I started playing around with the concept of hard/aged cheeses last May after being inspired by Ruth Goodman’s processes on both the Tudor Monastery Farm and Tales From the Green Valley shows on the BBC. Since then I’ve had a lot of very tasty fun, and happy to say that I feel that I’ve been largely successful. (Success measured in 1. No food borne illness yet, to myself or others, 2. My picky husband and other willing victims think the cheeses taste good, and 3. I just finished off the last round of the first batches from last May and it was still edible – it was a salted batch and got hard quick, so it has spent the last nine months in the fridge getting grated for toppings.)
This year began with the experimentation of aging cheese in wax. After a discussion in November with Mistress Elianor de Morland, waxed cheese sounded like a fun experiment and by her experiences six months was the magical aging number for yummy cheese. So by my reckoning if I waxed the cheese the first of January, then it should be ready and sharable in time for Lilies War. To spice things up a bit, I chose to try out two different versions of cheese to be waxed. The first was un-aged and waxed the day out of the press, and the second was aged one week then waxed. I used the same recipe for both batches: 1 gallon whole milk, 1 cup plain Greek yogurt to get the cultures going, 6 cups half and half, and a vegetable based rennet. This follows the gist of the most basic recipe of cheese given by Gervase Markham in his 1615 work The English Housewife. Markham recipe for a “new cheese” uses the fresh milk of the morning’s milking with the addition of the cream from the previous night’s milking – introducing the cultures that I use the yogurt for as well as the fat that I use the half and half for. He gives the batch a quick scalding (yes, they knew that raw milk had the possibility of carrying things that made one ill, and no this will not be a forum for the raw milk v. pasteurized milk argument), cooled it, added the rennet from the specially prepared calf’s stomach, and then proceeded with the siting, straining, and pressing bit. The cream from the half and half gives the cheese a nice creaminess as well as the added bonus of the fat content effectively doubling the yield of the cheese.
I currently use a wooden bowl with drilled holes in the bottom and bulletin board pins for legs as a make shift press, it gives me a period shaped cheese following the same pressing mechanics of weight on top = compression. (I’m still researching period cheese presses and deciding between the ceramic Roman type or the wooden medieval type.) The cheese gets flipped half way through with more weight added on the second press to achieve a fairly equally pressed cheese. It then gets salted or brined for around a week or more and hangs out on an elevated reed mat in my handy storage room/cheese cave that says between 58 and 68 degrees throughout the year. Winter time is a bit rough for the cheese due to uber low humidity in my home, but a small humidifier ran on low seems to help a bit in the room. Which in historical perspective, I couldn’t be making cheese in the winter anyway because the livestock are pregnant and not in milk. After the cheese was pressed and one round aged, I moved to the waxing stage. Instead of the modernly available gulf waxes or vacuumed cling bag to simulate wax, I used bees wax heated in a double boiler (read as aluminum pie pan over a small saucepan) and then brushed the wax on building up to a thick coat of wax that filled any small cracks and crevices. Cleverly, fingers crosses anyway, I marked the rounds with sealing wax to denote which ones were un-aged and the one week aged round. They are currently hanging out until Lillies and getting turned on a regular basis. A photo of the waxed rounds below.
On Facebook, I had mentioned using another of Gervase Markham’s recipes for turning leftover buttermilk into cheese. While he suggests giving the buttermilk to one’s poor neighbors so that you would receive good marks for the afterlife, I chose to take Option B and follow his other suggestion and turning into cheese. The long story short of it, I’m fairly certain that the cheese that this makes is more of a fresh cheese for spicing and eating right away than for aging. Granted, I had some issues with dryness and splitting (how I learned about the humidifier trick), but even then the end result while edible was a much lower quality product than the fresh curds. So if you were wondering how that experiment came out, there you go.
Finally, I just set up a cheese that I’m pretty excited about for this weekend. As a thank you to my hosts gift, I made a creamy cheese salted with black truffle sea salt. Instead of adding half and half to the milk, this cheese was made with a half gallon of half and half. After straining and hanging it, the curds are fluffy and can best be described as a cross between whipped cream and butter. (If you have ever churned your own butter in an old fashion crockery and stick churn, it is a bit more substantial than the consistency of the mixture when it is right on the cusp of separating from the grainy whipped cream into butter and liquid.) Once smushed into the press, the curds firm up to a beautiful albeit delicate round of cheese that is in one word – decadent. This will only be aged and salted for a couple of days before eaten, with my hosts hopefully enjoying it. See mouthwatering cheese below.
Hope you enjoyed this cheesy post!
Okay, so a final note, I age my cheese directly above my growing vinegar in the store room. While warned in the past about cross contamination, I have not had any disastrous consequences to either the vinegar or the cheese. In fact, the one batch of cheese that did have a slight vinegar note to it was actually nice and quite complex. In Gervase Markham’s ideal farm house set up, both the dairy and the buttery (where the butts of ale and other alcohols are kept) are joined to the kitchen which houses the brewing and stilling vessels. Considering that these items were generally manufactured in the same home throughout the period, I feel that some modern sensibilities are clouding culinary expectations – but that is another topic. Your mileage may very, but don’t feel like you have to choose one or the other without some experimenting.