Fig-sap Ricotta

As soon as I saw it written on the page I knew I’d have to try making fig-sap ricotta. The recipe comes from Spiri Tsintziras’ memoir Afternoons in Ithaca (ABC Books, 2014) about growing up in Melbourne, the daughter of Greek migrants. Fig-sap ricotta is not so much a recipe as a brief instruction, add several drops of fig sap to milk, wait 12 hours for it to set then drain the curds and there it is, ricotta.

A scant 3 drops of fig sap are dripped into about 1 litre of milk
A scant 3 drops of fig sap are dripped into about 1 litre of milk

It was hard to believe that this would work – it’s almost too simple to be true. I cut two figs from our tree and squeezed a scant 3 drops of the sap into the about 1 litre of full cream milk that I had in the fridge. I did bring the milk up to room temperature before I added the sap. After mixing I covered the bowl with a clean cloth and left it to sit for twelve hours.

I checked it before I went to bed, nothing much was happening. The next morning I was a bit scared that it would still be liquid. TB said to go and check it out and what do you know it had set. Amazing!

Scooping the curds gently into the mould so the curds can drain.
Scooping the curds gently into the mould so the curds can drain.

I couldn’t go past Spriri’s serving suggestions. I started with breakfast – sourdough toast with the fresh ricotta drizzled with leatherwood honey. I’ve since also tried the ricotta on a great loaf of fruit bread that we bought from the markets. That also worked very well.

Toast, ricotta and honey
Toast, ricotta and honey

The great thing about this ricotta is that it can be turned to sweet or savoury use. We had a light meal of one of Spiri’s favourite childhood meals, tomato rubbed into bread with ricotta, sprinkled with dried oregano and a drizzle of olive oil.

Tomato rubbed into bread with ricotta, oregano and olive oil
Tomato rubbed into bread with ricotta, oregano and olive oil

What was nice is that apart from the olive oil and the milk, the tomato and oregano came from our garden and we made the bread and ricotta. That’s the way we like to enjoy the work of our hands. Given my very haphazard attempts at cheesmaking I think that this recipe will be used on a regular basis – at least while the fig sap is running.

I’m still reading Spiri’s book and I would definitely recommend it. If you would like to check out more of her work you can visit her website Tribal Tomato.

 


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Say Cheese

As you may have noticed we’ve been focussed on local harvests recently and there has been no greater promoter of local produce and producers around Canberra than chef Janet Jeffs over at Old Parliament House.

Her latest Kitchen Cabinet lunch was focussed on local cheese producers. All three types of cheese, cow, goat and sheep, were represented at the lunch by three local producers – Small Cow Farm (cow, from Robertson in the Southern Highlands), Hobbit Farm (goat, from Jindabyne) and Thistledown Creamery (sheep, from Goulburn). It was clear from the outset that no matter how they came to cheese making that all the producers were passionate about what they were doing. As is the usual format at Kitchen Cabinet events there was a presentation by the producers as part of the proceedings, before we got down to the business of eating.

One thing that all the makers stressed was that like other foods milk is a seasonal product. Sure, large scale dairy farms rely on methods of staggering their production to get year round milk, but artisan cheese producers are relying on female animals having a a calf, kid or lamb at foot to produce the milk for their products. So don’t be surprised if your favourite artisanal cheese is in limited supply sometime during the year.

Cheese_talk

Lunch started off with a tasting plate of cheeses from all the producers and a piece of truly delicious paste made by Janet (the dark rectangle on the plate). I particularly liked being able to compare the salted and un-salted fresh goats cheese (one of which is on the RHS of the plate) with the mature goats cheese. We also spent a bit of time debating the content of the accompanying fruit paste, plum possibly or maybe a wine paste. Having asked, it turned out to be a combination of crab apple and apple which Janet and her staff had cooked up in the kitchen over several days.

