Friday, March 13, 2009

Kitchen alchemy - cheesemaking at home

A couple of weeks ago I made a soft cheese using the 'beauty milk' available at our excellent biodynamic market next door to the shop. Cheesemaking has always fascinated me - the process of taking something relatively bland and ubiquitous and turning it into something as varied and flavoursome as cheese is magical. I was also motivated by my increasing desire to produce food which is as close to the kitchen as possible - thus the kitchen garden and several aborted attempts at sourdough. It's become very important to know where my family's food has come from and if possible make things from scratch.

I've had many enquiries about cheesemaking books since opening the shop, and having ordered a few for Fred next door, also bought a small pamphlet for myself. Making Cheese, Butter & Yogurt by Rick Carroll is extracted from his very well-regarded Home Cheesemaking. It has the basic instructions and terms and equipment needed for making everything from easy soft cheeses to more complicated hard cheeses including cheddar and gouda. Being impatient by nature and not having some of the specialist ingredients at hand, I started with a soft cheese called Queso Blanco (Spanish for "White Cheese"), which Carroll informed me, could be sliced and had the excellent properties of not melting even when deep-fried.

I've put the full instructions below, but essentially you need around 3 litres of unhomogenised milk (often available as bath milk or beauty milk in health stores or you can buy organic milk at the supermarket which is unhomogenised), cheesecloth or muslin (about $2 a metre from Spotlight), vinegar and a good thermometer.

The milk is poured into a large saucepan and heated gently until it reaches between 185 - 190 Fahrenheit, stirring often to prevent it catching on the bottom of the pan.
Vinegar is added ( I used cider vinegar) a little at a time until the curds start to form and separate from the whey. It looks a little off-putting at this stage - like very curdled milk and when you stir it the curds are like white lumps in the pan. But when you've got to the stage where the remaining liquid is no longer looking milky - just like pale white water, you're ready to use a slotted spoon and lift the curds out of the whey and into a colander lined with the muslin.
Ok now the curds are in the muslin you need to tie the bag up (you can see I improvised with a large elastic band) and hang it above a bowl or over the sink to drain for several hours to reach the consistency you want.

Ever impatient, I only waited an hour and was thrilled with the result - a small, gorgeous white ball marked with the creases from the muslin.

From my three litres of milk (costing around $7) I had a 600gm cheese which, I sliced up the next night and fried on a hot pan to serve over a roasted pumpkin risotto. The result - well it tasted kind of milky, very mild, slightly sweet and not really like any other cheese I have tasted. Next time I would add a little salt (apparently you need cheese salt) and perhaps be a bit more adventurous and try a feta. To do so I would need much more milk (I need to find a friendly dairy farmer) and ingredients like lipase and rennet, which in Australia are available from Cheeselinks. But for now I'm happy to use Mirabel's small output and the ingredients from my kitchen to produce a small ball of magic.
NOTE: Sadly Mirabel has mastitis and is on antibiotics so I've only made cheese once more since first writing this blog.
QUESO BLANCO (from Making Cheese, Butter & Yoghurt, by Ricki Carroll, Storey Publishing, 2003)
1 gallon whole milk
1/4 cup vinegar
1. In a large pot, directly heat the milk to between 185 and 190 F, stirring often to prevent scorching.
2. Slowly add the vinegar, a little at a time, until the curds separate from the whey. (You may increase the temperature to 200F in order to use less vinegar and avoid an acidic or sour taste in your cheese. Do not boil, however, as boiling will impart a "cooked" flavor).
3. Ladle the curds into a colander tied with butter muslin. Tie the corners of the muslin into a know and hang the bag to frain for several hours, or until the cheese has reached the desired consistency.
4. Remove the cheese from the muslin. Store in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

The closest thing to the Napa Valley - Sunday lunch at Bella Vedere Cucina

Last Sunday, on the occasion of a very dear girlfriend's birthday, I finally had lunch at Bella Vedere Cucina in the Yarra Valley. I've been hearing how fantastic it is since it opened in 2004, and since opening the shop last year it's been recommended by so many customers that it seems that every local foodie had been there except me .

Gary Cooper has been cooking and running restaurants in and around the Dandenongs and the Yarra Valley for many years, including the groundbreaking Wild Oak, which brought a style and standard of fine dining to an area better known for its devonshire teas, Sunday roasts & the Cuckoo restaurant. After time at Elinore's at the beautiful Chateau Yering, Gary and his business partner Tim Sawyer built Bella Vedere at Badgerbrook winery near Healesville from scratch. This place really is the complete package - set on a hill with gorgeous views, it is a lovely space with great atmosphere, friendly efficient staff and of course beautiful food, perfectly cooked. The restaurant has quickly established a big following among 'locals' and while, like many businesses in the region suffered a major downturn in trade because of the bushfires, this Sunday it was packed and buzzing with the sound of happy people enjoying a beautiful day.

It was grey and drizzly when we left my home in Ferny Creek, but by the time Helen and I crunched up the gravel drive through vines bedecked with thick black bunches of grapes, the sun was out, with a few wispy clouds in the sky. The damage from the recent fires was evident in the nearby hills, but the rain of the previous week meant there was no smoke haze.

The restaurant lies behind a heavy wooden door with a small sign showing you're at the right place. Walking past the open kitchen a beautiful display of cakes and tarts immediately solved that perennial dilemma - starter or desserts? Entering the main dining area felt as if we had walked into someone's home ( someone very wealthy and stylish and with a resident housekeeper, but you get the picture - warm and inviting). Tables are quite tightly grouped, meaning we could have eavesdropped on a conversation at the tables either side of us if we weren't so busy catching up and eating ourselves. Immediately upon being seated we were offered "tap water, still bottled or sparkling bottled water" (who would choose tap water, it sounds so unappetising against the alternatives) We were also presented with a sampling of the house-cooked breads - they don't scrimp on bread here and it is impressive - our favourite was the mustard seed (sourdough?). A champagne cocktail with ginger syrup and apple was a lovely opening. The huge roast loin of pork we had spied on the kitchen counter as we walked in made choosing mains easy, although we were momentarily tempted by the rabbit we saw at the next table and the pork belly sounded wonderful. Helen was less tempted by a dish of ox cheek.

The pork was perfect, a thick circle stuffed with couscous and sultanas with a crispy crackling and accompanied by baked figs studded with almonds and a side salad of heritage tomatoes and leafy greens. The tomatoes came from the Bella Vedere kitchen garden, and the free-range pork is locally and organically farmed by Christine Ross who breeds the heritage Large Black Pig.

Dessert was the standout for me - I've already said in a previous post what a sucker I am for a good lemon tart, and the Bella Vedere interpertation was stunning - a smooth and fragrant lemongrass tart, with none of the tartness of the classic, but instead with the subtle flavour of the herb.

It was a lovely way to finish a great meal and while, at $166 for two for 2 courses, a glass of viognier, a champagne cocktail and a coffee, Bella Vedere won't become my regular destination for Sunday lunch, I can see it becoming our standard special occasion venue. I can't wait now to take the family for breakfast and I'm told that Gary's dinners are an experience in themselves.

While waiting for desserts Helen and I wandered out to the verandah overlooking the vines and the kitchen garden to take in the sun and admire the view (and also pick up some ideas for my own kitchen garden). It occurred to me that while I can't always pop off to the Napa Valley for a beautiful lunch at a world-class restaurant, I am very privileged that I can do it in the Yarra Valley instead.