Cookbooks are more than recipes. They are valuable historical artifacts containing information about the food, culture and society that produced and used them (Driver, Theophano, Wheaton). This story is based on my first and failed attempt at using an old recipe to make a cheddar cheese. It examines the effect of changed technology on artisanal cooking practices (Supski, Giard) and how recipe writing has had to adapt to changed culinary technology. In the absence of the generational—mother to daughter—handing down of cooking practices, and an inherited understanding of traditional cooking techniques gained through practice over time, today’s recipes rely on clear written instructions, illustrations and demonstration for their success. Luce Giard’s discussion of women’s domestic work, and what she refers to as “memory of apprenticeship” (157), and the technological changes that interrupted artisanal food making, underpin the story.
Using creative nonfiction this story invites the reader to appreciate how food and cooking are connected to our lives—from the local to the global, connecting food to remembering (Berzok), nostalgia (Duruz), and family relationships (Giard, Supski).
My Cheddar Cheese
With their high degree of ritualization and their strong affective investment, culinary activities are for many women of all ages a place of happiness pleasure and discovery. Such life activities demand as much intelligence, imagination and memory as those traditionally held as superior, such as music and weaving (Giard 151).
My first attempt at making a cheddar cheese started out as a culinary adventure—part nostalgia, part challenge and part boast. I had in mind the cloth wrapped cheddar cheese of my childhood. We called it mouse’s cheese, as even the mice preferred it to the Kraft cheddar cheese that came wrapped in foil and packaged in a box. My father would peel the cloth away from the round of cheese before cutting out a wedge from it. Then he would slice it, and lay it on buttered toast and grill it until it melted. Bubbles of cheesy oil slid off the sides of the toast, onto the bottom of the grill pan, where cold and crisp afterwards, I would pick them off and eat them. I think that it was this memory that drove my anticipation of the joy of actually making a cheese. The process not only connected me to this memory but also would give me the satisfaction of saying, “I made it myself.” Giard understood this pleasure, connecting it to the lives we lead today:
when for so many people nothing remains at the end of the day except for the bitter wear and tear of so many dull hours, the preparation of a meal furnishes that rare joy of producing something oneself, of fashioning a ferment of reality, of knowing the joys of demiurgic miniaturization, all the while securing the gratitude of those who will consume it by way of pleasant and innocent seductions (158).
The recipe came from a Country Women’s Association (CWA) cookbook first published in 1936 but republished with minor changes in 1982. It looked simple enough, and the fact that it was there, in amongst recipes for fresh cheeses and butter, gave me the confidence to simply follow the recipe. I would include it in a blog I had started about cooking from old recipe books. Making a cheese gave me the perfect opportunity to follow one recipe and report on its development over its six-week maturation. My followers, I thought, could come on this culinary journey with me.
Day One: The Boast
I am making a cheddar cheese from a CWA (Country Women’s Association) cookbook. This book, first published in 1936 has chapters on invalid cooking, household hints and a section called ‘Hints to Temper the Temper’. In the butter and cheese making section there is a recipe for a cheddar cheese. It looks so easy. Just a few ingredients: milk, rennet, salt and food colouring, and a few lines of instruction. A friend has fashioned a sort of cheese press for me—based on a picture of one we found on the internet. Yesterday I bought eight litres of organic milk and set to.
The recipe is very simple: 1) Heat the milk to blood temperature, add nine rennet tablets and a teaspoon of cheese colouring. Leave it to set and harden and once that is done cut it into the curd and drain the whey off. 2) Once it is dry, add salt and turn it into a cheese press—lined with muslin—to start pressing all the excess moisture out by applying a bit more pressure each day. 3) Once all the moisture is pressed out it wrap it in waxed cheese cloth, set it in a cool place and turn it each day for six weeks.
I am at the first stage and the whey is draining away. I think it will be another couple of days before I can start pressing it.
In six weeks, I will have a cheese (Adams).
Mary Shearer wrote in the foreword of this new 1982 edition of the original text, that the needs of the community had changed in fifty years of CWA service and this included a significant change to meet these needs, namely, a conversion of the recipes from imperial measurements to the metric system. But she expressed confidence that, with the tried recipes of many country women, “the universal appeal enjoyed since the first edition will be retained” (Foreword). Marjorie Maughan, who also wrote a message in the foreword, felt that “with the adaptability of women, the use of metric measures will be accomplished with ease and this edition will be as popular as ever.”
Until I started, I had not considered failure. The recipe was included in a reliable cookery book that promised to have universal appeal and where the only possible challenge for cooks of its day would be its metric, rather than imperial, measurements. I was familiar with both metric and imperial—the only challenge mentioned in the foreword—and seduced by the simplicity of both the instructions and the ingredient list. I was soon to discover that my CWA recipe was full of omissions, assumptions, and errors.
