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Picking Blackberries

Picking Blackberries

BEFORE clearing rows, wild berry forest,

There is nothing more satisfying than harvesting your own food, especially when it comes to picking blackberries. Or blueberries for that matter. Or tomatoes and potatoes. Anyway, this evening it was picking blackberries. I have about three gallons in the kitchen sink right now. I will wash and store them in a bit.

AFTER clearing rows, from ‘travel lane’

We didn’t get many blueberries, even though there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of berries on the bushes. The local raccoons are getting pretty fat because we are feeding them. Keeping the local varmints out of the berries is a project for next year. This year we are just glad to have been able to dig the bushes out from a couple years neglect. They were riddled with wild blackberries and every other kind of weed imaginable, plus young trees.

We have had a very busy couple of weeks. Yesterday we made cheese. Havarti was the chosen delight for this week. The day before we drove 5 hours to borrow a young Normande bull that we had sold last year. Then drove 5 hours back. Tomorrow’s project is trimming donkey hooves along with milking and such. The following day will see the goats and sheep get inspected and their hooves trimmed as needed.

Visiting Other Farms

Let me take these events one-by-one and fill in some details. I left out one big event and I will start with that one. Two days ago we visited a local farmer and checked out his operation. We wanted to take a look at his milking parlor. He also had a cheese making setup we wanted to see. He made a very different kind of cheese. He used a combination cheese vat and pasteurizer. He was making fresh cheese, therefore the milk had to be pasteurized before processing. Pasteurizing ruins the flavor but there is no getting around the government regulations about fresh cheese.

He also had several other ideas in the works on his farm. He has 50 white ducks and is now selling duck eggs. He also had some meat goats.  We had a nice chat about that business. It is fun to go out and visit others in the area to learn the ‘what and how’ they are doing. Everyone has a different vision and creative ways of using their land.

So that was two days ago. The next day we took that long trip to pick up the bull. We want to use artificial insemination at some point soon, but we just have too many other things going on right now. To learn one more thing would be just too much at this time. That dairy farmer was very practiced at AI so could serve as a tutor on this at a later time. So Scott came up with the brilliant idea to use the young bull that we sold last year. After a few Facebook messages were exchanged, we set up the details to borrow him. As long as we pick him up and drive him back, we were good for go for a 2 1/2 months breeding period. We expect him to be able to take care of all that needs doing in that amount of time.

It was as very long day. It actually took us about 6 1/2 hours to get there due to an unplanned excursion northward instead of due east. But we got back on track and made the return trip with no issues. We also were able to visit that other farm and check out their various operations. As I said, it’s great fun for us. This farm has some really great Jersey cows. They also have ducks, chickens, peacocks, alpacas, pigs and sheep and probably something else I’m leaving out (oh yeah, friendly dogs and kids). They are very diversified. We will have much the same at some point in the very near future by adding chickens and pigs (maybe ducks also). At least I hope so.  😛

Making Cheese

Yesterday was cheese making day. We made Havarti from 18 gallons of our cows’ milk. It was Scott’s first time with this cheese in over a year.  He did a fabulous job. You know when you first start making cheese it can be a very daunting task. There is just so much to know. But after you get the basics down, trying out a ‘new’ cheese is simply a variation of the skills you’ve already built plus following the recipe that is in front of you. We expect that in 3 months or so we are going to have some really good cheese from this batch.

Our two cheese refrigerators are filling up fast. Check out our store here to contribute to the creamery. You can get a cheese sample.

Animal Husbandry

Tomorrow is donkey hoof trimming day. Every four months a task pops up on my calendar to take care of their feet. We have four donkeys. Each one is a little different in their response to this treatment. Daisy and Sweet Pea are the easiest to work with, though it was not always that way (nervous). Johnny Rebel, the jack, usually fights the process, but we always win. And the littlest girl, Cocoa, is a handful. She is the youngest and most skittish when it comes to human contact. The others love the touching, talking and brushing:  Cocoa sees this happening right next to her yet is not convinced that we should be touching her at all.


Then come the hoof trimming for the goats and sheep day after tomorrow. They also need to have their hooves trimmed and we will also check for signs of anemia, worms or other issues.

These are long days that require a lot of strength and patience from Scott. He is literally required to manhandle the goats and sheep. The goats don’t weigh as much as the sheep, but there are more of them.

