Is Cheese Making a Cottage Craft?

I’m often asked, “why make cheese when you can buy it in the store?”. The effort put into making cheese doesn’t seem to weigh up, after all, only a small amount of cheese (around 20% or less) can be obtained from a large amount of milk.  In commercial enterprises, the methods and machinery has been synchronised and perfected to the high degree, to ensure that the maximum yield comes from the ingredients and the balance of flavour to please their market. So why bother doing this at home?

Firstly, cheese making from scratch is pretty easy, especially when made on a micro scale. I would not suggest making EVERYTHING from scratch, but for a fairly small effort, you can make something to be proud of, and without really cooking anything – at best, you could say we heat milk and stir in  a few key ingredients.

And to me it’s not about speed or efficiency.  The purpose is to enliven the home, with stirring and waiting and watching while the magic happens. Yes it does take some care and a few bits of “know how” but none of it is too challenging. It is about continuing a grand tradition, and you could claim to be a cottage workshop creating a warm feeling of homeliness.

I recently introduced this craft to a small group of ladies in their home.  They took up the challenge of cheese making and came away with some lovely cheese and enthusiasm for doing more in the future.

 

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Teaching and Learning

I have been a trainer, mostly of adults, on and off for some time.  The personal satisfaction I get from teaching is hard to calculate, for me it is about inspiring others to try something new.  It is about the possibility of opening a door,  often that the student didn’t even know existed.  Of course, it is not always that awe inspiring, sometimes it is just something a student has to learn to do their job.

My Cheesemaking classes are about sharing my passion for cooking, which for me is an adventure every day.  Even if I am making the same thing, time after time, the universe seems to conspire to make it different each time.  It is this variation that makes it surprising.

The students from my latest cheesmaking class are a great example of those who come to learn. I am hoping they will continue their adventures (like I am!) with further cheesemaking experiments.

 

Photos & Text Copyright Sophia Poulos.

 

Wild Plants

When is a weed not a weed?

What separates herbs for culinary and medicinal use – such as parsley or dill, from what we call (edible) weeds, like dandelion, sowthistle or others? Not much.

The difference between the two types appears to be accepted use, often due to flavour and digestibility. In country Greece, the locals will often forage for wild herbs and what we would call weeds (such as wild fennel) and add them to meals. These wild plants contain health giving properties just like their “more domesticated” cousins.

To harvest these edible weeds in the wild (and this could be your own backyard) it is important to correctly identify the plants. You can read up on these weeds, consult a guidebook or you could talk to someone who knows, like Diego Bonetto.

I attended one of Diego’s classes last spring, with a number of other curious people like myself. We walked around the back of the State Library and surrounding parks while Diego picked up seemingly small plants and explained their taste and medicinal properties. Once invisible to my eye, I started to see the wonderful flora around me.  These weeds did not make their presence known like a bright flower, but seemed to stand quietly holding their ground; their dogged determination to survive is quite amazing.

According to Diego, three generations ago, foraging was common knowledge in the community.  However, two generations ago, there was a change in thinking from obtaining food from home gardens, to a focus on business and shops to provide sustenance.   One generation ago this foraging knowledge was, in many ways, lost.  In a turnaround, many are now trying to understand and preserve these skills.

Why Bother?

Like many herbs and plants, wild plants may be used to introduce minerals to our diet. The bitterness of some of the plants aids in digestion.  The wilderness tends to have more diversity.  These plants may be used to counter the trend of some commercial growers to breed out bitterness in plants.

Can I grow wild weeds?

Normally they self-sow and grow without interference. Ideally a patch of the garden would be left undisturbed to allow nature to work it’s magic.  Of course, you can “help” the process, for example, by picking up dandelion heads when they are in full bloom and spreading the seeds around to encourage growth.

Next steps

  1. Explore your backyard. Diego recommends that the best place to forage is in your own garden, where you know it is “clean”; that is, not contaminated by chemical waste, animals, cars etc.
  2. Positively identify what the item is. Attend a class with a knowledgeable guide or get some expert advice.
  3. Eat a small amount. This is not about eating to survive, but to supplement the diet.
  4. “Be nice to the colony”, implores Diego. In other words, do not harvest to the point of removing all plants, to allow the plant to continue to propagate.

Some examples of wild weeds:

Wild Weed Description
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

 

It is possible to eat the whole plant. When the plant is young, the leaves are best to eat. When the plant is flowering eat the flowers (the leaves are too bitter).  When the flowers are finished, eat the fruit or seeds.  When the whole thing dies (in the winter) eat the roots.  In other words, follow the plant’s growing cycle.

 

Sowthistle (Sonchus spp)

 

Sowthistle is popular with Mediterranean peoples and Pacific Islanders. The plant is eaten raw, especially the younger leaves.  It is bitter and this indicates a high level of nutrients present.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed is a winter plant which dies in summer. It has a fresh taste.  It is very important medicinally, especially for rashes and eczema (where the plant is applied as a poultice).

 

Wood Sorrel – (Oxalis Spp)

 

Oxalis flowers have 5 leaves in the shape of a cup. It can fetch as much as $40 per punnet for restaurants!  There are 800 varieties of this plant.  The leaves are edible also.

 

Amaranth (Amaranthus viridis)

 

This plant is present in summer, the leaves are using for cooking, either boiling or frying. The seed heads form in late summer and autumn and may be used as a grain or ground into flour.

