Cheesemaking – the Science, and the Art

Our goats have flourished in the spring conditions and milk production reached an all-time high this month. Last month 8400 litres poured into the vat, compared to 5600 litres last spring, and 4200 litres the year before that. But it’s not only sheer volume, the milk is sweet and balanced, with medium protein and fat levels.

Holy Goat Cheese and Sutton Grange Organic FarmThe surfeit of riches this time of year allows us to experiment with our cheesemaking. We can develop other cheese types and learn more about the changing nature and chemistry of the milk itself. We’ve been continuing to develop a hard cheese – we’ve named it Nectre – for the past three years now.

Making cheese is both a science and an art. While pH/acidity, temperature/humidity and time dictate the process, we are also dealing with a living, changing, organic substance.  Microorganisms create the cheese and the milk itself changes according to season and goat nutrition. It’s not possible to create quality farmhouse cheese simply by ‘wrote’ or recipe. Fine cheese also requires intuition and understanding on the part of the cheesemaker.

We’ve been guided by international experts such as Ivan Larcher and worked with him last week on our Nectar. It is 7 months since Ivan last came to Holy Goat; we were able to refine our methods and have him taste the fruit of our labours so far.

Cheesemaking - Nectre, hard cheeseAs farmhouse cheesemakers we don’t standardise the milk, but we can adjust temperature, the amount of rennet and the starter cultures. We can further understand milk quality by measuring the titratable acidity and the length of time it takes to achieve flocculation after renneting. For example, our milk has less protein now than in winter, this is confirmed by a lower acidity (18 dornic) compared to 23 dornic in winter.

The cheeseroom always bustles with the usual staff at work – turning cheeses, salting, ashing, wrapping, washing and cleaning, but there is added energy and excitement when we are making a batch of Nectar. See the photo gallery below for the step by step process.

We have 200 litres of milk set aside in the vat (at a temperature of 32 degrees) and the process begins by adding the selected starter cultures. For our slow fermentation cheese we use a lower temperature, slow lactic acid fermentation, where lactic acid bacteria transform the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. Rennet is added to coagulate the milk. While we use non-animal rennet in our fresh and soft cheeses. animal rennet is used in the Nectre, to avoid bitter peptides as the hard cheese matures.

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The lactic acid and rennet cause the milk to curdle and separate into curds (milk solids, fats, protein, minerals, etc) and whey (lactose, whey proteins, minerals, but mostly water). This happens over a 24 hour period. When the lactic acid concentration reaches a certain level (eg. in the case of our La Luna, a pH of 4.3) the curd is gently ladled.  Nectar is a rennet set cheese and the curd set time will vary, depending on the quality of the milk, somewhere between 40 to 60 minutes.

We do one large cut – the Ninja cut – as coined by Ivan Larcher, to assist with removal of whey from the curd. Then 10 minutes later we do the more conventional cut.

The last stage is ripening, or affinage, where microbes and enzymes within the cheese work together to mature it, under controlled temperature and humidity. The Nectar is initially washed daily in brine and cultures.

The whole process is fast paced with many measurements of pH, acidity and temperature through the make. It’s vital that we monitor and record our steps to help refine our cheesemaking and identify what works – minutes and seconds matter, as does a tenth of a unit of pH, half a degree of dornic or of temperature.

_DSC0018Our cheese is a pure expression of the milk and the goats. The season, the pasture and the time of lactation all create the essence of Holy Goat. We simply combine quality milk, with culture, pH, temperature and time. How we work with these factors is where the detail and the delicacy lie. And we also know that, in the end, the ultimate test of a cheese is not with the pH meter, or temperature probe, or burette, it’s actually with the taste buds.


See the cheesemaking process below. To enlarge, click on the thumbnail.