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:
• coarse salt
• a packet of fresh penicillium candid from your cheese makers supply, and a new cheap $2.00 spray bottle which you will store (with the liquid in it) in the fridge, for a maximum of 2 months, and with foil or plastic wrap tightly wound over the nozzle to keep it clean. Replace this wrap each time you use the spray.
• a long bladed curd cutting knife
• a wide stainless steel frying pan is best as a boiling pan for the mats and the woodblocks which must be boiled for a minimum of 5 minutes prior to being used.
• a good sized colander to drain these things in and cool them sufficiently to be handled.
• a blooming box for the first stage of ripening that can be kept clean and sanitized and the correct temperature for this 3 day process: around 50 F
• lots of waxed paper and an aging atmosphere, be it a plastic box or a wooden box or a ceramic flue tile and the correct temperature – around 40 F
One more word about the hoops:
If you are unable to obtain 2 piece hoops or make them you can of course use one piece hoops. You could even use baked bean cans with the ends removed. The beauty of the 2 piece hoop is that, once the level of curd has shrunk down by half in the initial stage of draining, the top piece comes off and the hoop can be inverted without the fragile curd having to slide through a shaft of space to stand on its head. One must always treat curd and cows gently, gently.
We will use 1 1/2 – 2 gallons fresh warm rich milk, enough for 2 camembert. Strain your milk into a sanitized milk pail or similar wide container or pot. Set on side of cook stove to stay slightly warm. We do not mean to raise the temperature, just maintain it.
Add 2 oz starter per gallon of milk and stir well until incorporated. Stir a second time after 5 minutes. Lay your slotted spoon over rim of pail and cover with clean, dry cheesecloth. 20 minutes after adding starter add 1/4 tsp rennet, which has been diluted in a sanitized stainless steel measuring cup or such like. Remember to be as accurate as possible in measuring rennet. To over rennet this cheese would spell doom. It must not drain too quickly, or a dry, hopeless, exceedingly un-camembert like hockey puck cheese will result. Always the least amount of rennet possible to make a firm curd-set is best. And after sanitizing your little rennet cup take care that the diluting water is cold before adding your rennet. Remember that rennet is extremely heat sensitive.
Stir in your rennet using a few gentle up and down strokes with the ladle, then mark the time, cover milk again with the cheesecloth. After 8 minutes exactly fold back the cloth, touch your clean finger to the surface of the milk and check for that initial thickening, coagulating. If your finger is well coated, indicating definite thickening taking place multiply those 8 minutes x 3, cover your milk until 16 minutes later, or 24 minutes from your renneting time. If your finger is not well coated at 8 minutes, try again at 10, or 12.
In the interim, boil a kettle of water, set up your drain table and sanitize it. Set your hoops and your curd knife in a colander in the clean sink to be sanitized and boil your mats and blocks.
Assemble everything in order so it appears like this:
You want a slight pitch to your drain, but only slight.
When the hoops are just filled with curd they are very wobbly. Any jostling or imbalance will likely result in toppled molds and lost curd. Occasionally one must lay an inverted saucer over the tops of the hoops for the first hour or so to give them more stability.
After the 24 minutes has elapsed, or whatever your number of estimated minutes have elapsed, remove the cheesecloth, take your curd knife, and cut a cross a few inches deep in the center of the curd. Dip your finger into the center of the cross, lift it out and determine whether you’ve got a good “clean break”, a good set. If you do, your finger will come out clean, no ragged curd sticking to it. The incision will be clean and crisp and the curd will have begun to whey off. If this is the case proceed to the next step and cut the curd to the bottom of your pail in a simple pattern making three or four cuts in each direction resulting in this:
If your curd is just right the knife lines will remain clear, and greenish whey will begin to collect in the incisions.
If your curd is not yet firm, give it a little more time. Be patient and watchful. Achieving the optimum moment is the key to making the best and most consistent cheese possible.