 

and many more…

Some useful books on the subject:

While there are many books on herbs and their uses, and even local native flora, there aren’t many books on local edible weeds.

Diego Bonnetto- Wild Stories a foraging guide

Darina Allen – The Forgotten Skills of Cooking

Diane Kochilas – Ikaria, covers the wild herbs and plants of Greece

 

Websites:

http://wildfood.in/

www.diegobonetto.com.

Disclaimer:

The information in this article about the edible, medicinal and craft uses of species is for educational purposes only.

Copyright text and photos: Sophia Poulos

It’s Simply Cheese

The way I look at it, teaching cheesemaking classes is contributing in some small way to preserving the old crafts. Skills which in the past would have been generally known, but are now approached with great wonder.  So another group arrives to class with some trepidation, and enthusiasm to see what will happen.

The class is busy, there is a lot to cover in just 5 hours, but with great satisfaction the group have achieved what we hoped for, a beautiful set of cheeses and accompaniments, new skills learned and hopefully enough enthusiasm generated to “have another go” with the recipes at home!

 

 

Sydney Seafood Cooking School

The Sydney Seafood Cooking School at Sydney Fish Markets has a reputation as a premier seafood cooking school and it is well deserved!  A friend and I recently attended a seafood cooking class and we were treated to some stunning dishes.

The class started with students in a lecture style theatre.  The chef demonstrated each dish, noting any key points.

Armed with our recipe booklets and aprons, we moved into cooking stations, with shiny new utensils and raw ingredients waiting on a nearby trolley. Our newly formed team got to work transforming these raw ingredients into yummy dishes.  There was a frenzy of activity over the next couple of hours, with blenders, woks, BBQ grills and ovens working hard.

Nearby the dining room awaited us.  We set the tables and proudly presented our beautiful dishes to share amongst the team.

 

The school provides all the equipment and ingredients needed, wines to sample with the food, and coffee and chocolates to end the meal.  There were even takeaway containers provided for leftovers.  And on the way out, we checked out the fabulous fresh seafood at the Sydney Fish Markets.  A very nice day!

The Windmill Resort

Kythera again… and why not, you can sample the best of everything in a small corner of the world. A Greek island where those who leave, often return.

One such person is Alex. Even though his homeland is Australia, he just can’t keep away.  And so he acquired a Greek windmill, made of stone, in the middle of Kythera.  He slowly fixed it up, the old tower, the inner workings, and surrounded it with a number of quaint cottages for rent, circling them with magnificent grounds, growing organic produce and raising livestock, and the odd dog.

I was fortunate to visit this lovely place in summer and enjoyed Alex’s warm hospitality.  Alex is highly interested in the environment and has ensured that the property meets the requirements for organic certification.  He showed a group of us around the property, pointing out the organic tomatoes, zucchini’s as well as herbs, and a large chicken coop where hens produced beautiful fresh eggs.

The property has a large covered area and outdoor kitchen. The residents can enjoy a communal breakfast in the covered eating area, getting ready for the days activities of sightseeing, hiking, or simply, more eating!

If you want to experience a little slice of heaven, you wouldn’t be remiss to visit this place. Alex and his team are there in the summertime, to look after you  – or you can just sit and contemplate, perhaps as Zorba would have done so long ago.  And if you listen closely, you may even hear his voice on the wind “Teach me to Dance…”

For more information on the Windmill resort see http://thewindmillresort.com/

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Photos: Sophia Poulos

Cooking Classes at Aphrodite’s Island

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Welcome to Elizabeth’s class

Kythera is a magical place in Greece, also known as the birthplace of Aphrodite.  There are many beautiful places to see and things to do on the island.  The opening lines in Vilana Studio’s website state: “Kythera. For some the centre of Europe, for others the world. This is where three seas meet, the Aegean, the Ionian and the Cretan. It is also where these seas meet with the sun”.

 

I attended a cooking class held by Elizabeth Stais from Vilana Studios located in the southern part of Kythera. Elizabeth demonstrated how to make the greek Mizithra (soft style cheese) using raw goats milk produced on the estate.  Elizabeth also demonstrated how to prepare homemade vegetable and sweet pies using the fresh cheese.  We also tasted some of Elizabeth’s other homemade specialities such as Fatouratha, a sweet spice liqueur made from a grape spirit.

We were shown an old stone hand mill used to split peas and to grind grain.  The estate also has a special field called a “babakia”.  This is a unique farming practice used in Kythera where the fields are treated in a particular way so that the crops do not require watering after they are established.  This field grows tomatoes, melons, beans and other produce in a seemingly magical way and the flavour is more intense due to this special method of agriculture.

Elizabeth’s classes are conducted throughout April, May, June and September. For details and enquiries please contact Elizabeth Stais at vilanastudios@gmail.com.

 

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Stirring the curds for Mizithra

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Ready to eat

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Home made vegetable pie.

 

 

Photos: Sophia Poulos

Hands on Cheesemaking

The latest class really got into the “cheesemaking spirit” and what a fabulous result!  The class at St George and Sutherland Community College runs for five hours and in that time four cheeses are produced, together with homemade crackers and tomato sweet chilli jam. Students took home samples of their efforts for their family and friends to enjoy too.

Photos: Sophia Poulos