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The Milk and Human Kindness Wensleydale Cheese

by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT

Wensleydale cheese

Cutting and storing hard cheese

A fly proof screen box for aging cheese

Keeping dairy calves safe and warm in winter

Feeding warm whey to calves

By the first of February here in New England, the old timers reckoned on having half their hay and half their firewood, judging this to be the exact middle of winter. On my farm it also marks the height of cheese making season. Although the daily chore list can be taxing in the dead of winter, with stalls to clean, snow to shovel, water tanks to keep from icing over, and woodstoves to keep stoked in addition to feeding the stock and feeding the family, there is time to make cheese and there is for me nothing like a peaceful day in the cheese room with snow falling outside. For this reason, when the snow melts and spring starts to burst out, it’s always too soon. It can seem very hard to come up with blocks of time on the farm with the opportunity to focus on one specific task. So we cherish and make the most of these rare times.

Making hard cheese can be very time consuming, and my aim every year is to focus on English clothbound cheese – Wensleydale and English cheddar, and occasionally Cheshire, during the winter, and to plan to have as many cows milking as I can handle at this time, sometimes up to five. My vat is very small, it holds 40 gallons of milk, but it enables me to make a 30-40 lb wheel every 3-4 days in winter, devoting most of 1 day to the cheese making process as well as clean up and cloth binding the cheese the following day. Because these hard cheeses require such an investment of time, not to mention skill, I want to maximize the capacity of my vat, and make the most of the day. For me, learning to divine the extent of one’s capacity for strength, energy and time on the farm in order to be as productive as possible is what makes small farming a harmonious flowing life – my definition of “sustainable”; doing work that gives as well as takes energy.

It makes sense to learn these involved cheese methods with small amounts of milk – 5 to 10 gallons; however it does not make sense to work with these small amounts on a continuing basis given the enormous commitment of time and the very small yield. Yes the job is wonderful, and yes the cheese is delicious but still, one’s proportionate productivity, or lack thereof ends up having a cumulative effect on one’s freedom and obligation to the good of the farm. This is part economy, part balance – how one spends one’s time is critically important to the ultimate stability of the farm.

For the purposes of teaching this Wensleydale method I am using 10 gallons as the milk amount. If you wish you can even cut it back to 5 gallons to practice the method. But once you’ve gotten the hang of it I would wish you to up the milk amount to 12 gallons, bare minimum, in order to have something to show for your time. If you can collect 12, better yet 15 gallons over a 3 day period and devise a workable way to heat this milk and handle it in the farm kitchen, then you can make a 10-12 lb wheel of cheese to justify the time and to have a wheel of cheese of sufficient size to be able to age without too much loss of weight over the long aging period. A cloth bound cheese in a slightly moist cellar will lose 10% of its weight in a year of aging, regardless of its size. 12 to 14 month old Wensleydales and English cheddars are significantly more delicious than 9 month old ones.

Here is a list of what you will need to make an 8-10 lb Wensleydale:

  • 10 gallons of fresh, rich cow’s milk. (Good clean milk that’s been cooled quickly and stored at 38 degrees in sanitized covered containers will keep 3 days for cheese.)
  • A pint jar of fresh (less than 3 days old) homemade mesophilic starter culture.
  • A sanitized pot, preferably wider than it is tall, in which to make the cheese. (Notice I did not specify stainless steel. My favorite kitchen cheese pot is an old galvanized Dutch washtub with slanted sides. Tall, vertical stainless steel soup pots are ok, but the height makes it difficult to keep the temperature even top to bottom, and it’s not that easy to cut the curd uniformly all the way to the bottom.
  • A means to heat the milk which enables you to control the rate of rise in temperature and maintain it. It could be a wood cook stove a conventional kitchen stove possibly with a moderating layer of steel or cast iron under the pot, to keep the milk from scorching. It might be a hot water bath you’ve rigged up with a way to conveniently drain off the cooling bath and refresh it with hot water. Simply put, it is not enough to be able to heat milk; it’s critical to be able to heat it at the prescribed rate, and keep it there.
  • An ambient temperature of 65-70 degrees. If it is too cool in the room you may be fighting a losing battle to keep the top of the milk warm, keeping the slabs of curd warm, keeping the pressing curd warm.
  • Rennet and little stainless steel renneting cup.
    The Milk and Human Kindness Wensleydale Cheese
  • A dairy thermometer (get one that clips to the side of the pot).
  • A long thin knife, a long slotted spoon and a horizontal “harp” to cut the curd (see SFJ Winter 2012 issue for my homemade wooden design).
  • A large stainless steel colander.
  • A sturdy metal cheese form, or hoop, with a wooden follower.
  • An ample square of cheesecloth in which to press the cheese.
  • A cheese press capable of ~40 psi (see SFJ Spring 2012 issue for a simple and effective wooden cheese press design you can build for twenty dollars).
  • Kosher salt, or if you’ve won the lottery, use sea salt.
  • Cheap clean muslin and a lb of lard for cloth binding your finished cheese.
  • A set of scales, preferably the hanging type, to weigh your curd to determine the proper salt amount.

