31st January 2015
The lengthening days bring new light to our lives, the promise that winter won’t last forever. It’s clearly impacted the chickens too, as they’ve gone from 3 to 11 eggs per day, just in the last week! Mama rabbit decided her youngsters were old enough to look after themselves, and jumped the fence for a booty call. Found her with Papa this morning…we didn’t really want to have any more babies until spring, but what can you do, they’re rabbits after all!
Our lovely sheep have become incredibly tame! When we got them in the autumn you couldn’t really get closer than 5 meters, and now they come right up to us, one or two have even started jumping up like a dog, to see if I have food! The trick was to make them realise that there was food in the universe that was FAR tastier than dried grass. At first they weren’t interested in anything, they didn’t even know what grain was, they just sniffed at it and walked away. But we corrupted them, oh yes. Once they got a taste of the magical crunchy stuff, there was no going back. I can even touch them now, without them doing a runner. (Cuddling is just a small step away…)
With the birth of our first calf just six months away, our attention once again turns to milk and her cheesy children. Dan has begun his second attempt at gamalost, that strange, brown stuff that seems to be made of breadcrumbs. At the moment though it is just 20 litres of cultured milk! It has to mature for two weeks before the cheese can be made. And from all that milk we skimmed 3 liters of cream, which means I’ve spent quite alot of time making butter in the past few days. We only have a small hand churn so I had to do several batches. Some of it I salted to use fresh, and some I made into ghee, for cooking. Ghee is a brilliant way to preserve homemade butter, as it can keep for several months and it makes a wonderful cooking oil, with a much higher smoke point than butter. It is basically just unsalted butter that has been heated to remove water and to separate the milk solids. It is an indian tradition, I haven’t heard of it being made in the traditional cultures of europe, though it may well have existed. I know that at least in Norway all the butter was made in the summer and they would salt it very heavily to preserve it until the cows would calve again in the spring.
And from all that butter I’ve finally had enough buttermilk to make a small amount of spreadable cheese. Because the cream I used was soured, the buttermilk was also sour so it made a good mild tasting slightly sour white cheese. To make it I heated the buttermilk up to around 40c and kept it there for about half an hour, to make it curdle. Then I just poured it into a cheesecloth and hung it up to drain overnight. So simple, so tasty, so satisfying. Next week I will embark on my own hard cheese adventure! I will try to make a kind of traditional norwegian hard cheese, made from fresh milk. It’s a good cheese for us to make because it doesn’t require a starter culture and you don’t have to wax it. So it’s great because we can just use things which we already have, which makes it HIGHLY self-sufficient. And of corse, it was made traditionally in conditions very similar to how we live, so we know at least that it’s POSSIBLE and doesn’t require some kind of transcendental sterilised environment.
First a small obituary for pappa rabbit, who passed away recently. Cause of death unknown. He lived a relatively short but comfortable life, and fathered many children. Strangely, it was just after his wife paid him a visit, and she behaved oddly for several days before his death. She has now outlived all of her children and her husband, and may or may not be pregnant with his babies. If she isn’t, the time of the rabbits may come to an end.
Dan made his gamalost recently, and the initial ‘bresting’ went well, but the mold that is supposed to grow on the cheese (mucor) is not winning against various blue and white molds. We are not really sure why, as last time it grew a coat of the finest fur!
Yesterday was cheesemaking day! In one frantic effort, I spent the whole of the previous day manically cleaning the house and thinking about evil mould spores and bacteria and where I would hide if I was a micro-organism. I clearly spent far too much time on the internet reading about cheesemaking and how you need a super clean sterile kitchen and even a single bacteria can RUIN your cheese…obviously I blew the whole thing out of proportion and fortunately came to my senses BEFORE I started throwing the entire contents of the room out of the window. I had to remind myself that people made cheese for thousands of years before sterile environments even existed. (I briefly researched this just now and the first evidence of cheesemaking is from 5,500BCE in Poland!) Nonetheless, it was a good excuse to clean the kitchen. (I even cleaned the dirty patch of wall behind the sink) (And, as hard as it was, I even brifely banned cats from the house.) I almost had a fit when Dan came home and immediately brought out his cheese, and started scraping mold off it. I could SEE the billions of spores rise in clouds, to contaminate my cheesemaking room. I think that was when I finally let go of the idea of zero contamination. In any case, the cheese I wanted to make was a traditional norwegian cheese, and though the dairy-maids of yore did have a good sense of hygiene, I don’t think they had a word for sterilisation. This is one of the things that makes me feel very positive about my cheesemaking endeavours- that people have been making this kind of cheese for a very long time in less than perfect conditions and without the aid of scientific knowledge of the inner workings of cheese, or factory produced cultures, or cheese wax, or even a cheese press. So it’s perfect for us who just want to be able to use what we have, and for it to be another step towards self-sufficiency, rather than an expensive hobby.