Cheese was traditionally made in many country kitchens as a way of preserving milk. The skill needed to make it was acquired through years of watching and learning. A written recipe was more of an aide memoire consisting of a list of ingredients and a few lines of simple instruction. To write recipes for today’s cooks, recipe writers usually work from test-kitchens and must include precise detail: their words are tested and edited until they are foolproof. Old recipes are full of assumed knowledge. They often lack details, leave out ingredients, do not provide measurements (or use measurements that are no longer in common usage, like a peck), and use equipment and ingredients that are no longer available or now have a different name.
But as Giard writes, women are practiced at dealing with culinary challenges, “each meal demands the invention of an alternative mini-strategy when one ingredient or the appropriate utensil is lacking” (158). I soon found problems with the recipe. It called for eight litres (two gallons) new milk, a two and a half kilogram (five pound) jam tin (which would hold the cheese from six gallons of milk), salt, a teaspoon of cheese colouring, and one dessertspoon of rennet (or nine rennet tablets). What was new milk? What is cheese colouring? Where can I get rennet tablets? The recipe was imprecise: two and a half kilograms does not equate to five pounds. Where do I get a jam tin? I remember big tins of jam from my childhood but I was not sure jam was even packaged in tins these days. Why did I need a tin that would hold six gallons of milk when I only needed two gallons for this cheese?
Yellow food colouring would be fine—perhaps with a drop of red to give a more orange tint to the finished cheese—and I found rennet tablets in the supermarket, but I was still unsure about the quantity of salt needed. My previously-quite-simple-recipe now had layers of complexity. There was no one I could ask, and I did not have Giard’s “memory of apprenticeship”:
Yet, from the minute one becomes interested in the process of culinary production, one notices that it requires a multiple memory: a memory of apprenticeship, of witnessed gestures, and of consistencies, in order, for example, to identify the exact moment when the custard has begun to coat the back of a spoon and thus must be taken off the stove to prevent it from separating (157–58).
I reasoned that if I just did exactly what the instructions said, it had to work:
Warm the cheese to blood heat, add the cheese colouring and rennet and stir well. Cover with a cloth to keep in the heat. When the curd is set and firm, cut through and through with a large knife to release the whey. Dip the whey off with a saucer, pressing the curd while doing so. Drain off all the whey and when fairly dry crumble the curd and add salt to taste—about 2 teaspoons should be about sufficient (CWA 342).
How hot is blood heat and do I need a thermometer? How much cheese colouring do I need? How firm is firm? How many “through and through” cuts should I make? How dry is “fairly dry”? With my cheese now doomed to fail, I searched for The Australian Dairy Board on the Internet looking for some answers.
In a modern cheese factory, to ensure the cheese composition is uniform, milk is standardised: stripped then re-made with all its fats and proteins adjusted to the right proportion, although some small cheese makers do not standardise their milk. Then this milk is pasteurised to destroy all disease making micro-organisms, make the cheese safe to eat, and improve its quality. Cheese starter cultures are used (there was no mention of these in my CWA recipe) and once the milk coagulates and is cut to release the whey, it has to be stirred to release more whey. The length of time the curds are stirred is important in the process as it influences the type of cheese that was made.
The women who followed my CWA recipe would have dipped a finger into the milk to test its temperature, tasted the curds for salt, and known when the colour was right. They would have just known when the cheese was pressed enough to wrap in the waxed cloth. They would have covered their day clothes with an apron—protecting their clothes from spills—rather than protecting the cheese from contamination. There would be no sterile gloves, white coats, hairnets, or thermometers in their kitchens. If I had been able to ask them questions their answer would have been, “it is done this way because it has always been done more or less like that” (Giard 171).
My cheese was both lacking in salt and very pale. Perhaps, I thought, the flavour would intensify and it would darken during the maturation process. If it stayed this colour it would be the same creamy white as an English Wensleydale cheddar rather than the eggnog-coloured mouse cheeses of my childhood.
The cheese press was my inspired “mini-strategy” and one step away from being experimental. It was made from 1) the back of a plastic clipboard with holes drilled into it, 2) a piece of agricultural pipe, 3) a flat circular disk of metal the same diameter as the inside of the agricultural pipe attached to a long screw, to add pressure to the cheese and, 4) a handle which allowed me to screw the piece of metal onto the top of the cheese to apply pressure and weight. I was excited to try it and I pushed on: "Line a cheese press with the cheesecloth, pack the curd into it and fold the cloth over the top. Put on a lid—a saucer that will fit in the tin will do very well—place a 3 kg (6 lb.) weight on top and press for 12 hours" (CWA: 343).
