If there’s one thing I have in common with Saffy, one of our dogs, it is a fascination with food. To be fair, there are a few traits we share- such a desire to bite certain people we don’t like, and an occasional tendency to embarrass ourselves in public.
However, when it comes to food, we have both been accused of not being particularly discerning and eating whatever comes our way. And while I would admit there is more than an element of truth in this, I do draw the line at decomposing fish heads and kangaroo poop, two items that Saffy considers particularly delicious.
And if I have to be honest, Saffy doesn’t seem that interested in where her food comes from, as long as it is frequent and plentiful, whereas like many of us, Tanya and I have always had an interest in precisely how food is produced – particularly, I might say, some of the tastier things – like coffee, wine and cheese.
Being vegetarians, cheese has a big place in our lives and we generally have several varieties in the fridge at any one time. Or at least we try to – sometimes they don’t get a chance to co-exist together in our fridge for very long.
So, any chance to visit a cheese producer is one we always embrace. Sometimes this can be fascinating – such as the ‘Wensleydale’ factory in Hawes, Yorkshire in the UK, where every part of the process is explained and displayed – to the less successful visit we made to the Whitestone cheese factory in Oamaru, NZ. We had followed the signs to factory for several miles, and eventually found it at the back of an industrial estate. After climbing the steps to the “viewing platform”, we had the delightful pleasure of watching three bored looking people dumping curds into buckets, with about as much enthusiasm as I would have, if I was faced with a plate of decaying fish heads with a side of kangaroo poop for dinner.
So when we had the opportunity for one of us to attend a cheese making course in the Atherton Tablelands, we jumped at the chance. My last attempt to make cheese was probably when I was about ten years old – and the result, I have to confess, more closely resembled and tasted like something you might use to fill holes in the wall, rather than something you might choose to eat. No doubt Saffy would have approved of it, but I was hoping to improve on these efforts at the very least. And if it worked, imagine being able to just conjure up entire Bries on a whim, more or less? And if it didn’t? Well, there’s always holes in the wall to fill. Either way, it was too tempting to pass up so I enrolled.
The course was a two day affair, and was run by a lovely couple who had a small holding where they had a small herd of Jersey cows, pigeons, chickens, fruit trees etc. The plan was to make Brie, Feta and Mozzarella during the two day course. The idea of making Brie was particularly interesting as I had assumed this was the type of cheese that would be too tricky to attempt at home.
One of the extraordinary things about cheese that has always fascinated me is that all cheese, in its myriad varieties is all made from the same basic ingredients – and yet the end results are so incredibly varied. Who would have thought that something like Feta cheese would be made of exactly the same ingredients as Parmesan, yet create something so extraordinarily different.
Like every food, cheese has an origin legend. The story goes that some early goat herds discovered that if they tried to carry excess milk in a container made from the stomach of a young goat then the milk separated into curds and whey, and preserving the milk solids with salt was a good way to keep the milk edible long after it would otherwise have gone rancid. But whatever the origins of cheese, we do know that we’ve been making cheese for at least 8,000 years- almost exactly the same length of time that humans have been making wine. Coincidence? I think not. I’m not sure how a Neolithic cheese and wine evening would have gone but I am sure that the even the worst 8,000 year old wine would be improved by a good piece of cheese, just as it is today.
It turns out that making cheese is a fairly relaxed affair. There are short periods of frantic activity, then long periods where you can sit around and drink tea, coffee, wine, or the tipple of your fancy. It was very much my kind of cooking. However, while the actual process of making cheese is relatively simple, it does require a lot of attention to precise temperatures and timings to be successful, so whatever you are drinking in between times, it is better to moderate it to some extent, as I am sure our ancestors discovered for themselves 8,000 years ago, and as I discovered all over again, just last week. All was going well until on the second day, our mozzarella that was supposed to kept at about 37C suddenly started shooting up in temperature – up to 45C or so, the thermometer claimed. We blamed the thermometer of course, definitely not the lunch time wine!
And when it comes to stories of the origins of various foods, it seems goats have a part to play in some other foods that we all take for granted. We’d also visited a coffee plantation the previous day and learnt all about the production of coffee. The origin of coffee, according to the tour guide, all started when a goatherd noticed that his goats got a bit ‘hyper’ after eating the cherries off coffee bushes. History does not record if this was the same goatherd who discovered cheese, nor if he created the first coffee cheesecake by combining his two discoveries.
But one food that I don’t think goats can claim any credit for is wine, and definitely not mango wine, at least not until someone comes along and tells a story of goats eating fermented mangos and getting drunk. In fact, it is surprising that anyone would want to take credit for inventing Mango wine – or at least that was my view until we actually tried it. For if we’re honest, making wine from mangoes sounds like the kind of thing that sounds like a good idea only after perhaps drinking a fair amount of conventional wine, or maybe spending too much time with your goats and not getting out enough. But nonetheless, having seen signs to a Mango winery,of course we had to visit and try some and we were pleasantly surprised that it was actually quite drinkable. I don’t think the great Chateaux of France need to start worrying quite yet about the coming Mango wine revolution, but it was good enough that we bought a bottle and some Mango Port.
But anyhow, back to the cheese making. Other than the mishap with the Mozzarella, everything had gone smoothly and at the end of the two days, I had a stack of containers to take back to where we were staying containing the Brie (requiring a month of ripening), Feta and Mozzarella. It was going to be an exciting few days of cheese eating, or so we thought and I was looking forward to seeing if the latest efforts were an improvement on my childhood cheese making. Had I made something resembling Brie de Meaux or more like Brie de Goat? Was the Mozarella going to be more like Mozza-Filla? What would be the fate of the Feta?
The sad fact is – we never really got a chance to find out. Other than the Brie, we accidentally left the whole lot in the fridge when we moved on from the place we were staying, and our host found it there the next day. Whether she ate it, ditched it or used it to fill some cracks in the ceiling, we never had the heart to ask.
Maybe next time . . .