Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Maple Shacks and Magic (Or: We made CHEESE!)

I've not been keeping up on my blogging lately, mostly because I've been dedicating a significant amount of time lately to wallowing in self-pity, which has left me little time for composing my thoughts and publishing them in the blog-o-sphere. Aside from the overwhelming nature of both my jobs, we've experienced a number of losses in our families lately, which, having all come in rapid succession, has made it difficult for me to focus on anything in a productive manner. You should know that usually I'm quite an efficient person.  But sometimes, when things get just enough off kilter, I can't quite channel my productive energies in the right direction and I end up doing completely random tasks which, though being carried out very effectively, are mostly irrelevant and not at all helpful to the general trajectory of my life. For instance, when I was in school and had significant deadlines approaching, I would frequently decide that at that exact moment what really needed to be done was (Fill in ridiculous and time-consuming task here.  Good examples are cleaning out the dishwasher drain catch, washing and ironing the curtains, adding tags to photos in my digital albums, alphabetizing books on the bookshelf, etc.). And so I would go off to pursue curtain cleaning or whatever with the vigor and focus that I should be saving for reading and writing papers.

And so one might see it as either a fortuitous turn of events or a simple psychological coping mechanism that just at the moment when everything seems to be completely out of control in my life, I decided to learn how to make cheese.

Well, that might be exaggerating a bit.  I actually signed up for cheese-making class last spring when, inspired by a scene in Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, a fellow bookclubber and I vowed to pursue the art of cheesemaking with our respective (and quasi-reluctant) spouses.  Apparently we weren't the only ones who had this fabulous idea, however, as the class was booked out for about 6 months.  But we signed up anyway, and I had almost forgotten about it by the time it rolled around, and the timing was just perfect for me to launch a new quasi-ridiculous obsession. 

The class is offered by Ricki the Cheese Queen who has been running a cheese-making supply company out of her home in central Massachusetts for about the last 30 years.  We should have been alerted to the weirdness of this program when after signing up online, our receipt arrived in the mail along with a fairly wacky and low-budget DVD about cheesemaking and a note reminding us to not wear deodorant on the day of the class due to the Cheese Queen's allergies. Nevertheless, we powered ahead, agreeing to meet at the class early that Saturday morning. (Our friends were smart enough to make a weekend out of it in a cute bed and breakfast near the site, which is about 2 hours from Boston. But we, perennial procrastinators that we are, didn't think of booking anywhere until the last minute, and wouldn't you know it, couldn't find anywhere that could accommodate us and our 90 pound dog. Go figure.)

When the day dawned, we packed up the pooch in the back seat and headed west to Ashfield, MA right in the foothills of the Berkshires.  The class was to meet in the Cheese Queen's home and the google directions we followed to get there took us past all the quintessential elements of New England scenery.....fall foliage, white church spires in tucked-away valleys, and shacks selling all variety of maple products.  When we arrived in the town, it appeared about 3 blocks long, made up of mostly classically white farm homes and several white country churches. Then, emerging from the morning fog, appeared our destination, which, in stark opposition to the subtle cape-codders on all sides of it, looked like this:

Like some other-worldly house of whimsy, the Cheese Queen's palace was one of the most ecclectic residences I have laid eyes on.  A mish-mash of bright colors, with antique yard furniture almost melting into the lawn, the porch was decorated with a variety of global art and approximately 58 jack-o-laterns. Upon entering, it became clear the outside was just the beginning.

We were escorted inside by Jamie, teaching assistant and some relation to the Cheese queen though the exact nature of their togetherness was unclear. What we thought would be a small gathering of uniquely motivated cheese connoisseurs (we were expecting 8-10 folks like us), turned out to be a group of 42, crammed around plastic folding tables in such proximity as to allow us to discern the weirdness of many of those around us with relatively ease. Here's our classroom during one of the breaks:

We came to find out later that among us were several chefs, a physicist, a "motivational speaker," several home-schoolers and a Presbyterian minister (aka yours truly!). After a few minutes of sitting and reveling in the complete randomness of this event, we were silenced for the entrance of the Cheese Queen. Middle-aged with a huge mop of frizzy hair and wearing what can only be described as a full-body, tie-dyed jumper, she floated into the room and began what was to be the next six hours of learning the techniques of cheese making.  Part demonstration, part practicum, part running commentary on the politics of the dairy-industry, it was quite whirlwind, but, ultimately, a fairly awesome and completely unique experience.

During the class, we learned the techniques for making queso blanco, fromage blanc, creme freche, cream cheese, yogurt, ricotta, mozzarella and cheddar. There was separating of curds and whey, cutting of curd, straining into cheese cloth, pressing in a cheese mold, all the procedures you've heard about and always wondered what they meant. Here's our friend A cooking up some Farmhouse Cheddar in the cheese press:

A beautiful and, of course, cheese-rich lunch was served in the kitchen and living areas and the afternoon was dedicated to mozzarella making. We left around 5 p.m. overflowing with cheesemaking wisdom (and supplies!). I for one felt quite satisfied: who else learns how to make cheese in a wacky, whimsical retreat in the Berkshires? Well, if you don't, then I'll let you in on the secret: the basic process for making all cheese is: Step 1: Heat some milk to a specified temperature. Step 2: Add "magic powder": (usually certain enzymes or live cultures).  Step 3: Let sit for a longer time than you would imagine milk should sit out. Step 4: Enjoy!

Here we are after surviving cheese madness:

Since we've returned we've made yogurt and cream cheese and have pans to make creme fraiche soon. Here's Mr. LIOLI cookin' up some cream cheese: Awesome.

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