Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making Cheese in Belize

Kathleen and Andrzej are living their dream in Central America
Kathleen (at left) and her husband, Andrzej with Colette (a fan of their cheese).
Their home when it was almost completed in 2007.
We first heard from Kathleen when she made a comment at our post about Ashley in Zambia:

We're making cheese in Belize!  We've had many of the same problems, (tropical climate) and have overcome many of them using similar methods.  We're pasteurizing the milk, got a cream separator (sent all the way from the Ukraine!), made our own cheese press - and it's now in action.  We've successfully begged visitors to bring us wax, cultures, books, cheesecloth, etc.  (Note:  We do ship to Belize, but Kathleen discusses the postal system further on.)
Separating milk - cream on the left, skimmed milk on right.
2 quarts of cream from 10 gallons of milk.
How did you end up living in Belize?

I (Kathleen) first visited Belize in 2004, and fell in love with the beauty of this country, the only English-speaking nation in Central America.  We moved here a few months later to make a new life after retirement, when the kids went off to college.

We wanted to do the sustainable life, sort of a back-to-nature deal.  We're raising pigs, goats, sheep, geese, guinea fowl, Muscovy and Rouen ducks, rabbits, and chickens, a little of everything.  We have a small six-acre farm (Darwin Farm) in a rural area, near ancient Maya ruins .

(Note:  Kathleen has had MS since she was 30.  Thankfully, she is now in remission but after 24 years of residual deficits, she is pretty much totally disabled.  Andrzej emigrated to the US from Poland just before the Martial Law crackdown in 1981.)
This picture was taken 7/7/2007.
Photo by Maya Papovic / Conch Creative
Leeloo, Puck and Zaggy
Alia with her twin kids- Tekka Maki and Kappa Maki
Ann with her newborn lambs-Clarice and Starling
The 3 Xs barn, under construction in 2006.
How did you start making cheese?

In Belize, a few cheeses were imported from the US, but they're very expensive and there is only one dairy in the country.

Caught between the high cost of imported cheese, and the limited varieties of local cheese, my husband figured he could do better than that, and decided to make hard cheeses.  (My husband is the cheesemaker.  I'm just the cheerleader and photographer.)

We started small, saving up milk from our two goats, making soft cheese and yogurt.  These are not dairy goats, and only give about a quart per milking, so it takes a while to collect enough for a batch of cheese.
First chevre made from goat milk.  Holes are drilled in plastic cups for drainage of whey.
A visiting friend brought us a kit from The New England Cheesemaking Supply (our Complete Home Cheese Making Set) Opening the package was very exciting!

But then, supplies in the kit started to run out and the cheesecloth disintegrated due to mold.

Around that time, the economy fell apart, and nobody had money to visit us (and bring more cheese-making supplies), so we were thrilled to find that Western Dairies at Spanish Lookout would sell us Guatemalan rennet tablets, and mesophillic culture.  (A long trip on unpaved roads, and a river-crossing via hand-cranked ferry.)
The hand-cranked ferry they take when they make the trip to Spanish Lookout for supplies.
The reason we have people bring things to us when they visit is packages tend to 'disappear' in the postal system, (similar to what Ashley deals with in Zambia).  There's no such thing as UPS here, and the postal system is ... shall we say, interesting?  (Note: Below are a few pictures of typical post offices in Belize.  They were chosen randomly (by Jeri) from Kathleen's picture album.):
Gales Point post office
Bermudian Landing post office
Then came the Great Cheese Embargo in Belize in 2009.  The embargo was a temporary government measure to allow the local dairy to sell off its surplus cheese, which took a while partly because people were smuggling cheese in across the border from Chetumal, Mexico, and Melchor, Guatemala.

Happily, we found a nearby cattle rancher who would deliver raw cow's milk weekly, and after that, things began looking up. The embargo is over now, but we're pleased with our own cheese.
Anton holding payment of $50 Bz. ($25 US), for 10 gallons of milk.

How did the cheese making go?