A Bit Of History Of Wensleydale Cheese And A Brief Characterization

Like all ancient British cheeses, Wensleydale, a Yorkshire dales cheese was originally a sheep milk cheese. It’s been made for centuries in Yorkshire, shifting from sheep milk to cow milk as cows became more prevalent and more productive, into the 19th century. It is in a circular form, more or less cubic in proportion. In other words not wide and flat like Double Gloucester for example. It is a rich cheese and a relatively moist one. Compared to English cheddar it is very moist and more acidic. Historical descriptions are somewhat contradictory – I’ve heard it described as being so moist as to require support while aging and elsewhere I’ve heard it described as flaky. My Wensleydales tend to be very rich and tangy and creamy and nutty. Wensleydale is a very classy, delicious vibrant creation when all goes well on cheese making day. It will press seamlessly, give way to pressure from your thumb as it comes from the press, and still later when it’s ready to cut open. In its place of origin it is reputed to have been eaten very young, only weeks old. I favor mine at one year. While immersing myself in this cheese method several years ago, I came across a small British book on the history of Wensleydale which, much to my dismay contained no recipe. Mainly it was a biography of an old, now deceased cheese maker who had more or less devoted his life to making Wensleydale. All I could do is stare at the pictures, stare at his face and hope to understand. My Wensleydales got better, a lot better, very quickly. Mastering these lovely British cheeses so well suited to Jersey milk, has been a passion of mine. To check my progress I have always sought out British cheese lovers and offered cheese, asking for a critique. Much fun! And encouragement.

Method for Wensleydale Cheese Using Cow’s Milk

Heating and Ripening the Milk

Heat your beautiful, clean, fresh smelling 10 gallons of milk in your sanitized pot to 86.5 degrees stirring frequently. With a sanitized stainless steel tablespoon remove the layer of thick cultured cream from the top of your starter jar and reserve for the supper table. Liquify your starter stirring thoroughly. Lick the spoon for a reading on starter quality and character and pour 1 cup of starter into the warm milk stirring continuously for 5 minutes or so, with your long handled slotted spoon. Cover the milk with a dry sanitized cover and ripen the milk for 1 1/2 hours, stirring every so often to keep the cream incorporated.

Renneting

Sanitize your little stainless steel renneting cup, put a couple of tablespoons cold water in it plus your .9 ml rennet. If you are anything like me you would prefer to use a common kitchen measuring utensil to measure out your rennet amount rather than a laboratory pipette. You can buy a magnetized ml to Tbs conversion table which is very handy. I’m reminding you that one needs to be very careful not to use any more rennet than necessary, the cheese will suffer.

Add the rennet / water solution to your warm milk and with as little fanfare as possible, stir, using the up and down method for 10 strokes or so. As you may recall from a previous column, you do not want any centrifugal action while adding your rennet. It is imperative that the milk come to a complete standstill when stirring stops. And one more thing: no jumping jacks in the kitchen during the setting time! Please record your renneting time accurately by the clock. It is extremely important to be as clear and specific as possible.

Cutting / Stirring / Cooking

After 30-45 minutes, when you have got a good set, a clean break, cut the curd in 1/2” cubes. First vertically in one direction and then the other, taking care to reach the bottom of the pot with every stroke. Take great care to cut accurately and not crush or bruise the curd. If you have made a wooden curd harp for the horizontal cutter you are learning to angle it just so as it makes its descent into the cheese pot. Remove it as gently as you let it down in.

Rest the curd for 5 minutes while you wash your harp and hang it up to dry. Set your curd to warm to 93 degrees at the rate of 1 degree every 4 minutes. At this rate it will take 30 minutes to warm to 93 degrees. The curd is at its most fragile when newly cut. Over time the outer surfaces of the curd pieces firm up as whey is released. Herein lies the explanation for the old adage: “the cheese is made in the vat.” Meaning that how you manipulate the forces of moisture / temperature ultimately translate into the character of your finished cheese. In this instance, cutting the curd in 1/2” cubes and raising the temperature at this rate to 93 degrees are key factors in ending up with a cheese of this specific moisture content. All steps have significant effects on the end result.

Stir the curd continuously as it warms to 93 degrees. Little by little you will notice the curd pieces shrinking and firming up. If you find large uncut pieces of curd break them up, break up lumps. Keeping the curd size at 1/2” cubes ensures the correct nature of this cheese, and uniformity. I like to stir the curd with my hand rather than a spoon as I can monitor the development of the curd better this way. Suit yourself. Sense everything you can about this process, how clear the whey looks when you first cut the curd, how the curd swells and tastes, how it changes as you go along and the acidity starts to develop. All these things are so important. Give your being to the process as fully as possible. Forget about the phone calls you could be making while stirring the curd!

When the temperature has reached 93 degrees, continue to stir the curd for 20 minutes, maintaining the 93 degrees. You will notice how much smaller the curd pieces are after all that cooking. And how much resiliency they have. Gather a small handful of curd up out of the pot, gently press it together in your fist and immediately open your hand and watch them spring apart. Now pitch the curd for 30 minutes. That is, stop stirring and let the curds settle in the pot.