Ok, now to the cheesemaking. The cheese in norwegian is called “hvit søtost” which just means white sweet cheese, and encompasses all ‘normal’ cheeses- those made from fresh, rather than soured cows milk, and use rennet. The methods varied quite alot from region to region and farm to farm, so no two cheeses would have been the same. Which is quite nice because in a way, that means I can’t get it wrong! The problem is that I don’t really know what it should be like, or which method to follow. BUT, that’s great because that means I can just choose how I want to do it, and do lots of experiments to see what works. (And taste lots of cheese!) It’s terribly exciting. So one of the main ways this cheese differs from modern cheeses is that they didn’t add any bacterial culture. That’s because they knew how to do magic. They used only wooden utensils, so their bacterial culture actually lived in the wood, and was reactivated everytime they made cheese! Now I don’t have any such inocculated utensils, but I read that you can use buttermilk as a mesophilic culture. I used REAL buttermilk, the liquid that is a by-product of making butter. For it to be bacterially active, it has to be churned from sour cream- this is cream that has been soured with a bacterial culture, (otherwise known as cultured cream). I think it’s practically non-existent in England, but its still common in Norway (rømme) and the rest of scandinavia, and in Poland (smetana) and other eastern european countries. We always sour our cream, as it keeps longer that way, and is a tasty condiment. To sour it I just added a little bit of sour cream from our perpetual culture, and kept it by the stove overnight. By the morning it is thick and quite gloopy- the bacteria have done their job. Sour cream can keep for weeks if kept cool and that means anything below around 12 degrees centigrade. It’s very useful for us, especially in the summer when even the cellar gets as warm as that. (We don’t use a refrigerator). But back to cheese! I decided to try with a small amount of milk to start off with, 15 litres. And for that I needed about 750ml of buttermilk. I actually only had 500ml so we shall see how that turns out. The point of adding a culture is to start the acidification process- the bacteria convert the lactose into lactic acid thus making the cheese acidic which is what helps to preserve it. It also helps the rennet to coagulate the milk. I warmed the milk in a really big iron pot, which just about fit into our kitchen stove. I added the buttermilk a little before I added the rennet, then waited for it to coagulate. After half an hour I stirred the curd to break it up, until it sunk under the whey. In modern cheesemaking, they cut it rather than stirring it, as that means less of the butterfat is lost in the whey. But I used the whey to make ‘brunost’ anyway, so it doesn’t matter to me. Before scooping out the curd, I used my hands to feel for any larger chunks, and break them up. After they are broken they become more springy and firm. I lifted the curds out into my cheesecloth lined mould, which sat over the big pot. When I had retrieved most of the curd from the warm whey I took it away from the pot to start pressing out the whey with my hands. Meanwhile, Dan Halvard and Matt (our wwoofer) strained all the whey to get out the last of the curds. Then they tipped it all back into the pot to start heating it to make brunost. I pressed the cheese in the mould for over half an hour until no more whey would come out, and then put in the follower (a small wooden plate) and set it in the alcove behind the stove with several large books on top to press it. I left it like that until about midnight when I turned the cheese and put it back in the press. The following morning I removed it, and unwrapped it from the cheesecloth. Then I just grinned and talked to it a little bit, and told it what a lovely cheese it was. And I rubbed the surface with dry salt, covered it and left it to sleep.
The whey was boiled down for around two hours, and I added cream when it started to thicken. When it was very thick and brown, I took it off the heat and stirred it until warm, then kneaded it with my hands until cool. It turned out very light in colour, and much more hard and crumbly than it should be. I think this is because I only had about 10 litres of whey, which meant that it boiled down too fast and didn’t caramelise enough. I plan to make cheese again this weekend, with more milk this time so hopefully the brunost will be better. In the future, when I consistently make good cheese, I will write more about the process and how to do it…but right now I’m still figuring it out.
The source of my cheesemaking knowledge is mainly the book “Kinning, Bresting og Ysting i Valdres” by Helge Gudheim, which is an amazing work all about traditional cheesemaking and dairying in Norway. He gathered information from hundreds of sources in Valdres, both old dairymaids and modern cheesemakers, and presents it in a comprehensive way.
Last week we ate the first porridge from our own oats! I spent a whole day with our hand mill, trying different ways of removing the husk without grinding the grains too small. I had to put it through the mill several times, to free most of the grains from their husk. Then I put them through our big old grain cleaning machine, to try to separate it out. It worked! The hand-powered machine has a fan which blew away most of the husk, while collecting the oats at the bottom. The problem is alot of them still had husk attached, so I had to run them through the mill again, and then clean them once more. It turns out it isn’t possible to remove ALL of the husk, because some of the oats are too small and just fall through the mill. But it is possible to get some of those out by tipping it all into water- the smaller whole grains float, making it easy to just scoop them off the surface with a sieve! So we managed to remove most of the husk, and the rest we just put up with. It’s good to have some fibre in the diet anyway. 😛 We soaked the oats overnight in milk, to soften them and reduce the cooking time in the morning. The porridge was wonderful, so much more flavourful than store bought oats and had more texture too. Goodbye oat flakes! We have started drying all the grain now, in our drying room which is just a big rack in a room with a woodstove burning all day. We need to dry ALL the grain before the weather starts to warm up in the spring, as they won’t keep long then. Our woofer is working on removing the awn from the barley grain. It’s quite important to get rid of it, as they have tiny little barbs on them and I can imagine it would be quite nasty to get one of those things stuck in your throat! At the moment, the method is to shuffle over the grain with some very clean boots, and then rub it through the hands to loosen the stubborn ones. We put that through the cleaning machine too, which blows away the hairs. The next step with the barely is to remove as much of the husk as possible, and then mill it into flour so we can bake some more flatbread!
Oh by the way, the chickens wanted me to write that they have broken their previous personal best of 11 eggs with 18 eggs in one day! Thats almost one egg per hen now, and we already have far more than we can eat!
Thanks for reading, more soon.