That is just covering 5 days of activities. I love each day here.

There is always something that needs doing. Even if it if just making ice cream. I have strawberries, peaches and blackberries in the frig.

Yum, yum.

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Cheesemaking in Pictures

Cheesemaking – an Introduction

I wanted to share a few cheesemaking ideas and pictures. I hope this is interesting for you. This won’t be too detailed yet should help make understanding what happens clearer. I hope to stimulate your appreciation of the cooking process, recipe differences, equipment involved, skills developed and the amount of time invested. You can make cheese in nearly any quantity from a kitchen sink cook pot to a large stainless steel vat.

Ararat Legend BabyWe make farmstead and artisan cheeses. So what’s the difference? Farmstead cheese is hand-made in small batches using our own cows’ milk. We milk our cows daily and use the raw milk for making our farmstead cheeses. That is what makes us unique and special.

While Artisan cheese is still hand made in small batches, the milk comes from another source. We can and have used milk from another local dairy to make an artisan cheese: A different quality of milk makes a different cheese. Melanie also makes butter and ice cream for our own use from our cows’ milk.

It all starts with milk, of course, but a wide variety of tastes are achieved via heating, cutting, cooking, pressing, and aging methods. Bacterial cultures also contribute to making bland curds into awesome aged cheese by breaking down the fat and protein over time. For our raw milk cheeses, we engage in months of aging time with lots of handling according to the kind of cheese.  This is called affinage.

cheesemakingBut you can do the same using a couple gallons of milk bought at your local grocery. It will make make a couple pound cheese. You might try using a SS stock pot in your kitchen sink, surrounding the pot with hot water to control the temperature. Just follow the recipe.

We made farmstead cheddar today.  We started with a tried and true recipe for making cheese, followed it as closely as possible. That’s very important for consistency in the final product. We are refining the various recipes as we progress with one cheese after another. In the end each becomes our very own recipe. Between the use of our grassfed cows’ milk and recipe tweeks, we are creating something unique in the cheese world.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Heating the milk

After the vat and other tools have been sanitized, the refrigerated milk is poured into the 100 gallon vat.

The milk in the vat is heated by very hot water circulating in the “jacketed” vat walls. This piece of equipment was custom made for our purposes.

We use a long plastic paddle to gently stir the milk so it heats evenly. A temperature probe is also used throughout the heating and cooking process.

The milk is heated up to the target temp. This can be 86-92F depending on the type of cheese to be made. The temp will be raised higher as needed during the cooking process, according to the type of cheese. We need to maintain the target temperature during the stages.

The control of temperature is learned by practice (trial & ‘what now’ testing) and soon becomes a method. We are still learning a lot about how to control the temperature. This aspect of the cheesemaking process is vital to actually creating the cheese you desire.

At one point we were making Havarti and the temperature got way too hot — like 7 degrees above the target. We decided to let it go and see what would result. So, we didn’t really make Havarti that time. Sometimes this kind of mistake can make a unique great cheese that you want to make over and over again. That was not the case with this one, however. We just wished we had pigs or chickens. They would have loved it.

Starting The Culturing Process

Once the milk has reached it’s starting temp goal, bacterial ‘starter’ cultures are added, stirred in. This is then left to ‘culture’ for a period of time. The time allotted here for the bacteria to run wild in the milk and work its magic again depends on the cheese.

Then maybe another ‘ripening’ culture along with a little liquid calcium can be added.

The number and combinations of starter and ripening cultures available are mind boggling. But for home cheesemaking there are simple choices to get you started.

The curdling agent, in this case Rennet, is added by gently mixing it in briefly. But then it must be left to rest and work its magic.  In a short time the whole volume of milk becomes a solid custard! This still amazes me every time.

From Custard to Curds and Whey

After the milk becomes a solid custard, we cut it all into hazelnut sized pieces with tools called curd knives or harps. They are basically stainless steel wires in racks. These were also custom made for our operation.

When using smaller pots we simply use a long thin knife purchased for the single purpose of cutting cheese curd.

The curds need to be as uniform in size as possible. They will shrink in size as they cook and various textures will become evident. You guessed it the texture depends on the cheese cultures, the temp, the size of the curd, how long they are cooked and so on.

making cheddar cheeseOnce “cooking” is complete, the curds are allowed to settle to the bottom of the vat or cook pot. In the vat, we push the curds to one end of the vat. We had custom made food grade plastic boards made for this purpose. They have holes drilled in them to allow the whey to flow past as the curd is pushed to the back of the vat.

