Cheesemaking at River Cottage
So, Alan treated me to a cheesemaking course at River Cottage for my birthday. I’m not really sure how we decided on cheesemaking but I fancied a cookery course and I think we thought it would be nice to do some something completely different rather than baking bread or cakes. We did some research and looked at several different courses on offer around the UK but we kept coming back to the one at River Cottage in Dorset. It was more expensive than other courses but seemed to cover a lot more and be a full day of activities.
I had to wait a couple of months from my birthday for the course and had done a bit of reading on cheesemaking in preparation. I’m not sure this was particularly helpful as all I had really managed to find out was that cheese is just milk that has gone off! One recipe in particular suggested leaving milk in a pan for a couple of days until it separates and starts to go off, collect the solids and there you have your soft cheese! I was hoping the actual process was a little more involved that this.
The weekend arrived and we set off, without Morgan who had made arrangements to stay with friends and had an action packed weekend in store. We stopped off in Bristol overnight and headed down to Devon the day before the course so we were there ready for the 9.30am start on the Sunday morning.
We arrived in the car park in good time and I was surprised by the number of cars there – I was starting to wonder if there would be loads of people on the course. 9.30 arrived and so did the â€œRiver Cottage Tractorâ€. Again I was a little concerned that this was a bit of a gimmick for city folk having a day out in the country. However after a quick check of who was there around 20 of us boarded the tractor for a short but very bumpy ride down to the farm house we all recognised from the TV. I say around 20 because, as usual there were a couple of latecomers and we had to wait for them. Not for too long though and we were soon on our way discussing whether we had enough containers to transport our cheese home in!
Once at the farm house we were quickly shown into the cookery classroom. This isn’t actually in the farmhouse but in a barn next door with lovely views out across the valley. We were welcomed with tea, coffee, juice and spiced apple cake and soon got on with the cheesemaking.
There were 20 of us in the group, working in pairs and we got straight into the first steps for 2 of the cheeses we’d be making that day, Caerphilly and Camembert. Paul Thomas the instructor for the day seemed really knowledgeable and explained everything really well as we went along and we soon had 2 big pans of milk up to temperature with the cultures in to start the cheese making process.
Before we knew it, it was approaching lunchtime. The course has said that a 2 course lunch was provided so I was expecting a short break with a simple but tasty (since we were at River Cottage) 2 course lunch before getting back to work. I couldn’t have under-estimated this anymore. The chefs had been around all morning but there was a Sunday lunch being served in the main barn dining room so I assumed they were getting everything ready for that. About a 12 noon we were brought our first canape: Smoked mullet rarebit on sourdough. This was followed by thin slices of raw pear with Blue Villy cheese and a glass of a locally produced apple brandy. Then we had cubes of beetroot with biodynamic mozzarella and mollases and finally a small coffee cup sized portion of delicious parsnip soup with Caerphilly cheese, apple and ginger.
Whilst these were served we continued with the cheesemaking. We had cut the curd and started stirring the pans in a certain way depending on the cheese type we were hoping to make.
As it got towards 2pm we had ladled the curds for the Camembert into cheese moulds and drained the curds for the Caerphilly and packed it in the pans.
Then lunch was served – introduced by head chef as a Sunday roast of slow cooked (14 hours) lamb from the farm with all the trimmings. I have to say this is one of the nicest roast lamb dinners I have ever had. It was eaten sat overlooking the views from the cooking school barn. This was followed by apple pie, that we had seen cooking the ovens in our kitchen, with custard.
After lunch we started to make a ricotta cheese from the whey left over from the morning cheesemaking. This is some kind of magic cheese that appears from the clear whey once it is heated up and something acidic added. I’m sure it is more scientific than that and throughout the day temperatures and amounts of starter culture and rennet were all very carefully measured.
Paul talked us through a cheese making of several local cheeses including soft, hard and blue cheese before we finally got the Caerphilly cheese into moulds just as we were finishing up for the day.
While we finished up we were treated to a final foody treat from river cottage of chocolate truffles (yum!) and beetroot laces!
Then it was back into the tractor for the ride back up the hill with all of our cheese, along with comprehensive notes on how to make these and others again along with details of how to look after the ones we had made until they were ready to eat (I wasn’t expecting homework!).
What a brilliant day – thank you Alan, one of the best birthday presents ever. Certainly more than I was expecting from any cheese making course. I think cheesemaking equipment will be going on the Christmas list and I’ll have to do some research into where to find locally pasteurised milk so that I can have a go at home.
Trouble is, I want to go back. I want to go back and enjoy the food with Alan – he’d love it
And I want to try out more courses. There are so many good ones.
It’s a pity it is so far away but it’s certainly worth every penny and the drive down. Maybe we’ll treat ourselves to dinner there next year.