Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Six go cheese-making in Cheshire

I do love cheese. I've loved it as long as I can remember. As a toddler and child, I had terrible migraines. Cheese was one of my trigger foods, along with chocolate, so I had to avoid them as much as possible, but I struggled more with not eating cheese than chocolate. Luckily, I grew out of the migraines! I eat any kind of cheese, although I do prefer stronger flavoured cheese as do the children. There's always cheese in the house, and whatever cheese we have goes quickly. Well, apart from the blue cheese - I get to keep that for myself as a rare treat.

So when I was asked by the British Cheese Board (great name!) if I'd like to visit a creamery and see cheese being made, I jumped at the chance. The fact we'd get to make our own cheese just added more excitement! I really love things like that - mainly because I did Food Chemistry as part of my degree course many moons ago.

The creamery that I and five other bloggers visited was Joseph Heler Cheese in Cheshire, who are the largest independent regional cheese producer in the UK. I was fascinated to learn that Joseph Heler himself, despite being into his eighties, still comes into work every day to see what's going on. It was so lovely that it still has a family feel to the place, despite being on a scale I couldn't imagine.

After dressing in fetching coats and hairnets (see left - sorry Jen and Lindy), we went around their biggest creamery, where they now make Red Leicester. This was cheese making on a vast scale. What doesn't help is that you need a lot of milk to make cheese. It takes 10 litres of milk to make 1kg so they have to find a way of dealing with the waste- which they do by extracting some by products for food manufacture and the water is then recycled too. A lot of the processing is mechanical but the key part of the process - the salting of the cheese -  is still done manually. It has to be done evenly, otherwise you might ruin the cheese and watching the curds being salted is something to behold.

We also took a quick look around their small creamery which they use to make specialist or artisan cheeses - like their Blue Cheshire - and also to run cheese-making courses.

Onto making our own cheese! It seemed to go quite well and it was fun, but that may just be because I'm odd. The milk had the rennet added just before we went on our tour. When we came back, the curds that had formed were cut (as per my Silent Sunday post last week) and the whey drained off. We had our own go at salting and mixing in the salt, then it was packed into moulds. Hopefully, in a week or two, the cheese - it's going to be a coloured Cheshire so it doesn't mature for very long - will arrive on our doorsteps. I can't wait. If you want to see all the photos taken of the cheese-making, you can find them here.

We also met their cheese grader who explained what he was looking for when he tastes cheeses and how they differ. It sounds obvious, but if you are eating cheese uncooked, then you get the best flavour by taking it out of the fridge for at least 20 minutes beforehand. We tried some reduced fat cheese - and yes, it did taste good but there is something about the texture that makes it different.

I know the perception is that cheese is quite unhealthy but it does have its place in a balanced diet. Did you know that giving children a piece of cheese after they've had sweets help to protect their teeth? I give my two a snack of cheese and raisins, which they love. The cheese stops the raisins from sticking to their teeth - something else that can contribute to tooth decay. Obviously, because the nutrients are concentrated down, it is a great source of calcium - great if your kids don't drink a lot of milk.

Also, did you know that full fat hard cheese has the same number of calories whether it's mild, medium, mature or extra mature? The difference is just the length of time it's left to mature. If you are cooking with cheese and want a great flavour, use a stronger cheese as you'll need less to get the cheesy flavour and that will help to keep the calories and fat down.

And the best part of the day? Being given lots of lovely cheese to take away in a lovely little cool bag. I'll do a full report on our cheese when it arrives, but I came away with piles of cheese to give us our fix in the meantime. A big thanks to Joseph Heler and British Cheese for organising a great day.
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