Making Camembert — Making A Milk Stool From A Forked Tree — A description of English cloth binding of hard cheeses using muslin and lard.
by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT
The hay is all in the barn, the firewood is mostly in the woodshed, the heifers are down off the hill pasture as winter is now coming on. Most of the bins in the cellar are loaded with potatoes, beets and carrots, the wild apples have been pressed into cider, most of which made it into the barrel round the corner from the potato bins, and one can breathe a sigh of relief for coming through another harvest with gratitude, good nature and just a little bit of a sore back. Milking in the field has given way to milking in the old snug tie up and the cows themselves seem to enjoy the cozy convenient quarters as much as I do.
To me, it’s a relief to switch from summer butter making to fall cheesemaking and with the cows now on dry hay I find the milk somewhat easier to handle in the cheesemaking process than the milk made on grass. The solids tend to be higher and the chances of gassing from pollen in the atmosphere and other wild and crazy summer pasture plants all but disappear.
France, home of camembert, before industrial cheese production overcame sensible traditions, made raw milk camembert typically from October to May. My sense is that it was because of reasons of forage quality stated above. If you’re pasteurizing the milk its sensitivities and exuberances fade away and the milk goes dead – devotees of this style of cheesemaking there re-introduce specific controlled bacteria to achieve their goal. (Have you read Pasteur? He invented his heat treatment for the wine industry and is reputed to have said, upon learning of its application in the dairies “Oh! Look what they have done to my beautiful milk!”) Yes, there’s something about control and efficiency which rub me the wrong way! Give me a winding footpath through the forest over a straight open highway any day.
Years and years ago before the supermarkets started making the rules, and the emergence of the E.U., lively and superb mold-ripened camembert and similar cheeses were highly prized and sought after delicacies. Patrick Rance speaks of French connoisseurs who knew which cows on which forage produced the best cheese. To know this depth of experience in a very local environment is one of my cherished goals. To know so much of one’s own village or region, or soil must be rich knowledge indeed!
I have no interest in pasteurized milk products but I will say that as camembert is typically a 30 day cheese it does not cut it with dairy regulations, 60 days being the acceptable current minimum age for a legal cheese. Do with this what you will. As far as I know raw milk camembert under 60 days can be made for home consumption. Strict observance of milk health and milk handling are always needed, especially so with short aged cheeses such as this one.
Camembert is wonderful to make, even easy to make once the meaning of the steps is known and the rhythm established. Your exceptionally well fed, housed and loved home cow will make just the best and cleanest milk for this method. And no matter how many modern scientific precautions are taken on large farms, the contentment factor which is directly connected to intrinsic health and cleanliness of the milk is, and always will be the domain of the small farm.
Now a brief description of the process, and an itemization of needed equipment and conditions, then on to cheesemaking. We’ll be coming into the kitchen directly from milking with anywhere from 1-3 gallons of just milked milk which we will strain through a sanitized strainer into a wide sanitized stainless container. (Another milk pail is best.) Even if the phone’s ringing or the pea soup is catching down, strain that milk first!
Have an accurate way to judge the amount of milk you have (which is why a milk pail is the best cheesemaking receptacle in this instance – you get to know where one gallon, two gallons, etc. are) and immediately add the correct amount of starter, stirring it well with your sanitized spoon or ladle. Cover with clean cheesecloth, and let it stand for 15-20 minutes for the milk ripening to commence. You’ll stir it again after 4 minutes, add the rennet after 20 and be cutting and ladling your firm beautiful curd into hoops within 40 minutes or so. Halfway through the day you’ll flip the cheeses over to drain on the other side, and flip and drain a couple more times in the next 24 hour period at which point the hoops will come off. The now firm little cheese cakes will be dry salted, sprayed with a mist of penicillium candidum and tucked into either a moist clay tile in your cheese aging room, or perhaps in a plastic storage box with the lid ajar, where the little babies will stay in a cool but not cold atmosphere, turned daily until the mold has bloomed on all surfaces. The cheese will then be patted all over to retard the mold growth, be wrapped loosely in wax paper and proceed on to a somewhat cooler environment (say 40-45 ? F) to be tended, loved, and cared for as they age. At the appointed time, and in accordance with your own special ritual, they will be borne to the dining room on the prettiest surviving plate from great-grandmother’s service and enjoyed with a glass of wine and a few neutral crisp crackers. I’d steer clear of garlic and herb strewn rustic crackers or hard tack, delicious as they may be and stick with bland table water crackers to showcase the buttery pungent cheese.
What you will need:
• beautiful clean warm creamy milk
• milk strainer and 2nd milk pail
• stainless steel perforated ladle
• Camembert hoops – either homemade or purchased. Ideally they will be the real McCoy: 2 piece perforated stainless steel, approximately 3 1/2” across. For 1 1/2 gallons of milk you will need 2 sets. Molds can be improvised but I will give you the exact measurements and descriptions of the genuine French ones.
The smaller, unperforated hoop fits into the slightly larger perforated one and is prevented from going further in than 3/8” by bosses or buttons which protrude about as much as a 20p nail head and which are placed round the form at 2” intervals for a total of 6 bosses.
Assembled, the form stands 7 5/8” tall. It goes together easily, slips apart easily which is absolutely necessary to avoid upsetting or damaging the fragile draining curd, and the perforated hoop constitutes the bottom of the hoop. This way it will drain freely and readily aided in the first stage of draining by the pressure from the top level of curd, causing the whey to almost spurt out in the very beginning.
The drainage holes on the perforated hoop are approximately 1/16” in diameter and are placed in rows of alternating 3’s and 4’s for a total of 5 holes per square inch. They need to be very cleanly drilled in order to be thoroughly cleaned.
The ladle with which the curd will enter the mold must be small enough to easily descend to the bottom of the mold, and have therefore a handle that is perpendicular to the bowl. The bowl of this ladle must also be perforated and shallow in order that the layer of cured is about an inch or inch and a half thick and no thicker. The cut size of the ladleful and the number of perforations in the hoop are critical to the rate of draining which in turn is critical to the nature and character of the finished cheese.
Once upon a time I was teaching a camembert class and discovered I’d lent my special ladle to a friend and therefore lacked a perforated ladle just when I needed one. In haste I grabbed a standard stainless soup ladle and my 22 caliber rifle, dashed out on the porch and shot a hole through it. It both startled and amused the class so that we all experienced a rush of energy and attention to last us the afternoon! I’m not, however advocating this method because the hole was pretty big and kind of rough on the bottom side. I must have come up with the idea remembering old Dune Fraser shooting a hole through a section of stove pipe for the damper pin a long time ago. It was perfect.
• 2 bamboo mats (not much bigger than the diameter of the hoop) per hoop. These can be bought of course, generally available in health food stores as sushi mats but you can easily and inexpensively make your own with cotton butcher’s string and neatly sawn hardwood strips, preferably maple, of even thickness, and not exceeding 1/4” in width. Make sure you sew them together in 3 or 4 places:
The nicest ones I ever made were made of strips of wood from a wood shop and they were rounded at their edges. They made beautiful indentations in the cheese, they peeled off neatly – very important – and they were very easy to clean. The bamboo ones sometimes stick to the curd causing tearing when they’re peeled off. You will use these mats in the initial curd draining phase and then again in the mold blooming phase. Prepare to become a frequent scrubber and boiler of mats. To scrub them, designate a new nail brush, used only for this purpose. Keep it out of reach of hand washers headed for the kitchen sink.
• New nail brush
• small smooth squares of maple wood will go under the mat during the draining process so the whole thing is rigid enough to wiggle your hand under when it’s time to flip your cheese: