Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Adventures in cheesemaking - part 1

The path from enthusiastic cheesophile to master cheese maker is a long and winding one, a path which often doubles back on itself or stops to admire the view (and presumably eat some cheese).

As a beginner cheesemaker, Ian's cheeses so far are best described as... experimental.  We've had a white cheese that turned blue (due to cross-contamination of molds), a brie that melted in on itself (because not enough liquid was drained out), and several over-salting mishaps. As far as I was concerned, it didn't matter what the cheese looked like as long as it tasted good. And it did.  The runny brie was perfect for drizzling onto home-made bread, the white-cheese-turned-blue was just the right combination of blue strength and white creaminess.  Too-salty cheese works well stirred into a risotto (in moderation).

However, Ian is a perfectionist.  And a dribbly brie is apparently Not Acceptable.

Runny brie- what you get when you don't have a cheese press!
Luckily Ian has a good friend and fellow scientist who, after several years of dedicated cheese making, has achieved the status of 'person we know with the most experience of making cheese'.

When he's not making cheese, 'Mr Cheese' as I shall call him, or C for short (because I haven't asked if he wants to be namechecked) leads his own research group at Cardiff University.  I have decided that the scientific mind is both a blessing and a curse for cheese making.  Cheese making is after all one great experiment.  It involves following a protocol, initiating reactions, tweaking parameters and ultimately evaluating the results (yum!).  So to a certain extent scientists are perfectly suited to this.  If the protocol specifies that you set the curds by heating them to 32oC, then a scientist will likely whip out the digital thermometer until the required temperature is reached.  If the instructions say 'cut the curds into 2 cm cubes', then you can probably use them in a game of cheese Jenga.  Unfortunately the cheese making process also involves a certain amount of non-scientific factors, which can be generally termed 'winging it'.  In part this is due to the fact that to make many (although not all) cheeses you have to work with living organisms.  Bacteria provide the 'starter culture' and work together with the rennet (an enzyme) to set the cheese.  They also develop the flavour during maturation.  Moulds (yeast) are also used in certain cheeses: Penicillium camemberti makes the white mold on the surface of camembert and brie, while Penicillium roqueforti is used for making blue cheese.

Ian's 'oh-it's-turned-blue' cheese on home-made oatcakes

Unfortunately any scientist that has worked with living organisms can tell you that they can throw even the most perfectly executed protocol into disarray. A cheese can basically be thought of as a miniature farm, because the final taste and texture is ultimately dependant on how well your bacteria and mold 'livestock' have multiplied in your care, and whether any unwanted organisms have invaded your cheese 'field'.  Unfortunately microorganisms are not the most predictable livestock to raise, more like teeny-tiny pandas than sheep (well, ish), and this is basically because their growth is influenced by so many external factors.  Temperature, humidity, salinity, consistency (or lack thereof) of all of the above can all affect the extent to which bacteria and molds develop.  I should know, I spent three and a half years messing around with bacteria, ending up with a PhD which would have been more accurately titled 'Things Which Do Not Work'.

Consistency is the goal for any cheesemaker, and the most difficult to achieve in a small scale.

When we arrived at C's house in Cardiff it was immediately apparent that here was a man who takes his cheese making seriously.  A dedicated fridge in the garage houses a large number of maturing varieties.  A large gouda encased in yellow wax, several smaller camemberts, a few blues, a few bries.  A portable wine fridge had been repurposed to monitor temperature and humidity for ripening. There was a home-made cheese press and several large plastic boxes of cheese making 'kit'.  As I said, serious cheese. I was slightly concerned that there was not enough room in our entire house, never mind our galley kitchen, for this level of dedication.

While I went off for the day to learn the art of hedge laying (something which I hope to be able to put into practice, as soon as we gain some hedges), Ian and C spent the day making camembert, ricotta, mozzarella, and a goat's milk 'chevre'.   When I returned that afternoon they were in full flow with almost all the cheeses part-way through production.

Watching any craftsperson making their creation is fascinating, and so it was here, if slightly messier. Confidently, and with admirable patience, C guided Ian through the process from milk to cheese, answering a battery of questions at each stage.  On an increasingly crowded kitchen work surface the nascent camembert and chevre sat in two large pans; periodically C would lean over with a spatula and lift out a divet of setting curd which was inspected and passed around for discussion.  More questions were asked and notes were made. 

The curds were left to drain in their moulds and mozzarella-making began.  Mozzarella manufacture is wonderful to watch; the set curds are worked like Play-Doh, folded over and over until they become silky smooth and stretchy, breaking to reveal an almost fibrous structure. Quite possibly the best thing about Mozzarella is that it is edible immediately.  Blink and you would have missed it!

