Cheese-making has always fascinated me. This ancient craft of turning milk into soft fragile curds floating in whey has the sense of an ancient alchemy; “curds and whey” the stuff of nursery rhymes. Curds are pressed and then stored to mature into cheeses as different as hard aged Dutch Gouda, soft smelly Camembert, and creamy blue-veined Stilton. I have harboured ambitions to make cheese in suburban London for many years!
We think of cheese-making as being the province of professionals, either a branch of the food industry or of smaller scale cheese-making craft industry, and that is indeed where most of the cheese we eat comes from. In the past however, cheese-makers were not a specialised priesthood and farmers’ wives would make cheese as a matter of course. Small-scale cheese making is still possible today, in fact it is much easier then than it was then because you can buy the necessary modest paraphernalia on the internet.
The day course at High Weald Dairy in Sussex sounded just the ticket to polish my cheese-making skills. We would learn how to make soft and hard cheeses from 10 litre batches of milk and the course covered all the basics; including a primer on different types of milk, using starters and rennet to form curds, and cutting and draining curds –together with the different treatments of the curds to make soft and hard cheeses.
High Weald Dairy is family owned and run by Mark and Sarah Hardy from their farm in Horsted Keynes, West Sussex. They make a range of award-winning cheeses at the dairy from locally sourced cow, sheep and goat milk. Mark and Sarah ran the course together with Chris Heyes , an exile from publishing in London who is now the dairy’s marketing manager. Alongside learning how to make cheese, it was fascinating to get a better understanding of cheese-making as a business. It’s clear Mark and Sarah have a passion for cheese but they also have the responsibilities of running a small business which employs staff. I asked why they don’t make a hard aged pecorino type cheese –well the answer is that cheeses that need to be matured for a very long time hog space in the cheese store and have a high working capital. We were taken on a tour of the dairy and saw that high quality cheese requires investment in equipment, enthusiastic well-trained staff, and scrupulous attention of detail.
I enjoyed the course from the moment I turned off the M25 and began to drive through the green West Sussex countryside until I left the dairy carrying punnets of soft cheese flavoured with freshly cut herbs, a round of hard cheese that I had made myself, and a thick wedge of Halloumi cheese. The course was very hands-on, the other people on the course were fun and we had a simple but tasty lunch cooked by Chris Heyes. If you are interested in cheese-making –give it a go!