Hedvig – my all time number one collaborator for projects that involve making a mess – and I made cheese the other day. February was a cheese-making month according to my Preserve-a-thon design, so make cheese we did. Hedvig was quicker off the mark about blogging it than I was and you can read about what we did in detail in her post. As her title suggests – though the cheese we made was really tasty – we didn’t quite get the texture right. It was a six out of ten success… a really interesting experience, especially when the curds split from the whey, but we still have a way (whey?) to go.
What I found really interesting about the experience was how it illustrated to me the way that I learn and the way that I make decisions. I’ve tried many food-related experiments over the years – vinegar, wine, sourdough – you name it, I’ve done it… Some have ended in success, some in failure. Most, frankly, have ended in sticky work surfaces and the ire of my housemates. I have never been strategic about it – usually happily launching into something with around ten minutes planning. No wonder I don’t get it right very often! Now though, I want to get it right and I am prepared to fight my own inner nature in order to do that. If something doesn’t work, I bloody well want to know why. And if I don’t know why, then I bloody well want a way of working it out. Enter what I call ‘the way of the mechanic…’
I must give credit to Will for teaching me this (and Cranks, but mostly Will). Over the years we have known each other, we have done a lot of fixing and building things. Bikes and vans mostly, but occasionally something exotic like a wind turbine. Before I started volunteering at Cranks/met Will I thought that when you took your bike or your van to a mechanic they would use some sort of magic ‘technopower’ to immediately tell you what was wrong. Sometimes they do, but most often what happens is they work out what the symptoms of the problem are and then – using their knowledge of how each component/system of a bike works – narrow it down to a few things that might be the problem, then test each of these individually until they’ve worked out what’s wrong. This is basic problem solving. The thing is, if you’re an engineer or a scientist, I am sure it’s second nature, but it’s not what they teach you on an arts degree…
The ‘way of the mechanic’ only works however if you have a good enough understanding of how each part of the system works. If you don’t, you’re in the dark. It could be this, or it could be that. Who knows? When it comes to cheese, Hedvig and I certainly don’t know yet.
Ok, let’s backtrack. We’re not totally in the dark. We’ve done some desk research – read some books and looked at the internet, we know how the process is supposed to work and we’ve done some narrowing. We know roughly whereabouts in the process we’re going wrong (after the curds) but we don’t know why. Actually, we know it could be one of three things which goes a long way to helping us fix it. We know it could be a) too much rennet, b) too much/little heat or c) too much/little kneading. Instinctively I feel like it’s the rennet, but it’ll take more practice to work this out.
So what do we do now? I have more cheese-making scheduled for March and April. I wanted to get a quick and easy win in the bag by making mozzerella and ricotta first but we didn’t – quite – get this one under our belts. Do we do it again and again until we get it right, or do we – as I really really want to – say sod it and move on to hard cheese now? In the past I wouldn’t even have thought about it. I would have moved on straight away. But I am trying very hard these days to actually observe and not just see/do what I feel like doing.
When I observe myself and my skills properly, do I actually know enough about the chemistry of cheese-making to make a success of hard cheese? Probably not. Do I have all the equipment I need to make hard cheese? Nope. Do I have somewhere to store my cheese (my fantasy temperature controlled cheese cave)? Err, no. Have I come up with a ‘whey’ strategy? Well… Thus, if I am really really honest with myself, is it really a good idea to move onto hard cheese yet, even though I really really really want to? Ok, ok, no it isn’t.
So that’s it then, decision made. In the interests of future success, I’m going to reign in my enthusiasm. I’m going to make mozzerella again until I get it right and observe, observe, observe. I want you all to understand how difficult this is for me though (and I want gold stars for doing it). The phrase I heard most often from my Dad when I was a kid was ‘it’s just a fundamental lack of awareness, Beth.’ Imagine that said in an irate Liverpudlian accent and you’re close to imagining my childhood (love you, Dad!). This does (I suppose) give me time to design my fantasy temperature controlled cheese cave and come up with a whey strategy. Sulk, sulk.
Processes… This stuff has been on my mind a lot recently as I have just started Sharon Astyk’s Food Storage and Preservation course. We were asked what we most wanted to learn/improve and I had to conclude that it wasn’t learning how to lactoferment (for example) that I want to learn. I want to learn how to keep lactofermenting… I want everything I am learning now to fit into my life a bit like bread-making does. Ben (my housemate) and I buy about 50% of our bread and make the other 50%. We don’t feel any pressure to make all of it, we do it because we like doing it and because we want specific results (i.e. I made lavender bread the other day – even Muesli Mountain doesn’t sell that!). We also do it because it doesn’t take us too long (it takes a long time, but we don’t have to be ‘making bread’ the whole time) and because we enjoy the process. Can all of these skills be like that? I think I need to be doing less observation of cheese-making processes and more observation of myself…
Addendum: I just got off the phone with my friend Steve who described most of my blog posts going something like ‘I want to do this really cool thing, but for now I’m just going to see what happens.’ Alas Steve, this is another one of those… Observe and interact, my friend (at least that’s my excuse).