Between entree and main, we had the chance to ask questions of the producers. There was quite a bit of debate about raw milk cheese production, a debate which clearly isn’t likely to be resolved in the near future. I think the most useful point that came from the discussion was that we shouldn’t be equating pasteurisation with ‘boiling the guts out’ of the milk. For artisanal cheese producers the process tends to be one of heating the milk to the lowest acceptable temperature over an extended period of time to achieve the result (sorry you’ll need to look up some cheese making recipes for the specific details) as opposed to the larger manufacturers which achieve pasteurisation by exposing the milk to a much higher temperature for a very quick time. The reason the small producers use the ‘low and slow’ approach is that it helps maintain the taste of the product.

We fell on our main course of twice-baked souffle, goat cheese roasted tomato and thyme and fetta, beetroot, walnut and blue cheese salad, tatziki and spiced labneh, so quickly that I forgot to take a photo (sorry). It was absolutely wonderful.

I did manage to get a shot of dessert which was Quark cheese cake with berrie compote.

Image395

For the uninitiated, like me, Quark is a type of German fresh curd cheese. It didn’t last long either!

While I certainly enjoyed the the cheese we ate on the day I came away from the event with a lot of questions about artisanal cheese production in Australia. Firstly it’s hard to get a handle on the scale of the Australian small/artisanal cheesemaking industry. Clearly there are quite a number of small scale producers setting up all across the country (as we found travelling in Tasmania), but confusion reigns, statistically that is, because many of the larger commercial maufacturers also consider themselves to be ‘small’ producers (which they probably are compared to cheese producers overseas). Putting to one side the raw milk debate, the high level of regulation of the dairy industry adds a significant level of challenge to anyone thinking of producing cheese commercially. Even to get your dairy up and running is a major challenge, let alone being able to produce high-quality products.

Clearly increasing the public’s demand for quality artisanal cheese is a complex process that is not without its hazards for the producers themselves. Greater demand puts higher stresses on the makers. Small Cow Farm, for example, has moved from producing cheese from its own herd to buying in milk from nearby herds, as the time demands of milking and producing cheese became too great for their operation. Meeting safety regulations, including rigourous testing regimes, requires a significant amount of any cheesemakers time.

One of the more interesting articles I’ve turned up since attending the lunch is a report produced by Nick Haddow of the Bruny Island Cheese Company (arguably one of our highest profile artisan cheesemakers), on assessing the viability of Australian artisan cheeses being exported overseas. Now don’t get too fussed about the export angle because Haddow’s assessment touches on a range of issues for small-scale producers, including education and training for cheesemakers, issues of quality and presentation of cheese at the retail level. I found the following comment of particular interest:

“Having seen the quality of both locally made cheeses and the imported European cheeses in the USA market, it is difficult to see how the current product range from Australia could make inroads in the immediate future. More needs to be done to encourage our cheesemakers to be making the highest quality cheeses possible – artisan, but high quality.”

If you’d like to read Nick’s report in full you can find it here.

All I can say having just quickly looked at some of the complexities of producing good artisanal cheese it hat’s off to them all, they must be mad!

PS Thanks to R for providing the photo of the entree.

Bruny Island

If you had to pick one place that provided a good cross-section of Tassie in one day then Bruny Island could well be it. Bruny Island is a combination of farmland and national park, along with some tiny settlements. The short ferry ride across the D’Entrecastaux Channel was very relaxing compared to the dissembarkation off the ferry which ressembled the start of the Indie 500.

It was all we could do to get our van safely off the road and into the carpark of our first destination – the Bruny Island Smokehouse, or Bish for short. Thankfully tranquility returned once we were inside. A fine platter of smoked fish, fish pates and chutneys was put out for us to taste. There were also a wider range of smoked products available (but not on the tasting platter), and some additional local products available for purchase. In the end we settled on some smoked Atlantic Salmon, smoked mussels, a smoked  Otto cheese (Bruny Island Cheese Co. makes the cheese Bish smokes it) and a bottle of pomegranate molasses.

Bish

By this stage we were desperate for a coffee so we set off for the Bruny Island Cheese Company (you will probably have seen the company’s owner, Nick Haddow, on The Gourmet Farmer on SBS) which is just a bit further down the road and hoped that they had the coffee pot on. We pretty much had the place to ourselves for our cheese tasting which consisted of two platters.The first platter was of several soft and washed rind cheeses and the second a selection of their hard cheeses.The c ulmination of the tasting was their C2 raw milk cheese, which was just wonderful.

