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Cheese-making for beginners
Cheese-making for beginners

Just north of Nannup a herd of East Friesland sheep provides the raw material for a range of very tasty cheeses made by Cambray Sheep Cheese.

In early spring, however, the milk is required by the new season's lambs and cheese production is cut drastically.

To fill in what would otherwise be a quiet time in the dairy the enterprising owners run cheese-making courses for aspiring amateurs and so I find myself braving the chill of a South West September morning with five other cheese freaks.

Hygiene is paramount so we don disposable overshoes, an apron and a net hat before entering the factory. We look like politicians at election time.

Because of the shortage of sheep's milk we use cow's milk and our instructors, Jane and her daughter-in-law Emma, have pre-heated a vat for us. We will be making brie, fetta, ricotta and cottage cheese so we need a head start. We pour 15 litres of milk into our tubs before measuring out the surprisingly tiny amounts of culture and other additives that will transform the milk into brie.

Cheese-making requires a fair bit of waiting while the processes occur so we adjourn to the veranda for morning tea.

The course is fully catered and the homemade cakes, soup, bread and quiches provided for tea and lunch are almost reason enough to do the course.

It is very hands-on and the first of many hand washings takes place before we plunge in to gently turn the curds. We do this three times as the curds and whey separate.

Before long we are scooping the curds into the moulds. Because the focus is on home cheese-making Jane points out that we don't need fancy equipment. Our brie moulds are rounds of PVC drainage pipe and later we strain our feta through Chux cloths placed in desk tidy trays. The process for the feta is similar to that for the brie, but using different cultures and moulds. Once this is settled we have to turn the brie.

We are surprised at how much the originally full moulds have subsided as the whey drains. Emma expertly slides her fingers under the still runny curds and flips the mould. We are not so skilled and a fair amount of curd escapes. Fortunately at this stage we can just pop it back on to the top.

Subsequent turns are a little easier as the cheese takes form.

The drained whey becomes the base for ricotta. It is heated almost to boiling point and a small amount of milk is added as well as some vinegar.

The heat is removed and after a couple of minutes curds magically form. It only produces a small amount but Jane assures us we will taste it in tomorrow's quiche.

While we are making the ricotta, those sheep that are still being milked are driven into the milking shed which is visible from the factory through a large window. They are obviously used to the procedure and they are processed very quickly by owner Bruce and his son Tom.

The last task for us on day one is to prepare the cottage cheese. Jane has already heated the milk and added the culture and we have to add the rennet before leaving it to set overnight. Next morning we scoop the cottage cheese into a draining bag and squeeze out the whey.

Our last task is to divide up the fruit of our labours and we load up our containers with small rounds of brie and large lumps of feta in a carefully prepared brine solution.

The maturation process for both will continue at home - two weeks of constant attention for the brie and six weeks of undisturbed soaking for the feta. The tasty cottage cheese is ready for immediate consumption. We eat our ricotta at lunch and that is also delicious.

It is a fascinating and fun couple of days. For a city slicker, learning how raw materials are converted into an important and very tasty part of our diet has been a rare privilege.

·Cambray Sheep Cheese is 12km north of Nannup on the Vasse Highway. Cheese-making courses are run occasionally through the year. Accommodation is available on site. Cheese is sold at the dairy 9am-5pm 7 days a week. See cambraysheepcheese.com.au and 9756 2037.