I found a blog-entry from my husband around that time, on his first try at making Wensleydale goat cheese (July 2009):

I started making this cheese mostly because the recipe didn't call for any kind of dairy starter so it's not like it was a choice either... The recipe comes from McKinzie's "Goat Husbandry."
The original recipe calls for 2 gallons of milk but I use 4 US gallons because then I get just enough curd to fit in my mold with a heap which gets pressed - so as a result I get a nice round almost as high as the mold itself. But any amount is okay - you just have to calculate the right amount of rennet for hard cheese and salt.
I'm using Guatemalan rennet tablets which contain Mucur Pusillus y/o Mucur Miehei, Pepsina, Cloruro de Sodio, Celulosa Microcristalina y exipientes c.s.p. (whatever that might mean in Spanish...) The label on the phial says 1 tablet for 50 liters, but I found that half a tablet works just as well for 4 gallons = 15 liters and it's easier to divide the tablet in 2 than into three. 

But it was a hassle to get the tablets to dissolve, so we're now using liquid rennet which the (above mentioned only dairy in Belize) is kind enough to sell us. The culture packages we buy are industrial size, which practically guarantees our commitment to cheesemaking. 

The Thermo pkg (MA-ll) is 125 dcu and the Meso (TZ-60) is 250.  They come from Danisco in Canada.  We keep them in the freezer, and have a UPS battery back-up, as well as a generator, to protect our stuff from the frequent power failures.

The liquid rennet cost to us is $1.50 an ounce, US, and the meso/thermo packs are around $40 US, enough for many happy months of cheese-making.
First Wensleydale goat cheese
Here's another of my husband's cheese-log entries: November, 2009, so you can see the challenges he faced:

I'm using a plastic gallon bottle filled with water, set on top of a plate sitting on the curd wrapped in cheesecloth (I actually use diaper material) and I give it 5 minutes initially and then turn it inside out after 5 more minutes. I noticed that the curd sticks together much better if I don't squeeze the whey out of it too hard. 

I don't know what pressure I use after that in the press but I just turn four nuts compressing the mold via boards connected with 4 threaded rods, finger tight. The pressure increases, I suppose, (the mold cracked and broke - DUH!) as the curd expands a bit due to gas developing in the curd while its being pressed in ambient temp, which at this point hovers around 75-80 deg F, and 98% humidity.
Jerry-rigged press with leather belt and spatula.
Regarding their press:

Andrzej adapted the design from a standard Dutch lever press.  He used 1x6 for the back spine (with grooves routed into it), and 1x4 hardwood for the rest.  Ten dollars worth of wood, five dollars worth of screws, nuts, and bolts, plus glue... (3/8" bolts to attach the base to the backbone) to add rigidity.  He added two more 1x4 boards for stability.
Under construction from Rosewood and Cabbagebark hardwoods.
Their new press in action.
Regarding their molds:

Finding high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe is difficult in Belize.  It took many months of searching to find pipe of the right size.  He finally got a length from some builders who were putting in a new culvert in our village.  It's an 18 inch diameter piece that was left over, and my husband eagerly snapped it up.

Husband's notes from March 2011:

I finally was able to make an 8" mold. It's actually a little smaller than 8" inside and 7" tall. Making it involved drilling 3/32" holes every 1/2" which came to 715 holes. After drilling, the holes needed to be deburred by hand both inside and out (715 X 2=1430). Oy... I taped some cushioning to the tool I used for deburring because when I made my last 6" mold with less than a 1/3 of the holes, I got blisters on my hand from pushing the metal against the holes and twisting it.
715 hand drilled holes.
Turbo Air single-door glass-front
merchandising cooler
Our cheese set-up was greatly enhanced by the recent acquisition of an old-style glass-front soda fridge.  My husband was able to fiddle with the temperature controls, so we finally have a safe place to age our hard cheese in this hot and humid climate.

We sure hope Ashley is able to get one like it, as that was the key to having our cheese come out well.

Every time I pass the fridge on the porch, I look at the beautiful waxed wheels of Jack, Cheddar, Gouda, Wensleydale and Colby, and I smile. The cheese still comes out different every time (quality control is difficult in such a variable climate), but it almost always tastes good!

My husband said it was easy to fiddle with the fridge (he's handy like that) he simply adjusted a little screw on the thermostat (being old it has no digital controls, that's why he chose that fridge) on a dial, and lowered the temperature to 50 degrees.

In order to get to that little screw, he had to pull the thermostat and fan cover, (an angled metal plate on top of the fridge, inside, in the back).  There's an opening for repair access.

It's not like a household fridge, where the controls are hidden, this is a commercial soda fridge, so the control cover was just a piece of sheet metal. We paid $250 US for a Turbo Air (an ancient version of the one in the picture above).