I had more questions. Should I put the weighted cheese in the refrigerator for the twelve hours whilst it drained or would it be fine on the bench overnight? Three kilograms does not equal six pounds but this probably didn’t matter as I was using a press and not weights. Somewhat intuitively, I decided to leave it overnight on the bench. It was winter after all and the house would be cold once the heating went off automatically at 10.00 pm. I crossed my fingers, wrote about it in my blog and posted some pictures.
Day Three: Emerging Doubts
I have just salted the cheese and put it into the press for seven days. Each day I have to increase the weight and change the cheesecloth. It’s a bit smelly …
I sourced wax for the next stage and it arrived in the post today. I will keep rewrapping and pressing until the weekend then I will wax it and put it away until it matures.
I am a little worried that I did not salt it enough. The recipe said two teaspoons and I wonder if it meant tablespoons. Time will tell (Adams).
At this point things started to go very wrong. The cheese smelled off. Perhaps I had ruined my cheese right at the start when I left it out on the bench for its first overnight pressing. Maybe it should have been in the refrigerator. I should have added more salt. There was nothing to do but to keep going and see what happened. I could learn from mistakes, reflect on the process, and try again if it did not work. There was still the possibility that it would work; although the smell in the ’fridge suggested otherwise. Once it was coated in wax, I reasoned, it could not smell.
After seven days of pressing, the cheese was now ready to be wiped well, dried, wrapped in buttered muslin, and stored in a cool place for two weeks, and turned every day. I used cheese wax instead of buttered muslin and put it in the refrigerator.
The final words from CWA were: "The cheese will be ready in about six weeks, but is better if kept for three months. (A press may be made out of [the] jam tin. The bottom must be punctured, and holes punched around the tin). A wooden press is best" (342).
My final words were, "Day-Seven: Failure" (Adams).
I was a tad impatient and very concerned about the smell so I waxed the cheese a couple of days early and it is now stashed away in the fridge. (Sealing it in wax should stop it stinking out the fridge!) I have to turn it each day for two weeks then leave it for six. My cheese is either slowly maturing or rotting. The wax has sprung leaks and the clear liquid coming out does not smell good … but I will keep turning it daily for another four weeks (Adams).
The Dairy Board instructions dictated that maturation takes place in temperature controlled cool rooms and that cheddar requires a temperature of between 8 and 10˚C for three to twenty-four months. During maturation the enzymes in the cheese break down the fats and proteins allowing the textural and flavour characteristics of the cheese to develop. My cheese sat in the refrigerator (I have no idea what the temperature is set at), where I duly turned it every day. After five weeks the stench in the refrigerator was no longer bearable as the smelly liquid had started to ooze out of the wax. I took it out and cut into it. Beneath its wax-coating my cheese had matured into a stinking mass of soft, oyster-coloured crumbly curds. I binned it, without so much as a taste.
Final Post: Know Your Limitations
I did make a little goat cheese and that was pretty delicious. I used the same method but I pressed it lightly for a day then wrapped it in greaseproof paper and left it in the fridge. We ate it fresh the next day (Adams).
This experiment helped me realise that today’s recipe books contain detailed instructions because the knowledge of cookbook writers, including how to utilise the available technology, has to be conveyed to the reader following their recipes. Such clear instructions are necessary now, whereas in the past, cooks were drawing on skills and knowledge they either had, or could draw on other knowledge sources and networks to gain. I have not given up on making cheddar cheese. I still have the cheese press and some wax, and the cheesecloth I used is washed and folded in the cupboard. Before I do try again, however, I will consult a modern cookbook or book myself into a cheesemaking course and learn from someone who has the skills I need.
Adams. Jill. First Catch a Chicken. 2011. 1 May 2013 ‹http://firstcatchachicken.wordpress.com›.
Berzok, Linda Murray. Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We’ve Been. Oxford: Praeger, 2011.
Country Women’s Association Western Australia Inc. The C.W.A. Cookery Book and Household Hints. 36th ed. Perth: Wigg, 1982.
Dairy Australia. “Cheesmaking.” 2013. 20 Jan. 2013 ‹http://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Dairy-food-and-recipes/Dairy-Products/Cheese/Cheesemaking.aspx›.
De Certeau, Giard, Luce, and Mayol, Pierre. The Practice of Everyday Life Vol. 2: Living and Cooking. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998.
Driver, Elizabeth. “Cookbooks as Primary Sources for Writing History.” Food, Culture & Society 12.3 (2009): 257–74.
Duruz, Jean. “Food as Nostalgia: Eating in the Fifties and Sixties.” Australian Historical Studies 113 (1999): 231–50.
Supski, Sian. “‘We still mourn that book’: Cookbooks, Recipes and Foodmaking Knowledge in 1950’s Australia.” Journal of Australian Studies 28.84 (2005): 85–94.
Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Wheaton, Barbara. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. New York: Touchstone / Simon and Schuster, 1983.