Anyone following Martin Gott (@martindongotty) on Twitter will have read that this week they started making St James cheese again and tomorrow, I will be making it again myself. It will be an interesting and challenging day in equal measures balancing the sheeps milk make and the cows milk make. After finishing with sheeps milk in November, I wonder how it will be using it again and how used I will have become to the cows milk texture when it sets. Will I cut the sheeps curd too soon? Will I drain it with enough pressure?
The time, therefore, has come to introduce St James properly. On my first post, Brother David, meet Sister Mary, I explained the story behind its name (an affectionate homage to a former cheese affineur James Aldridge) St James is a square shaped washed rind cheese weighing approximately between 1.5 & 1.8 kilos. In order to make it, the sheeps milk is pumped through the wall into the dairy from the milking parlour and into a 70 litre hemisphere vat and when there is excess, a 65 litre curdling tub (which can fill up to about 45-50 litres full). At this time of the year I anticipate just the hemisphere vat being used but I’ll find that out tomorrow. I should point out at this stage that I’ve quoted temperatures in Celsius because being European, that’s what we’re using. A conversion guide can be found here.
Martin & Nicola only milk in the mornings. Most dairy farmers milk twice a day, in the morning and the evening, but they only do it the one time. The milk never hangs around, even for a few hours, and is completely fresh. If milk is kept overnight, it usually has to be cooled down to limit the possibility of any unwelcome bacteria growing, either simply spoilage organisms which could create some bitter or stale flavours, or, in the worst case, the sort of bacteria that cause food poisoning (although in a healthy flock which are well managed this is pretty unlikely). Not only is there an advantage to using the milk straight away because of limiting spoilage (it’s less risky a make), but another important consideration is that because it never needs to be cooled, it only needs a little gentle heating at the start of the day to get it to the right temperature for renneting. Cooling the milk down and then heating it up, obviously, has an effect on the fats and proteins in the milk and does disturb them a little. The risks are that the fats or proteins might become damaged with either a rapid temperature change or too prolonged a temperature change such as one from about 4C (the temperature of many bulk tanks) to the one which could be in the 20s or 30s. Again this can affect the flavours that the cheese develops later. Gentle handling is key and as Martin and Nicola don't store any evening milk, it's one less stage that they need to worry about. So the milk is about sheep temperature to start with, is gently heated up a few degrees and starter is added.
All starters are not equal. We use a bulk starter culture which has a texture a little like drinking yoghurt. It's called MT36 and is generally considered by those in the cheesemaking business to be a pretty sexy little bunch of bacteria. It has an impressive pedigree; some of the cheeses made with it include Kirkham's Lancashire, Stichelton, Gorwydd Caerphilly and Duckett's Caerphilly. On the more technical side, it is apparently a very complex bunch of bacteria. Those who know about these things speak in reverent tones about the different organisms in it and, of course, the potential for unlocking flavour from the milk as a result. The bacteria in the starters release enzymes to break down the proteins and fats of the milk and the flavours are unlocked primarily from the protein breakdown. Each enzyme releases a different potential for flavour and different bacteria will release different enzymes. Thus complex & diverse selection of bacteria = more diversity of enzyme action = more complex flavour. Another way of looking at it is that it tastes delicious. At Gorwydd Farm they make up a batch of starter to have in the house for breakfast instead of yoghurt. I’ve eaten left over starter tipped over my fruit as a cheesemaker’s pudding and I can concur that it tastes really good.
Returning to the recipe, the starter is added and left for about half an hour before adding rennet. By this point the bacteria haven't really got active so their growth and the build up of acidity that accompanies this happens not only in the set curd but largely happens once the cheeses are moulded and are draining overnight. The rennet starts to change the milk structure after anything from about 20 to 30 minutes where you can see particles of curd developing. It is usually fully set at 90 minutes.
If you leave it too long or use too much rennet then the rennet has set the curd too hard and it can be difficult to release the whey when the cheeses are draining overnight. If this happens, the rate at which the acidity develops, changes. Whey trapped in the drained cheese will lead to acidification after the cheeses are turned out of their moulds. The trapped moisture means the bacteria continue to create more acidity. The acidity attacks the minerals in the curd, in particular the calcium, and you end up with harder, brittle textured cheeses. Demineralised is a term that gets quoted to describe this texture and it can be desirable if you are making something crumbly like Cheshire but St James is meant to be supple and to break down to a completely full oozing texture and for this, keeping the correct amount of calcium in the curd is the aim.
In order to drain enough whey out of the curd when making St James, first after cutting the curd to 1cm squares, we leave it to give off whey for 20 minutes before lading into cloth lined moulds. The draining cloths are another key part of expelling that whey. They absorb whey away from the surface of the curd mass which helps it form a rind, but in addition to that, we tighten these cloths (with no small amount of pressure when it comes to the sheeps curd) 3 or 4 times before the end of the day when they are turned and heavy steel followers placed on top.
The following day, the cheeses are turned out of their cloths, left in the moulds for a further 24 hours in the salting room and then on day 3 and day 4 have dry salt rubbed into the top side as they are turned. On day 5 they move to the maturing rooms where they will begin being washed somewhere between 1 and 3 days after that.. The washing develops a pink / orange rind of Brevibacterium linens (among other things) which likes the extra moisture. This releases further flavour as the bacteria that for the rind also release enzymes which break down the curd further, softening the texture from the outside in but also unlocking flavour as they go - characteristically quite savoury, meaty and sometimes smoky flavours.
St James does definitely take on those savoury meaty ‘lamb bacon’ flavours but the richness of the sheeps milk lends it something extra. These new cheeses are destined for Martin’s shop Cartmel Cheeses and for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London and are usually ready to sell from around 8 weeks old. It’s not the longest wait to see how the new season’s cheese is starting but when you’re impatient to know more, it’s long enough.