Saturday, 24 October 2015

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Caerfai Farm Cheddar and Caerphilly

Historically, cheese making dates back at least 5000 years.  No one can be sure exactly how it came into being but most theories suggest that it began with our discovery that animals could be milked.  Who that person was and what they thought they were doing at the time is still a mystery.

Once obtained, the milk had to be stored.  A common receptacle would have been the stomach of a ruminant which could then be carried on horseback.  Unknown to these early nomads, ruminants' stomachs contain an enzyme we know today as rennet which coagulates milk making it easier for the baby animal to digest.  The rocking motion of the horse churned the milk combined with rennet resulting in a separation of thick curds and watery whey.  The whey made a refreshing drink and the curds provided an easily consumed high protein meal. 

This simple process is still used today, if you heat milk and add an accidulant such as lemon juice the curds will separate and you can press them to make fresh cheese.  Herbs or sweeteners can be added, or it can be formed to make cheeses such as paneer.

In the middle East, salt was added to help preserve the cheese resulting a somewhat hard and rather tasteless base product.  However, in Europe the natural bacteria in the atmosphere and less need for salt due to the cooler temperatures meant the cheese could be matured for longer resulting in a deeper and more pronounced flavour.  The bacteria unique to the area would provide a regional cheese. 

And this process has remained very similar amongst artisan cheese makers to this day.  One such producer worthy of note is the Caerfai Farm in St David's, Wales. 

Located just metres from the Pembrokeshire coastline, Linda Evans has been producing three types of quality artisan cheese on their 180 acre organic dairy farm since 2004 when she took over from her father who had first produced cheese in 1996.

To hear Linda talk about how she produces cheese you wonder why everyone isn't doing it, she makes it sound deceptively simple.

Their organic raw (unpasteurised) milk is warmed and a vegetarian rennet added to start the coagulation.  At this point a starter culture is also added.  This is to replace the bacteria which would have originally been in the atmosphere and provide the flavour or character of the cheese.  These are easily bought nowadays and are usually under the generic label of 'type'; 'cheddar' type or 'brie type', for example.

She then separates the curds from the whey and grinds the curds into a finer mix which is known as 'cheddaring'.  The curds are then placed into a mould and left to set before being turned out and wrapped in a muslin cheese cloth.    An interesting note here is that Linda used to employ a traditional method of sealing the cheese with lard instead of cheesecloth.  However, this created such an effective air tight seal that a blue-ish vein developed which people then associated with other types of cheese and not cheddar.

Caerfai Cheddar maturing

For the Caerphilly the process is similar only a different starter culture is used, the cheese is brined for 24 hours after being unmoulded and it matures for a maximum of six weeks, Linda recommends an optimum time of three weeks for the best flavour. 

Caerfai Caerphilly

There are a few points to note about Linda and Caerfai which are a sign of the real artisan and should be a benchmark for all our food producers.

Firstly, Linda was very generous with her time and showed me around the whole dairy talking me through the process of how she produces her cheese.  The ability to meet the people who produce our food is something which is becoming increasingly rare leading to a lack of knowledge about what we eat and drink. 

Secondly, the quality of their cheese comes before a desire to make a huge profit. There are only 60 cows on Caerfai farm, not many for 180 acres.  However, they want to keep the best possible environment for their cows giving them enough space to live a natural life.  Happy cows produce better milk which produces better cheese. 

Finally, they know what they are talking about.  As we increasingly outsource the production of what we eat to huge multinational companies we are left with very few who really understand the history or what it takes to make that product from beginning to end, people who understand the importance in the quality of every ingredient and step in the production.  Linda and Caerfai represent all that is good about food production and what we need to maintain our glorious food culture.

And what a cheese they make.  Their cheddar is absolutely to die for, a depth of flavour which is striking and a gorgeous back note with a nutty finish.  The Caerphilly is a softer cheese on the palate due to it maturing for a maximum of six weeks as opposed to the seven to eight months for the cheddar. 