There are a couple of things that can happen here. Either we drain off all the whey leaving a curd mass as shown here or we “press under the whey”. That involves only draining the whey to the top of the curds. We then apply weight to cause the curds to knit together to form a solid curd mass.

As a side note, the whey has nutritional value and is what you are drinking in your protein shakes. We can use it for feeding livestock or it can be spread on the fields for fertilizer.  It can also be used to make Ricotta cheese.

We made cheddar today. That is a process all of its own.

The Cheddaring process

This shows a cheddar curd mass cut in half as a starting step of the special ‘cheddaring’ process. This process is what makes cheddar cheese a reality.

The whey continues to leak out slowly and the curds are stretched and pressed as we follow the dance steps to cut and stack, flip and restack, then flip and restack higher. The increasing weight of the stack is its own weight to press out the whey.

The curd slabs get stacked over and over again until they are dry enough and have reached the desired texture. The test for the proper texture is to tear a piece of the curd in two. It should look similar to cooked chicken breast.

Cut and stack. Repeat. And repeat every 15 minutes for a couple of hours.

The time to complete a cheese from start to finish varies from cheese to cheese. With cheddar there is a great deal of time spent on cheesemaking day just to get it to the stage of pressing. More on that later.

Once the cheddaring process is complete, the curd slabs are weighed. This is used to calculate the correct amount of salt to get that perfect cheese. There is one more step – adding that salt.

Milling and Salting Cheddar Curd

All curd slabs are torn into small ragged pieces before the salt is added. We bought another unique piece of equipment. It’s a curd mill. We use this device like a hand grinder with little stainless steel fingers that tear the solid cheese mass into small pieces.

For small, home batches you would simply cut them into small pieces with a knife.

We use a large stainless steel pot to catch the pieces. They still need to be salted. Every cheese we make gets salted in some way. With cheddar the salt is mixed directly onto the broken up  curds. We use flaked sea salt. There is pressing still to be done: We don’t want it to just drain away with the whey. We want it to dissolve quickly and be absorbed into the curds.

BTW, when you see curds for sale, this is what you are buying. They are salted cheddar curds. We enjoy these ourselves but cannot sell them to you (sorry, government regulations). You’ll just have to settle for those that are made from pasteurized (boiled) milk.

Most of the other cheeses we make are floated in brine for anywhere from 6 to 24 or more hours depending on the size of the cheese. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That happens after pressing.

Cheese Molds and the Cheese Presses

The curds are placed into a strong plastic molds which provide a finished shape for the cheese. Some types of cheese require specific molds. Camembert, for instance, needs to be a particular diameter and height in order to age properly.

We use dutch cadova molds, standard tome molds and truckle molds. We have molds for baby Gouda and are experimenting by using them for Gruyere, Havarti and Raclette. The jury is still out on whether this will work or not. They are really designed for “young” cheeses that are not aged for long periods of time. We’ll keep you updated on that experiment.

In general, the curd ‘pressing’ begins with lighter weight to settle those curds closer together, then flip the whole mass and use more weight to ‘close’ the cheese. The rind needs to be smooth so that no unwanted bacteria and molds get inside and there are no air spaces or gaps.

Pressing is repeated at intervals adding weight up to a point so that the air and whey are pushed out. Sometimes the ‘pressing’ takes several hours at room temperature and sometimes it lasts 24 hours: Cheddar can take 24 hours. It is all according to the recipe and the desired goal. Pictured above are small molds used to make Gouda. Again, we use molds of various sizes and proportions appropriate to the type of cheese being made.

pneumatic pressPictured here are larger ‘truckle’ molds used for cheddar (pronounced like buckle) in our fancy cheese press.  Cheddar requires a lot of weight; more weight than most any other cheese we make!  We now have a pneumatic press that can handle this. We ordered this from a supplier in Canada who imports them from the Netherlands. It took a long time to get this jewel (and lots of dollars) but it is so worth it.

We wanted to make a really great cheddar. Having this press was essential to reach that goal.