From my perch at the side of the kitchen (glass of wine in hand) I learnt that cleanliness during cheese making is as much about protecting the cheese from other molds, as it is from protecting it from 'germs'.  I learnt that ultimately, cheese making does necessarily involve a certain amount of 'just winging it', but that this is OK as long as you know the boundaries within which it is acceptable for 'it' to be wung.  And as I watched Ian, bright-eyed with excitement (and cheese consumption), filling the umpteenth page with scribbled notes, I realised that we too would soon be acquiring a dedicated cheese fridge, and I wondered whether it was acceptable to stick a bottle of wine in a repurposed wine cooler-come-cheese maturer.

I won't know exactly what Ian has learnt for several weeks, when the first of the Cambridge cheeses make it through production.  But Big Plans are already being made... anyone fancy some cheese?



Wednesday, 3 February 2016

All you need is gloves...

To anyone watching me on my daily cycle into work, my behaviour since the start of this year must seem a bit odd. Intermittently I leap excitedly off my bike to swipe up a soggy shape lying in the path, which is dropped in my bike basket before getting back in the saddle and cycling on. I have become so efficient at this process that I can be off and away almost without slowing the bike.

The reason for this, as is the case with a lot of the eccentric behaviours we see each January, is my New Year’s Resolution.  This year I have resolved not to buy any new clothes all year.  Obviously there are one or two caveats to this, the main one being that if my pants drawer is destroyed in a localised fire, or nibbled by pants moths, then I reserve the right to go to M&S to replace them.  The other caveat is that I’m being a bridesmaid later this year, and it’s probably not appropriate, or acceptable to the bride, to dress two bridesmaids in matching posh frocks and the remaining one in Oxfam.  However, other than this it’s charity shops – and preferably no shops – all year.

One item of clothing that I normally buy at this time of year is gloves.  As I spend a lot of time cycling, I normally double-glove against the cold.  Rain means there is normally a pair or two drying over a radiator, in work, at home or in the pub, I often forget where.  Unfortunately I’m not very good at hanging on to my gloves.  They fall out of pockets and bounce out of my bike basket, unnoticed.  Efforts to hang onto a particularly good pair by attaching a long piece of ribbon which could be threaded through my coat, just left me tangled in ribbon as it caught round my shoulders.  I probably average three of four pairs over a winter. 

I was already buying gloves from charity shops for reasons of cost;  their relatively short spell in my ownership meant that the price-per wear was relatively high. 

However, with my newfound focus on reducing clothing waste, I realised that this net exporting of gloves must happen to lots of people in Cambridge.  With all of these gloves making a bid for freedom, surely I could just replace my wandering gloves, with those that have wandered out of others’ pockets?

We are of course a cycling city, and my route to work uses a major cycle path along the river Cam. In the first week back at work after Christmas, I collected four different gloves in my basket, including a grey suede fur-lined glove, and a stripy knitted fleece-lined mitten.  These are my favourite 'pair.'
I have an almost-pair of black gloves, one with a Nike tick, the other an Adidas logo and a proper pair of purple gloves (which is almost disappointing; I quite like the odd combinations).  I also have two leather gloves, one black, one white, which would make a good pair apart from the fact that both are lefties. 
Not all gloves were rescued from the gutter, one came from a skip where it seemed that someone had reached in to take some wood (which is what I was doing), and when they took their hand out they left their glove pincered between two boards. 
I now have a collection of 12 gloves and growing.  The sample size is still small but there are signs that people are more careless with their righties than their lefties, and also that people are more adventurous with their glove colours than I might have predicted.
Of course, if anyone reading this recognises their long lost glove among my burgeoning collection do let me know and I will reunite you!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Travelling tails: The animals of Minneapolis

On paper, spending time in a new country should provide plenty of opportunities for spotting the local wildlife.  There are certainly enough wildlife ‘teasers’ around - the Minneapolis student American football team is known as ‘The Gophers’, the basketball team is ‘The Timberwolves’ (another name for the common grey wolf, thank you Wikipedia) and I’ve passed at least three different foot outlets whose logo features a moose (although possibly an elk).   Even lowering my expectations, which may be necessary given the (hopefully) tiny chance of a moose encounter in downtown Minneapolis,  then the intrusion of raccoons into American cities is complained about as much as foxes are back home.  Honestly, I'd leave a trail of rubbish leading to my door if it meant I could see a raccoon! Sadly, the only native wildlife I have seen near my flat so far are grey squirrels, a million of them filling the trees in my local park. 