If you are in Wales look out for Caerfai Farm cheeses and support a real artisan producer of really good quality food.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Patisson and Basil Bread

Anyone who has grown squash of any kind knows how quickly they can grow and how soon you have a glut and need to think of interesting things to do with them.

Patty Pan

My patty pans came through about two weeks ago and I've been loving them lightly grilled with a little sea salt and nothing else.  Identifiable by their distinctive crimped edges, the French name for patty pan is patisson which comes from a word for a cake made in a scalloped mould.  They have an almost creamy flavour and are best picked small.  However, today I noticed this 400 gram monster which had been hiding from me and I knew it was time to dream up something different.

Right next to my patty pan and courgette beds my basil is growing great guns, so I thought I would create my own version of the slightly better known courgette bread.  It works well as it packs in extra flavour, but also a beautiful moistness. It's fairly easy on the eye with the colourful basil running through it as well.

Fresh Basil

One thing to note here is that the patty pan brings extra liquid, therefore increasing your hydration.  Using a 65% hydration as I am here, plus the squash gives you a ciabatta like consistency for your dough.  This means you really need a mixer.  If doing it by hand you either need to squeeze every last drop of moisture from the patty pan or reduce your hydration.

The higher hydration gives this bread a beautiful soft open crumb

You can of course experiment with the amount of patty pan and basil.  I'm using 15g of fresh basil which gives quite a nice light complimentary flavour.  Remember that my basil was 30 seconds from picking to chopping, if you are using basil that's not quite so fresh you may need to increase the amount.

I'm using the basic recipe for white bread for this recipe.  All I'm doing is adding in grated patty pan and finely chopped basil to the dry ingredients and continuing on as normal.  Please read my post on 'White Bread White Choice' for all the details on ingredients and techniques.  It will also be handy to read the 'Ciabatta Matters' post for notes on dealing with higher hydration breads.


500g strong baker’s flour
200g grated patty pan
15g chopped fresh basil
7g of fast acting dried yeast
325 ml water at room / blood temperature
9g salt
12 g caster sugar
15 ml vegetable oil


Bread mixer with dough hook
Electric weighing scales
Dough cutter
Baking tray
Cooling rack

Begin by sieving your flour into the bowl of your mixer.  Add in the salt, sugar and dried yeast. Give it a mix.

Add your grated patty pan and chopped basil

Make a well in the bottom and add in your water and oil.  

Turn on your mixer, slowly at first and then start to speed up.  You may need to use a rubber spatula to get all the flour incorporated.  Once mixed, turn the mixer up high.  It will look wet and you will think at first that it will never come together.  Have faith and it will.  It took me almost 20 minutes.  What you are looking for is the the dough to come away cleanly from the sides of the mixing bowl as it's mixing.  When you stop the machine and lift the dough hook you should be able to stretch your dough even though it's so wet.

It's a wet mix!

When you are happy, return to a lightly oiled bowl and allow to double in size at room temperature.

Using your scales divide the dough into equal sizes according to how you are going to do your final prove.

I’m doing three loaves so my 1050g of raw dough went into three loaves of 350g. 

Prepare your cold baking tray.  I dusted mine with fine polenta as I like the crunch it brings but you can use flour.

Pre heat your oven to 220 ° C.

Wash and wet your hands between forming each loaf.  This will mean the dough will not stick to you.

Using your dough cutter, cut and weigh the right amount.  For me 350 grams.  Give it a quick stretch, fold it over on itself and then shape into your desired shape.  Lay on to the prepared tray.  Liberally sprinkle flour on top. 

Floured and ready to prove

Cover and leave to prove again.  Depending on the weather and temperature of your kitchen 40 - 45 minutes.  Don't expect a massive doubling in size from this one. 

Transfer to the oven.  

These three loaves took 30 minutes but remember that all ovens are different so use your judgment.  You want a loaf which is coloured on the crust, feels ‘light for the size’ and sounds hollow when tapped.  Those three indicators should do you well. 

Transfer to a cooling rack and leave until cool.  Enjoy with something nice, like a decent sauvignon blanc to compliment the basil.