We also got a pH tester, so my husband could attempt to duplicate his best results.

That's why record-keeping is so important, as well as labeling and dating the cheeses.

"Honey, what's THIS one?" 
"I dunno, but it sure tastes nice!" 
"Yeah, sorta like Jack climbed onto an Edam!"
Gouda in brine.
Gouda drying.
Dipping in wax.
2 coats of wax and ready to age.
Have you thought about selling your cheese?

Actually, we sold two 6 lb wheels (Jack and Cheddar) to a butcher shop in San Pedro back in January.  We had to drive halfway across the country to the nearest airport, where a little Cessna plane took the package out to the island.

Alas, the store went belly-up before they paid. (That was discouraging, to say the least!)

We've had a few other inquiries after that from restaurants in Belize, but no nibbles after we say all shipments are COD.

That's why we're going to try direct sales at the busy market, using an ice chest, and a sample tray for taste-testing. We already have a market canopy, and a sign, 'cause about once a month we sell baby chicks, laying hens, and sometimes a goose or a turkey.

Belizeans are remarkably conservative, and shy away from new things, but everyone who's actually TASTED my husband's artisan cheese RAVES about the flavor.  So, we have middling-to-high hopes.

Scenes from Belize

Beginning with one of Kathleen Johnson's e-mails to me during the course of our interview:
(I think she should be a writer)

Warm regards from the tropical jungle, where the howler monkeys are makin' a lot of noise this morning, Red Lored parrots are chattering in the Sapodilla trees, vibrant Blue Morpho butterflies are fluttering by, and lovely little Ruddy Ground doves are cleaning up all the tiny bits of feed corn the chickens missed... the morning is full of birdsong, and the sun's peeking out after torrential rains, hooray!
Sunrise looking out from their home.
Bringing in the Rotoplas for rainwater collection, 2006
Their village of San Jose Succotz, near the Guatemalan border.  The painting is of Xunantunich, the ancient Mayan ruins behind the village.
Xanantunich (More info at:
The Discovery Channel came to film the ruins.  The soldier is there to guard their valuable camera equipment.
Their village is 6 streets wide.  In the background is the school and the neighbor's houses.
Sometimes in the rainy season, the village floods (as it did here in October, 2008).
Succotz underwater.
Their backyard after Hurricane Richard (October 2010).  Their Muscovy ducks were loving the water.
Funny sign.
A Wishwillie (aka: black iguana)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Brie ala Carly and Jean

This photo is intentionally blurred
because they wish to remain anonymous.
They make their own brie perfectly, take gorgeous pictures of it and talk about issues related to it.

And yet, it's just one of many topics they cover in their blog- Making Sense Of Things, authored by Carly (female, 31) and Jean (male, 32).  (Facebook page- )

They use their website to express their ideas about subjects most of us find interesting-like why it's legal to sell coca-cola, but not raw milk, and whether Muslim women in Western society should wear veils and, of course, the article below about making brie.

Their posts are not just collections of rambling thoughts- they are carefully researched, unbiased and well written articles.  I now feel that in the future, if I want to know about any topic, I will look there first to see if they've covered it.  For example, I know a little bit about the raw milk controversy, and when I read their post, I was impressed by how accurate it is and how much information it contains.

I also find it amazing that after doing all the work they have done to research their topics, and writing about them so well, they wish to remain almost completely anonymous.  They were happy (and kind enough) to share their article with us, but this is all they would say about themselves:

Carly has worked as an engineer in the private sector until leaving the company last year. She has taken some time off to be able to transition towards a way of life that allows them to live veritably in accordance to their values. This explains why she's moved gradually towards permaculture- and into cheese-making. 
Jean recently completed his PhD in International Relations and he is working as a humanitarian aid worker. He has been involved in emergency projects in a number of various contexts, including Afghanistan, DRCongo, Iraq, North Korea, Haiti, etc…

How to Make Brie Cheese at Home
By Carly and Jean at Making Sense of Things

Recently we’ve been making a fair bit of brie cheese.  We’ve been using the Cleopatra’s raw cow’s milk (including the cream on top!).   4L (one gallon) makes 3 good size brie cheese wheels. We simply heat the milk up to 32°C(90F) in a big sterilised pot, add in a mesophilic starter (the culture), the penicillum candidum (this is the white mould that grows on the outside) and the rennet, stirring in an 8 shape for around 2 minutes.  Then we leave it, off the heat, for around 45 minutes.

