There are four goats on the farm who currently produce milk: Mocha, Cocoa, Sissiboo, and Delia. Collectively they are referred to as “the does,” which I think has more of a ring to it than “the nannies,” another term for female goats. Every three days they produce enough milk that Paul makes cheese, and I’ve been watching him do it when there isn’t something else pressing to do in the gardens. It is both fascinating and deceptively simple.
The first cheese that I watched Paul make was halloumi, which he’d never actually made before, but he was confident that he knew the basic premise of how to prepare it because of the kind of cheese it is, and his experience the past years making various kinds of cheese. He only uses raw – that is to say, unpasteurized – goat’s milk these days, and works from a particular style of cheesemaking that takes the rawness of the milk into consideration. He has a favourite “cheese bible” – The Art of Natural Cheesemaking by David Asher – to help guide him through the process. There wasn’t a recipe for this specific cheese in there, so he found a recipe from his next favourite source, the New England Cheesemaking website.
Paul makes small batches, filling two large pots with milk, heating them on his woodstove range that serves as kitchen stove, house furnace, and hot-water warmer. Since it’s summer they try to only run the stove when it’s necessary for cheesemaking days. On other days, we use a propane camping stove set just outside one of three doors that open into Paul and Laire’s house.
Paul teaches me that all cheesemaking has the same basic premise: separating curds from whey. How you prepare the milk and curds, what microbial cultures you introduce and encourage, what substances or methods you use to separate the curds, flavours added afterwards, and aging techniques/temperatures/time-frames all determine the qualities of the cheese you end up with. For most of Paul’s cheeses, he uses kefir as a microbial culture that is added to the warmed up milk. Depending on what kind of cheese you want to make, you warm the milk to different temperatures. Halloumi requires a slightly higher heating temperature during the curd forming stage, and a much higher temperature during the curd cooking stage, and to get it right Paul uses a specific thermometer that measures every temperature between 20 and 200ºF.
After heating and culture introduction, the cheese has to sit for a short time and also have a substance added to it that separates the curds from the whey. Paul uses rennet, which is an enzyme that comes from a certain chamber of calf and goat kid stomachs, which helps them digest their mother’s milk. He tells me some kinds of cheese use an acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar, for this curdling process.
Once the rennet is added to the warm inoculated milk, the milk is left to rest, covered, to allow the rennet to do its job. After an hour, we cut the thickened milk (or curd) into roughly ¾” cubes by means of a series of angled cuts from a long knife.
The cut curds are then slowly heated again, with Paul stirring with his hand the entire time, until the curds begin to firm up to about the consistency of poached egg-whites. His cheese bible recommends using your hands directly as a good way to stay connected with your cheese, allowing you to get a feel for the temperature and consistency of the milk/curds.
Sterilization is neither required nor desired in this traditional style of cheesemaking; starting with raw milk and kefir primes the cheesemaking process with a healthy, diverse microbiome that is less easily contaminated by naturally occurring microbes on the skin. Although Paul works from an electronic format at times, he tries hard to acknowledge and embrace the traditions that went into developing this way of food preparation and preserving. Which I’ve never really thought about so explicitly before: that cheesemaking is a way of preserving nutrition and food energy from milk, which will quickly go bad, but made into cheese you can keep it for weeks, months, and even years. Cheese = preserved milk. This is important when you’re trying to minimize your carbon footprint on an off-grid farm with limited electricity to run fridges and freezers.
When Paul pours the whey off this batch of curds, he’s careful to preserve it in spare vessels for use in the final cooking treatment on the halloumi. Before that happens though, he takes the curds out of the bottom of the pots, which now look rather like masses of white brain tissue from some kind of DIY craft store for Halloween decorations – paint-your-own-brain kit!
He presses these curds into his cheese mold, which is a plastic tub that he poked holes in to allow the whey to flow away when the curds are pressed. The mold is lined with cheesecloth (that is, a cotton fabric square torn from a Martha Stewart bed sheet found at Frenchys), which he wraps around the curds. The curds are now in a familiar wheel of cheese shape.
To press the curds, he describes to me as he’s doing it why he uses hot water in a second tub which is then placed on top of the curds: the heat from the water helps to slow down the cooling of the curds, which keeps them pliable and helps them to stick together in a seamless cheese form. So he places the curds and hot tub of water onto a cheese press, upon which he stacks even more weight (in the form of rocks) to press down on the curds, removing more and more whey. The whey drains away down the sides of the mold and press into grooves that have been sunk into the concrete countertop, sort of like a permanent dish-drying rack drainage system. There are plans to make a second such grooved countertop in the kitchen sink; Paul currently uses a sort of utility-room sink for washing milk buckets and making cheese.
While the curds are pressing, we take the opportunity to heat the whey to a higher temperature for the final stage of halloumi cooking, and also to skim off some ricotta which is a bonus from halloumi processing. The word ricotta, Paul tells me, means “re-cooked,” whence comes the name for the kind of cheese that you get when you cook this kind of whey (acid whey) a second time. It proves to be delicious and rich, despite the fact that goat’s milk contains much less butterfat than cow’s milk. We enjoy the ricotta in a number of fruit-cheese-maple-syrup combinations over the next few days.
The halloumi being pressed, Paul slices the wheel into 1½” slabs, which are lowered into hot whey and left to cook for 20 minutes or so; once they float to the surface, they’re done.
After that, the slabs are cooled and surface salted. They are supposed to sit for three days before they are “ready,” however, we can’t resist sampling some immediately after. It’s already one of the best halloumis I’ve ever tasted, and I look forward to grilling it later this week.