Bruny_cheese

We decided to settle back and have a coffee and a bit of cake before we made our final decision on what to buy. We were also lucky that it was a baking day so we were tantalised by the aroma of wood-fired bread coming out of the oven.
Brunybread
There were several books for visitors to browse, including Matthew Evan’s latest book Winter on the Farm (autographed of course). TB went straight for the well-thumbed cheese-making textbook – he knew he was onto a good thing when he noticed that the name written inside the cover was that of one W. Studd, who I understand was a mentor of Nick Haddow’s. In the end there was no going past the C2 and for good measure we also bought several rounds of the OEN cheese which is washed in pinot noir then wrapped in grape leaves to mature.

C2cheese
Cutting the C2 is a serious business – I think we can all agree ‘THAT is a knife!’

OK don’t drool. Bruny Island Cheese can be bought at the Saturday Salamanca Market or you can join the company’s cheese club or order the cheeses online. A few of their freshly baked baguettes made it into the stash and we picked up a loaf of their sourdough later in the day when we were returning to the ferry.

We drove south across the narrow neck between the north and south parts of the island. A rather nice national park campground at the southern end of the neck gave us access to the ocean side of the island. As we walked along the beach we noticed that there was no shortage of pippis in the sand – although they were rather too small for eating (notwithstanding that we were in a National Park).
Pippis
The next order of the day was more food, of course. We’d taken the precaution of making a reservation at the very aptly named Hothouse Cafe, which is actually housed in a double width polytunnel. We felt right at home! This cafe is run from a private property, which also has accomodation (one for next time I’m thinking!)

Hothousecafe

We had to wait a bit for lunch, not a problem with a great view all the way back up the neck and on to Mt Wellington. What we were waiting for was this beautiful steak and guinness pie, one of the greatest pies I can ever recall eating. The meat was completely succulent and flavourful and  was delivered straight from the oven of the lady of the house to our table.

Hothouse_pie

BTW that is a dinner plate it is sitting on! so there was no need for anything other than a refreshing drink to go with this meal. I’ve also heard and read good things about the Hothouse Cafe dinners as well. This lunch certainly bodes well for people dining here in the evening.

After lunch we made a dash down to the far end of Bruny Island to see the lighthouse, which was built in 1836. The second oldest in Australia (South Head lighthouse in Sydney claims the honour of being first, built in 1818).

Bruny_lighthouse

For once I was pleased to see that the lighthouse was surrounded by a heathland that was full of flowering native plants – a far cry from the devastated weed infested paddocks that surround many of our lighthouses.

But we couldn’t linger, well not too long. We had to get back for our final food encounter back on the northern end of the island. Get Shucked oysters may be rustic in appearance but don’t be fooled, these are great oysters at a really good price, a dozen oysters for $12. With an iced bottle of chilli ginger beer to wash them down it was a fitting finale for our Bruny Island food frenzy. Of course I couldn’t leave without getting my own ‘Frequent Shuckers’ card!

Getshucked

At the end of the day we met up with our travelling companions who’d also spent their day at Bruny Island. Unlike us they had donned red plastic wet weather gear and spent the day careening around the island enjoyed the scenery and wildlife on their boat trip. For dinner we had a ‘grazing’ meal that pretty much summed up our days’ adventure (with a bit of help from nearby farms as well):

Brunyfeast

From the top left: Basil flavoured sheeps curd and just below it Friesland Fog ash-coated cheese (both Grand Ewe Cheeses); baguettes, plain and with cheese topping and sourdough (Bruny Island Cheese Company); OEN pinot-washed soft rind cheese in vine leaves (Bruny Island Cheese Company);and smoked Atlantic salmon (Bruny Island Smokehouse).

Cheesy Grins

The big day has come at last – the grand opening of TB’s first wheel of cheese!

Cheese1

Here we are poised to cut ….