Salting Cheese

Cheese needs salt! Just the right amount makes all the difference. And there are several methods of getting that salt in there. Camembert has it sprinkled on each side. It’s not even mixed in at all but makes its way into the cheese just the same.

As shown above, Cheddar gets salt added amongst the milled curds.

Most of the cheeses we make float in a saturated brine for hours and hours as the method to get salt into the curds that have been pressed together. Gouda, Parmesan, Raclette, and Gruyere are soaked in that heavy brine solution. The time varies according to the size of the cheese. And Havarti gets salt added during the cooking process and is also brined afterwards.

After salt and pressing or pressing and salt, the wheels of cheese come out of the molds and are air dried. Then they receive various treatments designed to create a most awesome cheese.

Begin the Aging Process

Aging in the cheese cave is called affinage. After the cheese is allowed to dry at room temperature or inside the cheese cooler / cave, various methods of helping the cultures continued their magic are employed.  These include: a clear coating to keep out unwanted molds and such, cheese wax to maintain moisture, cheese cloth ‘bandaging’ with lard as a barrier.  Various techniques are used to develop a natural rind – so many that it’s creative indeed.

Each method provides a different and unique end result. There is a lot of time spent in the cheese cooler / cave as the cheese goes through various stages of aging. There is also turning and turning and more turning: That will be daily during the first week or so and then usually once per week after that.

Whew! Keeping up with which cheese needs what treatment, and when, is a brain strain and maybe a spreadsheet as well.

We have experimented with a ‘clothbound’ cheddar and its surface mold.

We also use cheese coating and / or cheese wax, depending on the cheese. Those lovely green ones are Gruyeres. The red ones are Goudas. There are a couple of yellow-waxed Parmesans and some have a clear coating.

Packaging and Labels

Cutting and sealing the aged cheese, adding labels and getting ready to ship or get picked up is another set of choices, supplies and skills.

Each cheese is labeled on the ‘make day’ with a lot number. We use this for tracking and inventory.

There are labels for each cheese identifying the type of cheese, the approximate weight and price. But first the cheese must be cut to size, placed in the package and vacuum sealed. This happens just prior to sale.

The baby wheels don’t need cutting per se: They are w hole little wheel at about one pound. Though we are making 1/2 and 1/4 pound ‘babies’ available and those need to be cut and packaged.

The real work with cutting and packaging comes with those 12 pound wheels.

Let me finish up here with some other miscellaneous tools we use from time to time. You wouldn’t need all of these for making cheese at home, but we have collected all sorts of equipment over the years.

I mentioned the stainless steel jacketed vat where we heat up the milk and some food grade plastic boards to help collect the curds, separating them from the whey.

These are essential to our operation but not for the home cheesemaker.

Then there was the curd knives, the curd mill, cheese molds and the cheese press. A lot of these were necessary for making cheddar. Other cheeses can be made with some simple long knives and standard cheese molds.

We also use weights for pressing that are the same as those found at any fitness center. You can see them in the picture above under the Cheese Molds and Cheese Presses heading. They are chrome plated and range from 2.5 lbs to 10 pounds each in weight.

There are several hand tools that may also be used such as other long knives, scoops, buckets, and colanders.

We even have a couple of paint strainers that we use to catch curd. We use pitchers and quart-sized glass measuring cups. And one day we are going to get that pH meter mastered.

You might have guessed by now that cleaning all those things is nearly a full time job. Making the cheese is only half the time involved. The rest is spent cleaning all that stuff and getting ready for the next cheesemaking.


So, this was a pictorial review of the cheesemaking processes and equipment.  There are so many variations and details not included.

We are and have been making these types of cheeses: Our Ararat Legend is made in the Gouda-style, Pinnacle is made similar to Gruyere or other Alpine cheeses you may had tried, Peaceful Heart Havarti is a favorite, Patrick Parma takes a long time to age but is worth the wait, Blue Ridge Raclette will be great for your family gatherings and Clau d’ville Cheddar speaks for itself.

We have gradually ramped up in skills, recipes, experience and equipment.  We still need to increase our work space.  That next project is pretty big with a combined building for milking cows, storing milk, cheese making plus aging and packaging stages.

Please note that we are offering cheese samples in recognition of donations made to building that creamery. Go here to make a donation and receive your cheese sample.  Thank you for your support.

Happy cheesemaking and eating!

