to get dividing in a liquid rather than in the set curd.  Or so we hypothesise anyway.  Another thing that should help this also is the fact that at temperatures like 27C, the milk reaches its first fragile set much more slowly.  In fact it can still be liquid an hour after the rennet has been added but still reaches the firm set (or second set as it can be known) in about an hour and a half or a little longer.

My gut feeling is that this long set and longer ripening time will make a good texture and flavour when the cheeses are mature and ready to sell.  Time will tell I suppose, but if the mistake cheeses of the 28th June are anything to go by, I can allow myself to be cautiously optimistic.

Temperatures

As the sheeps milk decreases and due to a phone conversation Martin had with Randolph, we have been looking at temperatures of our make recently.  Out at Randolph’s country residence Old Kate’s Farm, Dr Jemima Cordle has been conducting cheesemaking experiments.  According to Martin, she’s been making cheese to roughly a St James recipe but playing with different temperatures and amounts of rennet to see what gets the best results in terms of producing heavier cheeses and a greater yield of cheese.  Obviously as we have less milk, that’s quite an attractive idea to us too.Perhaps a little ambitiously we thought we’d try dropping the temperatures slightly before we had a truly accurate way of recording the temperature.  The floating thermometer we have been using is about 9 degrees out.  The recipe for St James calls for setting the milk at 31C and by the thermometer we had been using, we were setting it at 23C.  You’d think that knowing this, we could drop to setting at what the thermometer tells us is 22C and try experimenting.  However, as it turns out, the thermometer is inconsistently inaccurate – great.  The first 2 days experiments have had to be discounted due to too much yeast in the starter which lead to gassy cheeses.  Dropping the temperature just a little slowed down the drainage and allowed them to take advantage of the extra moisture and get going far more than we wanted.  Experiment abandoned we invested in a good digital thermometer and realised that our previous 23C was in fact about 33C by the new equipment standards.

The temptation at this point would be to return to 31C set straight away, but by setting at 33C we had actually been getting a set time of about an hour and sometimes longer (which is not too short a time for this recipe) and more importantly the cheese has been good.  The NYD mongers have been reporting good things and the cheeses on Martin’s counter at Cartmel have also been tasting good.  So while that’s hotter than we’d intended, if it ain’t broke don’t try and fix it all at once.  We agreed to drop to 32C set temperature for starters and gradually reduce it from there on.

The temperature and set time that Jemima had found to yield most cheese is 28C and a set of an hour and a half which is longer than we have yet achieved.  By setting at what is probably 33C (it was with the old thermometer) and using half the usual quantities of rennet by mistake (1ml to every 10 litres rather than to every 5 litres) I did manage to get a set of an hour and a half.  The curd did set and it was a nice consistency at both cutting and ladling but the texture of the cheese is quite different to the usual St James.  It’s moist and succulent but sandy in texture.  In fact it reminds me of young Stichelton which considering that that is a cheese made with very small quantities of rennet is perhaps not entirely surprising.  However until it matures, we can’t be sure if dropping the rennet quite that drastically is a good thing or not.  Sometimes by making mistakes, you stumble on something good.  Sometimes, you don’t.

However armed with new thermometer in hand, I have been dropping the temperature a little by degrees.  For a few days I was renneting at between 32 & 33C (we can measure in decimal points now) and in the past couple of days I’ve dropped it further to between 31 and 32C.  Martin remains nervous about gassy cheeses, but by adapting the draining cloth work, I think we’re avoiding them.  In fact even the yeasty cheeses we made about  a fortnight ago haven’t remained gassy although they haven’t drained as I’d like either.  But they’ll be ok – not amazing but ok and for a while we weren’t sure that would be the case.  As far as set time goes, the magic hour and a half has eluded me so far but the set is a little over an hour – generally about an hour and a quarter.