Whey Off / Gather Curd

Sanitize your colander and cheesecloth. Set the colander over a pail, and spread the cloth out in it. Fold the corners of the cloth back on themselves if necessary to keep them from dangling down and coming in contact with any unsanitized thing. If you are strong enough to hold the cheese pot, pour off most of the whey. If it is too heavy, you can also tip the pot fairly easily and catch the whey in a bucket below. If this is not possible then sanitize a nice large dipper inside and out and dip off most of the whey. If this can be accomplished quickly enough so as not to add too many minutes to the pitching time, so much the better. Otherwise adjust your pitching time. Now pour your curds into the cheesecloth and when the flood subsides, lift the cloth and curds up off the bottom of the colander to facilitate final draining. At this point the object is to draw the curd together into a uniform and well-knitted mass. Gather two diagonal corners of the cloth, bring them together as snugly as possible and twist the corners around each other twice, so they remain snug. Now repeat this with the remaining 2 corners, keeping the whole thing as tight as possible.

Now you’ve got a nice big flat loaf of curd. Keep it nice and warm but certainly no warmer than 85-90 degrees and let it rest on one side for 15-20 minutes, then the other side. During this time you can clean up a bit and sanitize your long curd knife and have it ready along with the salt and salt measure if you use one. I just use the palm of my hand. Most likely the best place to rest your curd loaf is at the bottom of your cheese pot or in a large stainless steel bowl taking advantage of the small pool of whey collecting around it for a bit of moist warmth for the curd. You may want to keep a mild heat source underneath, like a pot of hot water. Just take care not to overheat the curd.

It’s time to weigh the curd in order to know the salt amount. Unfurl the twisted ends of the cheesecloth and tie them in 2 square knots. Slip the knots onto the hook on your hanging scale and find out how many pounds of curd you have.

Slabbing the Curd

Loosen the cheesecloth, and put the loaf back in the bowl or pot, and see how lovely your cheese loaf looks and smells. Neatly slice the curd into slabs about 2” thick. Over the next hour or two, depending on how warm you are able to keep the curd, and how active the acid development is, you will stack and restack your slabs, rearranging them each time so the cool ones on top get shifted to the warm bottom of the pot. Keep them covered with your cheesecloth and if it’s cooler in the room than you want you can drape a heavy towel over the whole thing. The curd must stay warm so the acid development can take place – in a cool environment this will not happen. As you can see, the character of the slabs is initially more or less white and the texture is full of mechanical holes, irregular and sharp sided – the holes which are a product of curd pieces being forced together. They are quite unlike gas holes which are round or oval with no fissures in them. As the acidity develops, the slabs become thinner, smoother and more yellow; stretchier. As you go, break off little morsels once in a while and taste them. By now the curd should have lost that milky sweetness and taken on a sharper creamy taste, a bit acid and tangy. And it will change in texture as well, taking on a rubbery, endearing squeaky feeling in your mouth. If you are inclined to be scientific you can obtain an acidometer with which you can measure the titratable acidity in the whey, the reading you will be looking for is .55 – .6 % TA.

However us non-scientific types can be extremely accurate with a little practice. We can use the chicken breast test, the hot iron test, and the curd jiggling test and what’s more we can eat curd constantly as we monitor the changes.

Chicken Breast. The chicken breast test is easy and reliable. Tear a strip off the edge of a slab and examine how it tears and the appearance of the torn piece. If it’s stringy like cooked chicken breast your curd is ready to mill and salt.

Hot Iron. The hot iron test originated and was most appropriate in a cheese room which had a wood or coal stove burning there. The poker would be heated at the end and a small lump of curd held against it for 10-15 seconds – enough to thoroughly melt the curd, but not burn the dairymaid. The melted curd is then pulled slowly away from the hot iron. If it stretches in long thin strands the curd is ready. This can also be done by holding a piece of curd against a hot cast iron stove lid for example but the hot poker is more convenient and safer.

Curd Jiggling. Another method I use is to simply take hold of a slab by the corner and hold it in the air and jiggle it. If it stretches but does not break it’s ready. And when it is ready, waste no time milling and salting.

Milling and Salting

If you’ve got a wide stainless steel bowl you might use it now for the milling and salting step. Sanitize it along with a medium sized kitchen knife and cut the curd slabs into long strips about 1” wide. Then gather a few strips in your hand and cut them crosswise into 1” cubes. Reduce one slab at a time to cubes; as uniformly as possible but not fussy. The object here is a balance between speed and uniformity. Look at this beautiful bowl of curd! Reach in and toss them to keep them from sticking together which they will keep attempting to do until the salt goes in. Now at the rate of a very scant Tbs per pound of curd, sprinkle 1/2 the salt amount into the curd and toss again. If one were to add all the salt at once it would draw moisture out of the curd and both salt and moisture would end up down the drain. After the fist salting, mellow the curd for 15 minutes, and then add the remaining amount, tossing again, followed by another mellowing of at least 15 minutes, covering the curd with your cheesecloth during mellowing. The salting process salts the curd and arrests the proliferating acid development at the strategic point in the process. With this in mind, once the proper milling and salting moment has been reached, it is well to mill and salt as quickly as possible.

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