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Making Cheddar Cheese

Making Cheddar Cheese

making cheddar cheeseMaking cheddar cheese on Monday was a special event for us. I was ecstatic and enthusiastic throughout the all-day process. It has been along time since we have made this cheese. It requires an immense amount of pressure to form the curds into a wheel. We ordered a custom-made press to accomplish this task. Let me fill you in on how we got to this point so you can understand my high level of excitement of this pretty normal occurrence in a cheese-making facility.

I had made some really small cheddar cheeses in the past. I knew it required a lot of weight. But that all became very small potatoes the first time we tried to make a cheddar cheese with 25 gallons of milk. There was simply no way that we could apply enough pressure to get this cheese to come together. We couldn’t get the excess whey out of the curd and we couldn’t get the curds to form a truly solid mass. It was a complete and utter failure. It was about 25 pounds of cheese that ended up in the compost pile. You don’t want to repeat that mistake ever. It can be financially devastating. That, in addition to the sense of failure in not making an edible cheese. But we did not give up on our goal of making a really fantastic cheddar cheese for you.

pneumatic pressWe did lots of research and decided to invest in a pneumatic press and air compressor. Like all pieces of equipment for an operation as small as ours, this equipment is not readily available. In fact, we ordered it from a company in Canada who then had it custom-built in the Netherlands. This process was about 6 months from start to finish and receiving the completed press.

There were times when I was wondering if it was ever really going to happen. I didn’t want to give up my dream of making a really great cheddar cheese. Thankfully, our persistence was rewarded with a really great piece of equipment.

We Need Lots of Milk

Our next challenge was getting enough milk to make a large enough batch to test the special cheddar cheese molds (called truckles) that we had purchased to handle the task. These little gems will simply not work without sufficient curd volume. They are designed to press 25 pounds of curd — give or take a few pounds. Well, 25 pounds of curd requires approximately 25 gallons of milk. We are not getting anywhere near that amount yet. See this previous post for details on our make-shift milking operation.

I saved up 15.5 gallons of milk and we went with that. We knew it was not the recommended amount. Being adventurous souls we decided to give it a go anyway. It was not clear how little was too little to get the truckles to work. (Fifteen gallons was not enough 😀 ) It was a beautiful thing.

It is important to love making cheese in order to be successful in this business. Thankfully, both Scott and I are enthusiastic cheese makers. We finally got going around 2:00 pm. Making cheddar cheese takes the longest of any cheese. We got the curds in the brand spanking new pneumatic cheese press for the overnight pressing at 10:00 pm. Yes, it was a long day, but so worth it. The cheese press works fabulously.

There were issues, however. We still don’t know what the minimum amount of curd is for using the truckle. We do know that 15 pounds is not enough. As usual, we shot from the hip. We took out the stainless steel portion and just went with the molded plastic parts with a follower from another cheese mold. It was so close to being the exact size needed that it sparked ideas for how to deal with smaller amounts of curd in the future. But I want to get back to the truckle and how we got it to work — somewhat. We set this up in the fabulous new press and it looked like it was going to work.

The next morning the less than stellar performance of our altered mold was evident. The curd mass had pushed out beneath the bottom plate and the whole cheese was tilted at an angle. Not good. Being farmers with dedication to success, we pressed on (pun intended). I flipped the cheese over and moved the curd around to get it a little more level. This is simply not done but that didn’t stop me from doing it. We set it up again and started the pressing process.

The next morning, same thing. Curd pressed out beneath the mold only not so much this time. The curd mass was much firmer and it held together much better. I pressed on again. I flipped it and started the press again. Checked it a half hour later and could see that the same issue was going to reoccur yet again. At this point I made a small adjustment so that the press plate would sit directly on top of the mold.

The Cheese is Complete

We are taking this lovely cheddar cheese out of the press in a short while. I am resolved that this will be the final product on this trial no matter the outcome. It will make a decent cheese I think. And we have learned so much. I loved every minute. Well most of them.

Now I’m excited to make the next one. Even when we reach full production it will be important to be flexible in making small wheels or large wheels of cheese. We need consistency in the final product. This time we are going to try the smaller molds and see if we can make that work. It increases our ability to sculpt our creations as the amount of milk ebbs and flows throughout the milking season.

Long days and pleasant nights and may peace be with you always.