The effect of dropping the temperature on the draining was the biggest difference I noticed.  It’s manageable but the curd drains less freely.  This really should be expected.  As I understand it, the reason for this slower and longer set is that rather than forming a number of stronger bonds as the curd solidifies, it forms perhaps weaker bonds but more of them and this at the end of the day forms a more effective net in which to trap moisture and fats so that the curd releases less whey when it is cut and left to rest and it needs more encouragement to continue draining after ladling.  The texture at cutting and ladling is less firm and it actually feels really nice to work with – more like gliding a knife through it than making the effort to cut.  After the curd is in its moulds however this means that it’s delicate and you can’t pull the cloths up as tightly as quickly.  So the cloths are pulled up and tucked in gently after ladling is finished.  The second cloth pull is 20 minutes later and whereas since then we’d been waiting for an hour to do it again, I now find that it needs looking at anywhere from half an hour to 40 minutes later instead.  At this point the curd is getting firmer and can stand a tighter cloth pull in which I aim to have pulled the curd in from the side of the mould so that it doesn’t touch the sides of the mould all the way round.  I won’t neccessarily have it pulled in so that it stands alone all the way round but certainly on some sides or corners it will.  The final cloth pull is then an hour after this and again can be pulled up quite firmly with the aim of standing alone from the sides of the mould as much as possible.  I usually have some cleaning or cheese turning to do after that and I’ve been keeping in mind the idea of a 4th cloth pull but so far by the time I get to cloth pull 3 I feel it’s probably drained enough.  The following morning, in general, the cheeses feel firm and well drained, perhaps a little softer than those made at the higher temperatures but no squelching that indicates free moisture.

In terms of yield and weight and whether we are getting more cheese as a result, my gut feeling is that we are.  Certainly in the last couple of days when I dropped down to between 31 & 32C, I seem to be getting more cheese than I’d expect.  I am not sure about what they weigh, but they seem to be perfectly reasonable sized cheeses and as they are well drained, it’s not trapped whey making them that size.  What I have noticed is that where I’d expect to get 11 cheeses by a process of calculation alone, I get 12 and where I thought I would get 10, I got 11.  In part this can be explained by the composition of the milk – it has higher solids in the latter half of the season than at the beginning but my gut feeling is that it is helped by the temperature and length of set too.

Certainly at this stage of the season when we’re very nearly down to 1 vat of milk only, every little extra is going to help.  The downside is that the longer set and lower temperatures can favour things like yeasts if the drainage doesn’t work so getting those cloths attended to turns out to be pretty vital.

Resting curd just before ladling.  This is the stage at which less moisture releases naturally at the lower temperatures and so more attention is needed to the cloth stages later.

 

And Introducing Swallet

This week saw the return of Swallet for a couple of days.  Swallet is a little disc of lactic set cheese which if all goes to plan has a creamy white wrinkled geotrichum rind and the recipe is more or less the Perail recipe but with a little adaptation.  The process actually takes a day and a bit until there is anything that looks like a cheese, but it actually requires not so much intervention from the cheesemaker.  Basically your job is to help the curd do what comes naturally to a certain extent.The milk is collected on the day of milking.  It is cooled a few degrees from the sheep temperature that it comes in at and starter is added.  It’s the same yoghurt consistency bulk starter that we use for St James and it is left then to grow and for the acidity to build.  A very small quantity of rennet is added that afternoon and it is left to set slowly overnight.  The following morning the curd has set and about 24 hours from the addition of the starter, we begin to ladle it out into moulds.  Each mould takes about a couple of ladles full of curd and it is then left to drain for about 4 hours before being turned in its moulds and then left overnight again to drain.  The following morning we turn the cheeses out onto racks and sprinkle salt over one side.  The cheeses are moved into a humid and warm room which has the right conditions to encourage the geotrichum to start growing and then turned and salted on the other side the following day.  After that it’s a matter of judgement as to when the cheeses are ready to move to a colder and drier environment once the rind has established itself.

Making Swallet basically uses the natural souring of the milk with a little help from additional starter and although a small amount of rennet is added, it also uses the setting ability of milk when a certain acidity is reached.  This means that actually these are technically fascinating cheeses because you are relying on the action of the acidity and the rennet enzymes to squeeze moisture out of the curd rather than, as with St James, cutting the curd to let whey out before ladling.  To be honest, it takes a bit of understanding, because there isn’t the same human intervention and it also relies on some quite subtle observations of the curd, in particular, ideally, monitoring of the curd pH which we aren’t able to do at the moment (the meter is broken).  The pH reading can of course correlate to observations on the appearance of the curd but it does take a practised eye.  Martin says it took him a few months to get his head round how to make it successfully and I suspect that may be the case for me too.  So whereas last week’s introduction to St James could be quite lengthy, this is very much just an introduction.  I have more questions to ask over the next few weeks as we make more of Swallet perhaps once a week if not even less and when I have got my head round what we’re doing a little better, I’ll return to why we do what we do.