When we have returned to the pot the milk has set so we cut it with a knife into cubes which are then ladled in to our cheese moulds (basically food grade plastic tubes with holes in them).  We put the moulds on top of upside down plates, in a tray so that the whey can drip out of the holes and away from the cheese. They are left to sit, with lids on to keep insects out, for around 2 days (or until the whey has stopped dripping down). The mould is filled to the very top, but as you can see in this photograph, once the whey has drained, it is much smaller in size.

Now we remove the plastic moulds, sprinkle some salt on top of the cheese, put them on a wire rack (for airflow), put the whole rack in some clean plastic bags and put them in the fridge.  The plastic bags are to trap some moisture, creating a microclimate in the fridge because our fridge is a frost free fridge.  Without them, the mould wouldn’t grow.
After a couple of weeks we see white mould starting to grow on our cheese…
Then we take the plastic bag away and leave the cheese to grow the rest of the mould, covering the entire surface area and then it takes a further 4 weeks or so before it’s ready for eating.  But this really depends on the humidity in the fridge and the longer we leave it, the more piquant it becomes!  Here are some photos of some more advanced brie wheels we have made…
In the below photograph, the cheese on the left are approximately 2 weeks old whereas the ones on the right are approximately 1 week old (compare the mould growth).
As written earlier, rennet is necessary to make brie, but what is rennet? Rennet is added to coagulate the milk proteins into curds.

Traditional rennet is from animals and is the most commonly used kind in making cheese. The source of animal rennet is membrane that lines the stomach, or in the case of ruminants, the fourth stomach. Traditional animal rennet is taken from calves, lambs or goats killed before they are weaned.

Ok, so hopefully you realise now that rennet is obtained by killing baby animals and therefore traditional cheese is not vegetarian.

However, there are other ways to coagulate milk and you can buy other types of rennet.  Plant based rennet is sometimes sourced for specific enzymes.  They can be from plants, fungi and microbes. Some examples are: extract of fig juice, nettles, thistles, mallow, ground ivy, phytic acid from unfermented soybeans (or GM soy).  GMO-Microbial rennet is what industrial cheesemaking mostly uses because it is less expensive than animal rennet – don’t worry, Europeans, your cheese is probably still traditional and uses animal rennet. Laboratories have also made microbial rennet by producing the same genes found in a calf’s stomach to modify some bacteria, fungi or yeasts to make them produce chymosin. The latter are not considered by vegetarians to be meat-free even though they are not made from animals but they are sometimes commercially labelled ‘vegetarian’ rennet.  One last note, those with soy-based allergies should beware as GM soy rennet or phytic acid, derived from unfermented soybeans may be used.

In summary – if you are vegetarian, against GMO or allergic to soy, be careful which rennet you use!*  (In all cases, brie is really good to eat by itself, with some chutney or just on some fresh, warm bread.)

*Note from New England Cheesemaking Supply:  We are happy to say that we do not sell GMO rennets.  Besides our liquid animal rennet, and powdered calf rennet, we sell vegetable rennet tablets and liquid organic vegetable rennet.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Victory Hill Farm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska

Sarah in barn with baby goat.
There are only five other cheese makers in the state and they are all over 7 hours away!

Sarah and Lee Pinet raise goats and make artisan, farmstead cheese which they sell at their farm and at local farmer's markets.  They learned how to do all this in western Nebraska, far from any classes or mentors or even any other goat dairies.  So, they did a lot of traveling.  In fact, Ricki actually met Sarah last winter at the Annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference in California.

Victory Hill Farm is a place where you can watch the goats being milked and the cheese being made through viewing windows.  Sarah is currently making gouda, feta, fresh mozzarella, chevre and various flavors of chevre.  You can see pictures and read about her cheeses at their website-

They say if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  Sarah makes all the cheese herself and she is raising 3 youngsters as well.

Sarah is about as busy as it gets and, sure enough, she found the time to answer my questions: 

Baby goats nursing on bucket.  (All kids are bottle fed.)
How did you end up with goats?

I got my first goat as a child to keep my horse company. I grew up on some of the original homestead property of my great great grandparents in Western Nebraska. This farm is on the edge of town and we had horses, chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits, cats, and dogs. I was in 4-H and hated selling my pigs so I started showing that first horse-companion goat so that I could "re-show" her a couple of years in a row.

