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The Professional Blue Cheese Course at the School of Artisan Food

Creamy, leaf-wrapped blue cheese broken apart with a knife

When I originally wrote about this on my other blog, I entitled it: ‘All you wanted to know about Blue Cheese but were afraid to ask’

But actually it was more like:  ‘More than you realised there was to know about Blue Cheese and had no idea of how much to ask.’

Back in April this year, I got a call from Lee Anna Rennie at the School of Artisan Food.

‘Hello!’ came the cheery greeting over the phone, ‘I think I have something that might interest you…’

She proceded to explain that the School and Ivan Larcher were extending his Professional Lactic and Blue Cheese courses and that he had suggested that she give me a call since we were planning to make a blue cheese.  The course was going to be epic, she enthused, basic cheesemaking knowhow, lots of practical and a month’s maturation time so we could finish off by troubleshooting and looking at how to mature blue cheeses.

This happened to fall into my lap at a very opportune moment.  Before Christmas I had been in touch with Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont in the hopes of going on one of their internship programmes.  Constant Bliss is my very favourite Chaource style cheese (better than the original – sorry the French nation) and I also wanted to practice making blues as well in the form of their Bayley Hazen Blue.  I emailed Mateo who I had known from the NYD days and who I’d visited many years ago with Randolph Hodgson way back before their ambitious cellars had been built or indeed their current micro lab.  Mateo put me in touch with Emily in their HR department and we exchanged emails and talked about what sort of internship would suit.  It looked good for the prospect of a couple of months making cheese, maturing cheese and a little bit on quality systems and the farm for good measure.  Unfortunately then their audit from the government intervened.  According to Andy Kehler who I had a brief chance to chat to in Italy during Cheese, their whole system had to be turned upside down at huge expense and significant amounts of work had to be done and backdated which must have been hugely frustrating for them as it seemed like it was an amazing system in the first place.  An email from Emily let me know that they had managed to sort out a system for interns who wanted to apply from within the US but were stuck for people coming in from another country and she couldn’t really guarantee when they might be able to come up with something.  This had been a concern for me because although I had already made lactic cheese and felt reasonably confident going into lactic cheesemaking, I hadn’t made a blue cheese before and wanted to be better prepared.  Jasper Hill had been going to be my opportunity to get some practice in and since it fell through, I’d been racking my brains trying to think of another alternative.  Here it was.

The course fell into three parts: introduction in April, practical in May, troubleshooting in early June. 

We all showed up in April, met in the kitchen at the School of Artisan food, poured ourselves a coffee and introduced ourselves.  My fellow students included: Rich Hodgson from the Isle of Wight Cheese Company, Roger Longman from White Lake Cheeses, Afke Baukje Haanstra who was over on an almost last minute impulse from Holland, Fergus Ledingham from Thornby Moor Dairy and finally Gareth Derrick, retiring from the armed forces and about to begin a life of cheese (he has since started up Erme River Dairy). 

Our first, three day, section covered the basics, but when I say basics, that gives the idea that it’s quite simple.  There was so much more information than that.  I’d heard Ivan teach about milk before when I did a cheesemaking workshop at Will and Caroline Atkinson’s farm and so all the topics weren’t entirely new to me, but I still left at the end of the theory day with a slight headache.  We covered the production of milk including how the udder is structured, how a milkline works and what happens in the udder during lactation;  a basic milk chemistry including a really useful conclusions that you can draw by taking pH and titratable acidity readings on your milk over time that I’ve described on a previous post , milk’s chemical composition breaking down its fats and protein components including handy tips for milk storage so as to preserve the fats and the structure of the casein micelle, lactose, milk’s mineral content (including calcium) and enzymes.

We spent quite some time on different starter cultures both those that develop lactic acidity and the yeasts and ripening cultures that are also added to the milk, or naturally present in raw milk.  Then covered various different ways of coagulating milk from the lactic set, animal rennet, vegetable rennets, thistle extract.  

However, to say this makes it sound like it’s a very dry and theoretical course.  It isn’t.

‘I can only teach cheese,’ Ivan said when we entered the School of Artisan Food teaching dairy, ‘By making cheese.  So we’re going to make cheese.’

As a demonstration we made a fairly industrial recipe Camberzola / Blue Brie style to show the industrial modern soft cheese techniques and a hard cheese technique blue cheese like Bleu de Gex.  I have to be honest, the Blue Brie technique didn’t engage me that much because even though I would like to make a Gorgonzola, my plan has always been to make something a little more flavourful.  The trick with a cheese like that however is how to maintain the white rind with the blue interior.  It’s a skill, although to be honest not one that I’m interested in perfecting because I want a nice washed rind style outer on my cheese.  The Bleu de Gex was interesting however and both recipes taught us a few fundamentals to prepare us for next time.  Firstly, adding yeasts in our starter cultures to create gas holes in the paste so the cheese has an open texture through which the blue can travel.  Secondly the level of acidity that you want to reach for a blue cheese.  This obviously alters from recipe to recipe, however Penicillium roqueforti can tolerate acidity.  It’s one of the few moulds that can grow in very acid conditions.  If you think about it, the only mould you get growing on a lemon is blue mould.  So to advantage this mould rather than something else, you cultivate a certain amount of acidity.

Cheeses made and salted, lessons learned, we departed and returned again a month later for the practical.

