Arm-deep in honey-coloured curds and whey, I realise that cheese making really is an art. Swirling the buttery liquid by hand is almost hypnotic, but requires a patient and experienced cheese maker to know when to stop.
Suffolk-based Food Safari specialises in providing hands-on learning experiences for food lovers, to promote the importance of how food reaches our plate, and the Cheese in a Day course is the newest addition. Held at Whitegate Farm, a small dairy farm near Stowmarket, the course provides an insight into the daily workings of a dairy farm and the detailed methods of producing cheese.
Katharine Salisbury, the cheese maker behind Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses, expertly explains the delicate and lengthy process involved in creating a cheese, from milking right through to the finished product. The family-run business uses milk from their own pedigree herd of Guernsey cattle to make the award-winning semi-hard Suffolk Gold and the lightly blue-veined Suffolk Blue.
As we went into the dairy, Katharine explained the necessity for high hygiene standards to avoid contamination, and she ensured that we were all appropriately covered. Wrapped up in a hair net, plastic shoe covers, thick white overalls and an apron, I looked ready for surgery. And, as I found out, cheese making can be just as technical.
Shaping the curd
The plan was to make a simple soft-curd cheese, with a texture and taste like mozzarella. Trying not to over-crush the fragile mixture of fresh milk and rennin (an enzyme that transforms the liquid milk into soft curd), we gently handled the creamy curds to separate the unwanted whey. Although a waste product of the cheese-making process, the farm’s pigs happily slurp the nutritious whey, which makes up the bulk of their diet and helps to reduce the farm’s waste, too.
After the mixture was separated and rested, the whey was carefully drained and the curds slopped into moulds. We then left our handiwork to settle and shape, a process that was to take around three hours, and wandered towards the refrigerated containers, where the harder cheeses develop. The solid rounds are neatly stacked for about 10 weeks to achieve the all-important thick mould rind.
The wonderful smells were quickly matched by the impressive feast prepared by Food Safari. The spread included a quiche made with Suffolk Gold and bacon from the farm, a lentil salad with Suffolk Blue, a Suffolk Gold frittata and plenty of wine. The recipes were all included in the information pack, too.
Before returning to the dairy, herdsman Jason Salisbury offered a tour of his farm and a chance to meet the prize-winning herd. “Business started in 2004 when I got made redundant from milking cows,” he said. “I decided to go out and buy a cow with my £400 redundancy money, and we started making cheese.” As the business grew, so did the herd, and now the couple supplies local restaurants and delis.
After replacing our hygienic covering, we returned to the dairy to finish the cheese. The curds were now almost solid, and had to be turned out of the moulds to be carefully rubbed in salt and rolled in herbs to make the finish product. Once the cheeses were wrapped up to take home, the cows were ready to be milked.
The Guernseys patiently lined up outside the milking parlour, and as the first set wandered through, the day became even more hands-on. The udders were dipped in a sanitising iodine foam before the rumbling pumps were attached. The herd was unfazed by my haphazard fumbling of udders and machinery, and produced streams of golden milk, which tumbled through the pumps towards the dairy. Jason explained that the pumps were designed in straight lines to avoid the milk getting knocked around, which breaks up the proteins and fats.
Food Safari’s Cheese in a Day provides valuable insight to the passion and care that hand-making cheese is all about. Understanding where food comes from, how it is sourced and why to use local produce are valuable lessons that Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses, and other small producers depend on the rest of us knowing.
HOW TO GET THERE
From the south and west, follow the A14, and after Stowmarket at J51, take the A140 towards Norwich/Diss. Whitegate Farm is a mile on the right. Needham Market is the nearest train station.
Whitegate Farm, Creeting St Mary IP6 8PG
The Cheese in a Day dairy farm experience costs £150, and includes lunch, tea and snacks.
School of Artisan Food
Welbeck, Notts S80 3LR
This two-day beginners’ course includes lunches.
Hagley Bridge Farm
Taunton, Somerset TA4 2BQ
One or two-day introductory courses for all levels.
The Bildeston Crown
Bildeston IP7 7EB
Serves local produce, including set and tasting menus.
Needham Market IP6 8DQ
01449 720 305
An elegant Georgian building in the centre of Needham Market.