Cheese2

TA DA!!

This is the cheese made from the milk from my sister’s cow. (You can read the back story is here).

While this was intended to be a ‘blue’ cheese you can see that it didn’t quite attain the colour we were hoping for. In texture the cheese is firm but creamy, not at all crumbly, and as we delve further into the interior there are signs of mould development, but again more red than blue. (No worries we’ve tried it over several days and no-one has died yet.)

Despite the colour malfunction the cheese tastes really good. Of course I’m biased, but I did take two precious slices into the office today for a completely un-biased perspective from my workmates – well apart from those people who I still have to do mid-term performance reviews with – and we had the same result. The flavour is pleasant but not overly strong tang, somewhat like Gouda. Universal approbation was received.

Our biggest problem is that the product of the Fromagerie de Fork is so exclusive that we only have the one wheel of this cheese! Quel dommage! (What a pity!). So I’m sorry Mr Studd you will just have to get in line.

Of course we still have the official carving of the ‘Cheddar’ to look forward to come mid-year.

 

Cheesy update

Following on from my earlier post, TB on his return home from the Hunter Valley has been making more cheese, courtesy of 14 litres of Snowy milk that came home with us in a very large esky. We are using a small refrigerator as our ‘cheese cave’ which has been set on a fairly warm setting (well for a fridge that is).

This time he made three small soft cheeses and another hard cheese which we hope in time, will transmogrify into something resembling a ‘blue’ cheese.

Fresh_cheese

I’m picking up the story at the moulded curd stage so you can see the three small soft cheeses’ progress. These cheeses can be eaten with only a limited maturation time. Last Saturday we ate one of these soft cheeses as cheese on toast for lunch, along with our first tomato of the season which was actually from my sisters garden in the Hunter Valley, not our own. The taste of the cheese was mild but pleasant. The most disconcerting thing was that in texture there was a strong resemblance between what TB produced and a certain manufactured cheese that comes in a blue box and can survive unrefrigerated, we are guessing, for several years.

Having dried out some more TB has taken all the cheeses out to salt them. This helps in several ways. One it draws more moisture from the cheeses, two it helps the flavour and three it helps stop nasty ‘bugs’ growing on the outside surfaces.

Salted_cheese

The cheeses are placed on bamboo mats to allow any moisture to fall away from the cheese when it is back in the fridge.

Blessed are the cheese makers

One of the main attractions of visiting my family in the Hunter Valley is undoubtedly my sister’s Brown Swiss. What is a Brown Swiss you ask? Here is your multiple choice image:

Brown_swiss_q

Still wondering?

This is a Brown Swiss.

Brown_swiss_a

Snowysh

Snowy and young Sutton Hall.

With a calf at heel there is plenty of milk for both the calf and the rest of us. This has resulted in lots of fresh milk for breakfast, not to mention lunch and tea and all breaks in between.

Snowymilk

TB who has tried his hand at cheese making on numerous occasions couldn’t wait to have a go with Snowy’s milk. So last Saturday he started in with making a cheddar cheese. My not very technical summary follows but serious aspiring cheese makers should find a book on the subject, such as Cheese Making Made Easy, by Ricki and Robert Carroll. Another good resource is Cheeselinks which is an Australian supplier for cheese and youghurt makers. Budding local cheesemakers may also be interested in workshops offered by Small Cow Farm, 2011 classes are listed on their website.

Here we go. First take 10 litres of milk. Here is the starter, somewhat like yoghurt, which is added to the milk.

Hotstarter

Leave the whole lot in a pan in a water bath for about an hour,

Heating

and then the rennet is added, which coagulates the milk (about 30 to 45 minutes).

Readycut

After the milk coagulates you cut your curds, which gets rid of some of the whey out of the curd

Cutting2

the curds then sink to the bottom of the pot and are cooked at a low temperature for another hour (the temperature is only raised from room temperature to luke-warm).

Reheated

The whey is then drained from the curd and the curds are left to set. The next step is to cut the curds into slices – this is the actual cheddaring process –

Prefinalheat

Cheddared

the curds are kept warm and are then ‘milled’ or broken-up.

