For centuries people have been growing and making their own food at home, from the humble but very important vegetable garden to preserved fruit, freshly baked bread, home brewed beer and made-at-home specialty products. In years gone by, before the convenience provided by frozen and canned food sold in bulk in supermarkets it is just what people did every day.
Today there are a number of home based producers making some fantastic foods for their own satisfaction and consumption. A good friend of ours started making her own cheese a few years ago and has been doing a pretty good job. Sandra Crone makes tiny batches of hand crafted cheese in her kitchen on the Port Hills and when she entered a cheese into the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards in 2012 she won a bronze medal with her brie.
By-The-Whey is her little home brand and she takes cheese making very seriously. Sandra is so hooked on cheese you will occasionally find her at Wangapeka Cheeses extracting as much traditional cheese making knowledge as she can from their French cheesemaker Francis.
When we were chatting over a glass of wine last week I asked her why cheese and why put so much effort into creating something she can’t sell “I guess it’s a hobby, I like the hands on craft aspect, because I am not artistic it lets me use my creative side. I get the satisfaction of enjoying something made with natural ingredients and get to share it with friends and family later.” Some cheeses need to mature for several months and that means I always have something to give as a gift. She says her cheeses make great birthday and Christmas gifts and friends and family always appreciate them.
And what about the process? She says it is quite simple really but there are some things that are simply non-negotiable when it comes to making cheese; the first is cleanliness in the cheese-making area. The quality of the raw ingredients is something else that is important. As she says “if you want to make anything well you need to start with a great product, if you are making fine furniture you start with beautiful wood, if you are making fine wine you need great fruit from the vineyard and cheese making is the same, without beautiful fresh milk the end product won’t be a beautiful hand-crafted piece of cheese.”
Sandra gets up early and collects fresh milk from the farm gate or buys fresh, unpasteurised milk from Wangapeka Family Dairy who supply a range of fresh dairy products. She then sets about creating cheesy wonders from this fresh milk. The first step is to sterilise every surface in her kitchen and all the utensils she is going to use before she opens the container of fresh milk. In fact on a cheese making day there is no other cooking in the kitchen so it is usually barbecue on the deck for dinner.
The process is quite physical and can take all day. For example when she makes provolone, an Italian stretched curd cheese, it is an eight hour process starting with separating the curd, it needs to be heated to 90 degrees and then stretched and folded like a mozzarella until it is soft, pliable and shiny. It is then chilled in ice water and shaped into curd-like sausages. It is then aged at 12-13 degrees in a temperature controlled fridge for about 6 weeks before it is ready to enjoy.
Sandra also makes tiny hand-crafted batches of brie, several hard cheeses, feta, ricotta, haloumi and while she has made blue cheese it can be a bit troublesome because she can’t keep it in the same chiller as other cheeses or all the cheeses turn into blue cheese.
Since her early success at the NZ Cheese Awards she has gone on to win gold and silver awards for her soft cheeses culminating with bronze and two gold awards this year. The Golds also came with the title Champion Homecrafted Cheese and Cheesemaker in each category. Sandra says the thing about artisan cheese making is that each tiny batch is slightly different and when you enter them in competitions a cheese that won a bronze one year might win a gold the next.
You can’t purchase By-The-Whey cheeses but if you are a friend and ply her with Champagne she may share a sample or two with you. She will also enthuse you and remind you that making your own food at home is very satisfying.