Part of the problem is my lack of transport.  After several near-death experiences on my borrowed bike I’m refusing to drive over here until everyone agrees to join me on the correct, left, side of the road, something I inadvertently keep trying to revert to every time I turn a corner without concentrating.  Cycling is useful for shorter trips (including the 10 mile cycle to the office - distance has a different meaning here) but the sheer size of Minnesota means that I could cycle for hours are still not be in the countryside.
I’d noticed however, that the office which is kindly hosting me during my secondment to Minneapolis, and which is outside of the main city, albeit in an industrial wasteland between the Mall of America and the International Airport rather than in anything that could be classed as countryside, was next door to a ‘National Wildlife Refuge’.  Based on the abundant and typically enthusiastic signage (1km to Wildlife Refuge!’ ‘ Next Exit for Wildlife Refuge!’) I assumed the wildlife refuge must be a hotspot for wildlife, most likely teeming with small and furry creatures who arrive carrying their worldly possessions in red spotted handkerchief, assuming of course that they successfully avoid  the major eight-lane highway that runs past the entrance.  I decided to shift my running to lunchtime in order to check it out.  
Inside the wildlife refuge was extremely attractive, probably best described as a wetlands nature reserve which flanked the Minneapolis river.  The running track followed the treeline along the river, and the shade was extremely welcome given the 30oC midday temperatures.   Possibly also because of the midday temperatures, I didn’t see much wildlife.  Although the long grass was buzzing with the sound of hundreds of grasshoppers (or possibly crickets) it was too hot for anything to show itself.  In fact the only animals I saw for 20 minutes were frogs, all exactly the same colour as the path and very disconcerting when they leapt out unexpectedly from beneath by descending feet.  Lucky for them I’m not very fast at the moment.  On the way back I saw – to great excitement!  Half a ribbon snake!  Or at least half a Google-says-it’s-a-ribbon-snake, snake.  Half a snake in this case because, alerted by the thud of my feet as I intermittently jumped over a frog, it was whipping off the path and into the grass.  Still, a definite tick in the eye-spy book of genuine American wildlife.  
Luckily I have also been able to satisfy my need to spend time with animals by wiling away several happy hours in the livestock barns at the State Fair.  I discovered an entirely new type of goat, the La Mancha.  An American dairy breed notable for its tiny ears, and another tick in my American wildlife book (OK, possibly a wildlife book that I’ve added additional pages to for farm animals).  Other than that I'll just have to make do with Skyping the guys at home.  Just over seven weeks to go!
Tiberius and Sibelius try out Skype
A LaMancha goat


Sunday, 19 July 2015

Let there be light!

I recently fished out this rather tasteless lamp from the skips at the back of our local shopping centre, a source of many useful bits and pieces, including the glass drinks dispenser that we used for brewing in our dandelion and ginger ale, here.

Believe it or not, it's Ralph Lauren, and has a nice rectangular silk shade on top of a rather more ugly, heavy glass base with "Ralph Lauren Home" embossed on the front in gold.  Lovely.  The base had a large chip missing from the corner, which is presumably why it ended up in the skip.  Even more unbelievably the price tag proclaimed this lamp to be £99.99 (yes, that's ninety-nine pounds for a lamp!).  I can almost feel myself turning into my dad as I type that ("It's how much?!").

Tiberius is unimpressed by the lamp.
What was interesting about this lamp was that all the electrical gubbins (another dad word there) including the flex for the plug, was attached to the metal frame that held the light bulb, rather than passing through the base of the lamp and trailing out from the back of the base.  This made me wonder whether I could prise the top of the lamp from the base and reattach it to something else.  Something nicer, which, let's face it, is pretty much anything. 

After checking that the lamp still worked(!), I had a rummage through the log pile and came up with this interesting piece of sycamore from one of the trees in our garden.  I stripped off the bark and lightly sanded it all over.
Next, I took a hammer and chisel to the lamp, and with one enthusiastic whack managed to cleanly separate the metal top from the glass base.  While this was surprisingly easy, the next step was more difficult.  The sycamore chunk was relatively flat on the base, but slightly angled at the top.  In order to make a level surface to attach the lamp to, I was going to have to chisel out a wedge from the top of the sycamore. 
Jeez, what a faff!  The sycamore had been weathering for over a year and had dried out, hardening in the process.  Furthermore, the grain of the wood meant that chips of wood splintered off with the chisel, rather than neat strips. 
This made it very hard to control the depth of the wedge.  In the end, I hacked out a large hole, that was the right shape to fit the lamp, although not the right depth.  Then I mixed up lots of the wood chippings with wood glue to make a wood 'cement' allowing me to level off the bottom of the hole.  Finally, I set the top of the lamp on the sycamore base with lots more glue and after checking it was (roughly) level, weighted it down until it was dry.

And here is the finished lamp in action!  I love it, and it's certainly not bad for a morning's work and free materials!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Trouble With Sheep

The hot weather we've been having recently seems to have affected the sheep. 