Milkers lined up on ramp to milk room.
The herd grew to 6 head and then I got out of goats in my teens. Skip ahead about 10 years. My "career" as a zookeeper came to an end with the birth of my first child (I didn't intend on staying home but just couldn't hand her over to someone else).

We bought a milking doe off a radio call- in program. She had terrible udder attachments but a great personality and super feet. We've always liked the idea of being self-sufficient and I guess my husband thought I needed something to do besides take care of a newborn.

Milking parlor.

I like to blame our goat herd (AKA goat hoard) on him since the first goat was his idea. I milked this doe once a day for 2 1/2 years before drying her up and buying a buck and 3 other does.

All of our current herd is traced back to these 4 foundation does and after 10 years of dairying we will be milking around 50 head this year. Luckily the good feet and personality had stronger genes than the udder attachment issues!

We use purebred quality bucks on our hybrid does. The herd is registered as Experimental with ADGA. Using various breeds of purebred bucks we have really increased the milk production and conformation of the herd but have kept the hybrid vigor. So far this year our DHIR numbers are looking really good. We are shooting for each doe to milk at least a gallon and a good portion are doing that and more.

Making cheddar at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
How did you learn to make cheese?

I am so isolated out here so I've had to learn about cheesemaking by traveling long distances and by lengthy phone conversations as well as just diving in and doing it. The best mentors I've had are three of the other cheesemakers in Nebraska (Shadowbrook Farm, Branched Oak Farm, and Greenglade). They are all over 7 hours away from me!

Wheels of gouda.

When I was planning this business I traveled all over the country to see different operations and took ideas from each one. I'm very happy with my cheese room. I like to ask cheesemakers what their favorite thing about their cheese room is and also what they wish they could change. It helped me to avoid some problems. My dairy inspector is pleased with the layout as well.

Sarah at farmer's market.

What is your goal?

It sounds simple and obvious, but I really want the cheesemaking to pay the bills. I want to make a cheese that people love, repeatedly buy and that they tell others about. I don't know that I will win any awards with my cheese, although that would be nice.

It would be really great if this business grew enough to support some employees. I don't have any paid help right now and running a farmstead cheese operation is a ridiculous amount of work and nearly impossible when doing it solo. I'm lucky to have a handful of dedicated volunteers. Currently I am making farmstead goat cheese in 4 varieties (gouda, feta, chevre, mozzarella). I'd like to make some mixed milk cheeses and this summer I will be trying out a mixed sheep and goat Valencay style cheese.

Cheese room from viewing window.

What do you like about your cheese room and what would you change?

I saw at several places that the sinks drained right onto the floor and our inspector said that is often how it is done. I don't enjoy it. When I wash something at the sink I want the water to "go away" and not splash all over my feet. I had to retrain myself when draining canned jalapeno juice (that I mix into my chevre) that it doesn't make much sense to drain it in the sink, instead I need to drain it into the floor drain.

Milk room with purple bulk tank.

Another thing is the lights, we have jar lights and they are very waterproof but hard to change a light bulb in. There were a few items that some cheesemakers dislike about their room but we couldn't avoid the same problems. For instance, the seam in the concrete floor and the metal lip at the bottom of the sheet metal wall.

What I do like... I like the short commute to work.  Also, we colored the floors (dairy has red and cheese room has blue) and snuck color in wherever possible in the dairy (my bulk tank is purple and the mounting board for the jar assembly is orange). I got the colored floor idea from Ripshin in NC. Their whole facility is not only functional, but very beautiful too. It doesn't have to be all utilitarian, despite what the guidelines state.

Gouda in press.
I also like the long floor drain. I learned as a zookeeper that a small circular drain in the middle of the floor is a nightmare. Dreamfarm in WI has a nice long drain in the middle and I asked Diana Murphy if she was happy with it before planning that into my room.

We had to spend a lot of money on the boiler for the cheese vat and it seemed like a waste of money to only use it twice a week so we planned in radiant heat in the concrete floors. I like that there isn't any blowing air to heat the space. Unfortunately I have to use an air conditioner that does blow the air around in the summer.

We have viewing windows into the cheeseroom and milking parlor. I had seen similar things at many operations and I am glad we did that. I give a lot of tours and this way I don't have to let people into my production space.
Farm store.
 Victory Hill Farm
Scottsbluff, Nebraska