This time, although we did more theory of course,  we made 4 different contrasting types of cheese: a Fourme d’Ambert (with Guernsey milk, thanks to Roger), a Gorgonzola Cremoso style (with added cream which allowed us to learn to use the Pearson square technique which can be used for calculating how much cream to add or how much skimmed milk to add if you want to standardise to a certain fat percentage), a goats milk Stilton style (or basically a slow acid development milled blue cheese based around lactic technology which by the way is what Stilton is – but also so is Bleu de Termignon, Blu del Moncenisio (in its really traditional form) and to some extent also Castelmagno) that last one was also thanks to Roger for supplying the goats milk.

Cheeses made, we had to decide on the recipe we would use for our next cheese.  To this end we learned how to re-create a recipe from the end point or ‘reverse engineering’ as it was not entirely romantically called.  Basically you start with the sort of cheese you want – soft or hard and you move back.  If it’s a hard cheese, you need a quite soft set that therefore has a long flocculation time and a relatively short hardening time.  If it’s a soft cheese, you need quite a firm set that has a short flocculation time with a long hardening time.  This is a bit counter intuitive I realise but the set locks the moisture in and a hard cheese wants to lose its moisture while retaining its milk solids in the form of protein and fats.  For blue cheeses, you need to consider how your blueing will present in the final cheese.  If you want marbling then the cheese needs to be milled.  If you want pockets of blue then you add yeasts to the milk with the lactic starters and create an open texture but don’t mill it.

We made a soft blue cheese (well we only had a month to assess it in and for it to have any semblance of how it might develop we couldn’t really choose a hard cheese – in a way more’s the pity) and called it Blue Wednesday.  Ivan has worked with Ruaridh Stone on his recipe for Blue Monday (when he worked with Alex James) and Blue Murder (when they parted ways – hmmm amicable break up do you think??).

Our final cheese finished, we set off again for our final break and then returned a month later for a final couple of days to taste, assess and finish off.  Along our way, despite making lots of cheese, we had also covered the business of what moulds to choose.  Did you know there are hundreds of varieties of Penicillium roqueforti a cheesemaker can choose?  The best varieties are sold in France which is unfortunate for the English cheesemaker because, for starters if you don’t speak French you’re in a bit of trouble, but also you have to get it delivered over from France which is a bit less reliable as far as courier companies go.  I’ve worked on the other side of couriering, trying to send things from England to France, and I know it’s fraught with difficulties and delays and lost parcels.  However a lot of the problems I’ve encountered were sending things to addresses in Europe which may or may not have been correct (you never realise how little the average person knows about their own postal address until you have to run it through a courier’s consignment system – myself included).  If you double check your English address (and you can do this on Royal Mail’s website) then there’s no reason that your parcel should get lost.  So just the general logistics difficulties then!  Ivan, as you would expect, gave us some good leads for interesting moulds, cultures and starters.  The key, however, should you be interested is that liquid mould cultures work best.  Also that Pencillium roqueforti may not necessarily be your best bet in blue cheese making.  Some Gorgonzola makers, rather than using roqueforti which can be too strong and break down the proteins and fats too quickly, use Penicillium glaucum which is a blue mould that is also used in goats cheeses, particularly cheeses like Valencay.  In fact, Mons Cheesemongers sell a cheese called Persille de Beaujolais which is a Fourme d’Ambert recipe but made using Penicillium glaucum they have procured from some friends in Italy who make Gorgonzola.  The technology is spreading.  It gives lighter, less alcoholic and more mushroomy flavours and, having sold the odd piece or two, I can tell you, it goes down well with the nervous blue cheese buyer as well as actually being rather damn lovely too.

So June beckoned and we tasted the cheeses we’d made last month.  We cut the cheeses open and tasted them.  The Bleu de Gex from our first visit was generally considered really rather good.  I took some home and we ate them at home for quite some time.  I can concur, it was really good.  The Blue Bries had unfortunately suffered in maturation and dried out.  They became bullets.  The Gorgonzola had too much cream added (we used 7% but you would usually use 6% or less) and this inhibited the blue.  It was also undersalted and had the danger of going soapy.  The Fourme d’Ambert with Guernsey milk seemed good so far.  The goats milk Stilton or rather Stichelton as we never pasteurised it (Ivan doesn’t teach courses with pasteurised milk) were over-acidified (which we had known at the time) and the wrong blue had been used (we also knew this at the time too – it was a spot the mistake test).  For goats milk a less lipolytic blue should have been used.  The School of Artisan Food only had Penicillium roqueforti and at that a fairly standard strain.  Ideally we would perhaps have used Penicillium glaucum or at least a less lipolytic strain of roqueforti.

Assessing all those cheeses did give valuable information.  Could we have pierced the cheeses more to allow better blueing (we pierced by hand of course because we hadn’t made very many cheeses), what was the effect of the fat content of the milk, the effect of salting and how much you really do need when you add blue mould into the mix.

And should I forget, we also got to visit Stichelton production where Joe Schneider and his team,, particularly Ross were really helpful with their information and even allowed us to try ladling some curd.  It is tough work believe you me.  I am no stranger to lifting heavy things or working hard but the strain of lifting a full ladle of curd gives you arm-ache that lasts for weeks.  I know, I had it.  Respect to those boys.

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