Cheese making the artisanal whey


Romano cheese (iStockphoto)

I’ve turned, brined and dried the camembert and tucked it away in a tupperware container where it will stay at a temperature between 11-15°C for the next three weeks. I’ve dried the romano, applied a layer of plastic cheese coat, a clumsy coating of wax, and will store it at between 7 and 10ºC for at least two months. I’ve read and re-read the post cheese making workshop instructions but i have more questions than answers. Did i dry the cheeses sufficiently? Turn them consistently? Sterilise the equipment thoroughly? Sanitise my hands adequately? How will i maintain the humidity? Will i remember to turn the camembert regularly?

I keep remembering the words of cheese maker Janet Clayton from Cheeselinks in Victoria: “There’s a rule of thumb for everything in cheese making.” But i’m pretty sure there are some fundamental rules about cleanliness and temperature control that can’t be broken. When the camembert is fully covered in white mould (as it should be) will there be dirty fingerprints on it (as there shouldn’t be) as Janet warned there would be if we didn’t sanitise our hands sufficiently? I’ve got to nurture these like babies, and frankly i don’t know if i’ll pull it off.

The cheese making class was the first of a three-part series hosted by Sydney’s hand churned, cultured butter making maestro Pierre Issa, otherwise known as Pepe Saya. The first class, held at Pepe’s factory in Tempe, covered camembert and romano. Participants at the next class on July 14 will take on blue cheese and quarg (quark), and cheddar and mascarpone is the hat-trick class that will bring Pepe’s cheese season to a close on October 20.

It was a full-day commitment. The class kicked off at 9am – after fresh danishes and juices – and ran until almost 4pm. A lovely lunch was provided at the half-way point. We were a group of 12. Hair netted and wearing  blue gowns, we washed and sanitised our hands – the first of many times. Then our cheese making adventure began.


Pepe Saya gets things started

Janet explained the cheese making basics as we went. Starters – or specially selected bacteria – are used because they cause acid production which helps the curd to form. Specific starter cultures are used for different cheeses because they give certain flavour characteristics to the final product. We used unhomogenised full cream milk, supplied by Country Valley, because homogenised milk has been treated at high pressure to break up and distribute the fat evenly throughout the milk, which doesn’t allow the rennet to create a firm curd.

We got the romano – a hard, Italian cheese – underway first.


Turning & pressing romano, Janet Clayton, Cheeselinks

Although Janet claims there is a “rule of thumb” to cheese making, the measurements of starter, lipase (which breaks down fat and adds flavour), rennet (which causes the milk to solidify), and calcium chloride – “rennet’s best friend,” says Janet (it helps create a better curd), and the temperature and quantity of the water that these are added to before being mixed with the milk, were scarily precise.

Janet and her sister and fellow cheese maker Lynne bowed their heads together like a couple of mad professors as they checked quantities, tapped air bubbles out of syringes, and confirmed temperatures at every stage.

We made the camembert concurrently, which caused a little confusion at times. At one point a participant mistakenly thought we were pressing camembert (a soft cheese that would surely squish right out of the press), when in fact it was romano. The ever smiling Janet and Lynne kept us straight.


Camembert curds

We allowed the milk for the romano to set to a certain firmness, then cut the curds, which released the whey. The smaller the curds are cut, the more whey is released and the firmer the cheese. We gladly took turns stirring the curds (which further releases the whey) over 45°C  heat about 20 minutes, because it was the warmest spot in the kitchen.

We were supposed to keep the temperature of the milk at 45°C but it peaked higher, casting a shadow of doubt over the quality of the rounds of romano we brought home to mature. Eventually we drained off the whey, transferred the curds to a cheese cloth-lined plastic baskets (we had nine individual cheeses) and pressed them for an hour. Then we turned and pressed them again.

With the camembert, once the curd set to a particular firmness we cut it into 2cm cubes, allowed it to rest for half an hour, then turned the curds. We did this several times at half hour intervals, then transferred the curds to baskets. We turned the cheeses several times in the class and will continue to do so every second day for about 10 days. The aim is to get even whey drainage and an even shape.


Baskets of camembert

The camembert should becovered in a fine white mould after seven or eight days. Then wrapped in wax paper and stored for two to six weeks. The romano needs to be stored for two months, after which time it should have a mild flavour. The longer you resist, the stronger the flavour.

I’m not sure my cheeses will survive the incubation period. I’ve been haphazard on the brining front (i forgot that stage completely with the romano), lackadaisical about turning the camembert, and i doubt the cool bags they’re stored in are sufficiently cold. But i walked away from the class with greater appreciation for the art of cheese making – the time it takes, the number of steps and processes involved, and the science involved. Janet and Lynne have got it down to a fine art.

Note: The Food Sage attended as a guest of Pepe Saya.




Filed under Cooking classes, workshops, masterclasses

16 responses to “Cheese making the artisanal whey

  1. Rachel, how awesome! I can almost taste these beautiful artisan cheeses. And isn’t Pierre the best!!!


    • Lizzy, it was a superb class. I learnt heaps, and Pierre certainly looked after everyone. Much enjoyment was had. Now, fingers crossed the cheese turns out as it should!


  2. eatdrinkandbekerry

    I’ve done cheese making too and found it strangely relaxing. My camembert had a weird hint of peppermint which the instructor blamed on ‘body fungus’. I obviously did not ask any more questions…
    Still thinking about Pepe’s butter too.


  3. Liz

    You will have to let us know how you go in a couple of week with your camembert. Thanks for inspiring me to do a cheese making class, I have always been fascinated. So far all I can manage is Labne


  4. I don’t have very high hopes for the outcome. But i will certainly let you know the end result. I hope you find a suitable class.


  5. Interesting to know what goes on behind the scenes of making cheese. I’m taking a fancy to the cheddar and mascarpone class!


  6. Hhhmm – homemade cheddar. I got heaps out of the class. And now have three blocks of cheese maturing in the laundry. I’ll certainly put into practice what i’ve learnt. Met a great bunch of people, too. Let us know if you do the class.


  7. What a fun class! I’ve made soft cheese like ricotta and mascarpone but nothing more complicated than that 🙂


  8. Yep, i’ve made ricotta, too. And was quite proud of myself about that. But i felt like a bit of a cheese making fraud after i saw the effort that went into camembert and romano. I hope they turn out okay!


  9. grabyourfork

    It wasn’t until I did a cheesemaking class that I realised how much time, patience and effort went into creating these wheels of joys. Now I’m much happier to pay for the stuff, and truly appreciate every mouthful! Sounds like a wonderful class – Pepe is amazing! And fingers crossed for your cheeses!


  10. Rachel, the cheesemaking class sounded like so much fun. I’ve tried my hand at it a couple of times. I wrote about the most recent experience on my blog: There’s always a great feeling of satisfaction in seeing something through from start to finish, especially something like cheese where the transformation is quite miraculous.


  11. I can’t wait to see how your cheeses turn out! This class looks wonderful. I’ve been thinking of trying cheese making myself, but now I’m wondering if it’s too hard! Seems like a lot of nurturing is needed!


  12. This is the class of my dreams! I recently bought some vegetarian rennet online to *attempt* mozzarella. Looking forward to seeing your little babies!


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