Drained

The curds are finally drained and put into a mould lined with cheesecloth (yes, that is what it is actually meant to be used for!)

Finalcurd

before being weighted down to expel even more water.

Weight

The moulded cheddar cheese is then dried for several days before the cheese is waxed and then stored for several months to mature in your cheese cave.

Here is some cheddar cheese that my sister made earlier. Her ‘cheese cave’ is a cooler bag, with ice brick, kept in the bottom of her linen cupboard (as was suggested by the cheese-making book she uses).

Cheesecave

 

Awash in Wagga Wagga

Well we can certainly pick our memorable weekend getaway destinations! On Sunday, our first full day in Wagga the city received its highest March rainfall since records have been kept, with 166mm (some 6 inches in the old measure) falling on the one day. Unfortunately it was also falling inside our accommodation. The owner had sent us a text alerting us to a leak that had developed the day before. It would not have caused any problem if it hadn’t kept raining. However emptying the kitchen tidy over the length of the day did give us something to do.You can see from my picture that where we walked under the bridge on Saturday, around Wollundry Lagoon, on Sunday was under a good half a metre of water.

We had planned to go to the Sunday morning car boot sale in the Myer car park and then later in the day drive out to the Overdale Markets. Sadly both were cancelled. We did the next best thing and headed out to Charles Sturt University where we were able to taste their wine, cheese and olive oil. Apparently we weren’t the only people who had the same idea. The man running the tasting cellar sales said that he arrived to find people waiting on the doorstep for the tasting room to open and he hadn’t even been able to stop long enough to get himself a cup of tea.

The University produces a large range of wines, white, red, sparkling, stickies and fortified. We selected a sparkling pinot-noir chardonnay and a sparkling shiraz and their liqueur muscat. The Long Paddock Rustler Olive oil we bought at the cellar  was also very good. Each picking and related pressing is kept separate and you can taste the quite distinct differences between the various oils. We got some Second Pick and some Heritage Oil. I really like the latter product and, I presume, it’s from the 100 year-old trees that the producers have been pruning to bring back into production – fantastic by itself on good bread.

The cheese on offer on the day was of the ‘flavoured’ variety, using Australian native herbs. While this may not be your cup of tea I was very pleasantly surprised by the end results. All the usual suspects are on offer – Bush Tomato, Alpine Pepper, and Lemon Myrtle. More unusual were, Forest Berry (a eucalypt flavour) and Native Mint. I really enjoyed the Native Mint, which I must admit struck me as an unusual choice to add to a cheese, that is, before I tried it. They do make other cheeses, both cheddar and soft but there weren’t any available to try when we were there.

By the time we made it back to our apartment we had the makings of a fine lunch. Bush Tomato cheese, two olive oils to taste and TB’s most recent batch of sourdough bread, followed by Cleopatra apples, from 10 Pialligo Rd, Pialligo (ACT), (purchased on the way back from incarcerating the moggy for the weekend).

Those of you with a passing knowledge of the etymology (the study of a word’s origins) of the name Wagga Wagga will know that is has traditionally been interpreted, from the Wiradjuri language, as meaning place of many crows. The city mothers and fathers have encouraged a proliferation of crow images (more correctly they are Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides), in coats of arms, sculptures and other representations all over the city. My favourite images are the ceramic tiles made in 1938 to mark the sesquicentenary (150 years of European occupation) of Australia, located in the Sunken Garden, part of the Victory Memorial Gardens, near the Civic Centre. I even found my own corvid-themed souvenir of my visit, a commemorative teaspoon celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Wagga Wagga Public School (found at the local Sallies Family Store) with a crow on top of the school badge.

However, recently there has been a challenge as to whether the term Wagga Wagga actually means place of many crows or should be more correctly interpreted as meaning “dancing” or “staggering like a drunken man”. Suffice to say that so far the city elders are sticking to the crow interpretation – although a city full of sculptures of dancing or staggering people could be a real departure!

FloodCheeseCrowtileCrow2Crow3CrowsSpoon