No, not heatstroke, our flock decided it was high time they took a holiday.  This was instigated by the top ram, Kai, and his second-in-command, Flake, who decided that their field, well it was OK, but just look at the neighbouring wheat field!  And that vegetable patch!   There, it seems a sheep could be free to truly enjoy the summer.

Kai in the vegetable plot (hand-sheared by Ian!)
Time and time again we herded them back into their field - from the neighbour's fields, from the vegetable patch and from the back lawn of the farm, but each time the boys tested our workmanship, leaning on the fences until they found a new weak point, and then with a wriggle and a flick of a woolly tail it was over, out and off. 

An emergency workday was called.  For several hours we reinforced fences, added tension wires and knocked in extra posts, until the perimeter of the sheep field bristled like a wonky pincushion of wood and wire.

For the rest of the week the sheep watched balefully from the confines of their enclosure, but, happily for us, they remained enclosed.

Until Saturday.

It seems almost planned that the boys would wait until several farm members were around for a Saturday workday before staging their latest escape.  Like Steve McQueen before them, they knew that a watching audience (if not a video camera) was the essential ingredient for turning a regular escape into a great escape.

Just before elevenses (we model the frequency of our snack breaks on those expected by Winnie-the-Pooh), someone working on the vegetable plot shouted over that Kai had once again escaped.   By leaning his weight on the fence he had caused it to sag in the centre, leaving a gap between the fence and the new tension wires above which was just enough for him to wriggle his way through.  As we gathered to watch sheep after sheep followed Kai into the adjacent field (luckily, ours), bleating joyfully.

The breached defences.
After much joking about the consequences of us all counting sheep jumping over a fence, it was decided to leave the flock where they were.  While it may be true that the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, in this case the sheep had grazed their current field to the extent that the grass actually was greener in the next field and the sheep were due to be moved there in the next few days. By all squeezing through the fence, the sheep had saved us the trouble of herding them all through the gate.

All apart from one that is.  Little Lamb, the, ahem, littlest lamb of the flock, wasn't tall enough to hop over the fence and stood at the perimeter bleating pitifully.

Little lamb was born unexpectedly a few weeks ago to a yearling mother who wasn't supposed to be pregnant. As the flock was newly-bought earlier this year, it seems that Kai must have snuck into her field, or perhaps she into his, for a fleeting night of sheep loving before the flock arrived on the farm. 

If Little lamb's arrival into the world was unexpected for us, it was downright alarming to her mother, who is no more than a teenager in sheep years and who initially dealt with the situation by denying all responsibility towards her tiny runt of a lamb, headbutting her viciously when she wobbled over to feed.  This behaviour earned her mother some time in a head restraint, to prevent her from taking a sufficient run up to do real damage to her baby.

Several hours after her birth the mother was still keeping her distance from the newborn and Little Lamb was beginning to flag. If she was to survive the night it was vitally important that little lamb took on some colostorum substitute.  Ian and I took a bottle and sat with her.  It was an agonisingly slow process as the exhausted lamb sucked weakly at the bottle. Happily, Little Lamb showed a surprising amount of resilience for such a tiny creature and after a sleepless night for Ben, who stayed up to continue the bottle feeding, the mother sheep decided that she did want to get to know her baby after all.

A scale shot- Little Lamb and Ian's legs
Ian as 'Mummy Sheep'

Unfortunately, it seemed that motherhood was an easily forgotten role for this particular sheep, because once in the new field on Saturday she studiously ignored Little Lamb's bleats in favour of stuffing her face with fresh grass.

Alone in the field, Little lamb began to panic, running frantically up and down along the fence line. 
It was clear that we were going to have to move her ourselves.

Three of us slowly approached Little Lamb, smiling reassuringly.  She tensed, her whole body moving in time with the rapid pattering of her heart.  We reached for her, friendly arms trying to lift her over to join her mum.

Little lamb on the run

Unfortunately from her point of view I suspect we were a terrifying group of two-leggers trying to back her into a corner while showing their scary omnivorous teeth. 

She ran for her life to the opposite end of the field. 

We gathered reinforcements.  Six people were now spread across the field, three carrying hurdles to make a temporary pen around Little Lamb.  Or that was the plan anyway.  What actually ensured was 45 minutes of hot, bruise-inducing charging around the field, each time cornering Little Lamb only to have her spring away from us at the last second and race away at top speed.  Finally, in what I can only image will go down as the worst rugby tackle in history, I managed a slow motion dive between some thistles to grab hold of Little Lamb. Seconds later and she was into the next field and trotting happily towards mum, leaving a team of sweaty farm members stood in the empty field. 

Elevenses had most definitely been earned.

And she definitely didn't say thank you.