I stood in the doorway of a deserted stone cottage, wondering whether to break cover. Below me the fields ran to the clifftops overlooking the stretch of angry Channel between Guernsey and Normandy, the latter now a place of holiday dreams.
It was the morning after hosting a wine tasting event. Instead of waiting the hour for my airport taxi in the hotel foyer, I chose to ignore the receptionist's warning and 'raise the heartbeat' with one of the 'not to be missed' cliff walks promoted in a tourist magazine. 'The weather can turn quickly in these parts,' the receptionist had cautioned.
A flash of lightning lit the foaming peaks below and moments later a boom rattled the door in its frame behind me. My heart was beating at a rate the article’s scribe would have approved of, but it was now my taxi that was not to be missed. Resolving to heed all future meteorological warnings, however vague, I began to run back along the cliff path, the wet gorse brushing my suit trousers. I checked my watch. It was clear I'd not have time to change before the flight, but I was still buoyed up by the prospect of joining Pam in the Sussex Weald for our cheesemaking course in less than two hours.
Two hours later, still in Guernsey airport's coffee shop, I stood and moved along one seat, the one I had been sitting on having absorbed all it could take from my sopping trousers. I slid my luggage across, looked out of the window and exchanged a hopeful glance with another passenger: maybe the twin propeller plane now landing with all the sureness of a butterfly in a breeze would be the one to convey us off the island. Back on the mainland the course had started and I forced myself not to imagine what I was missing. I banished any thought of the thrill of cheese creation so successfully that by the time I had finally boarded, been blown back to the mainland, and was speeding through rural West Sussex with a heart rate that could tear a watch strap, I wondered whether we shouldn't have bothered with Christmas presents at all.
A clothes change in the dairy car park, and a sympathetic coffee prepared by Sarah Hardy, co-owner of the dairy, while I donned a cheesemaking smock, were enough to steady my mental compass.
'You've not missed too much,' Sarah reassured as she guided me up a flight of steps and through a door beneath the eaves of their Cheese Barn. The smell of milk filled the room and condensation clung to the skylight windows as the other pupils busied themselves over pans on portable stoves. I was led towards the front, mumbling excuses. I was back at school and already falling behind. 'Mark will be with you in a moment,' Sarah said, pointing towards her husband, the course tutor, a gentle character conducting the class with a wooden spoon. I took my place beside Pam, who, clipboard under arm, was noting temperatures.
She tapped her pencil against a bowl of milk on the table. 'This milk had its starter added yesterday,' she said, 'because it needs longer to work.' I nodded. She then pointed to the pan on our stove. 'And that one had its starter added this morning, because it doesn't.'
'Right?' It felt as if I had missed the whole first term of a new academic year. She returned to the bowl. 'That's because this one we're going to make into soft cheese, and the other one will be hard cheese.'
Sarah entered the room with a stack of plates and cutlery and set them on a table at the back of the room. I wondered how long until lunch. Pam picked up the thermometer and dipped the probe into the pan on the stove. I waited whilst she studied the readout, tongue at the corner of her mouth. 'Getting the temperature right is key,' she said. 'Too hot and the curd will be the wrong consistency.' My head swam.
'What's starter?' I asked. But before Pam could answer, Mark called time for lunch and we made our way over to the table, now barely visible under bowls of salad, loaves of bread, a steaming beef casserole and a stack of cheese straws whose aroma beckoned my attention. I picked one up, still warm, and bit into an explosion of piquant blue cheese flavour. Mark smiled and introduced himself. 'That's Sarah's speciality,' he said. 'Made with our Brighton Blue, similar to Stilton, but a little softer.' I put another one onto my plate. 'Have some casserole,' Mark encouraged, 'and I'll bring you up to speed before we start the afternoon session.'
By the time Mark came back to us Pam had done a pretty good job of clarifying a befuddled mind, explaining that starter was lactic acid producing bacteria, which acidified the milk, thereby starting the process of coagulation. Fresh cheeses were set over a longer period, she said, predominantly by the starter and a small amount of rennet, whereas harder cheeses were set soon after the starter was added with a larger volume of rennet. Mark went on to add that starter was important as it acidified the curd, thus killing bacteria and rendering the cheese safe. It seemed, as with winemaking, where yeast produces alcohol up to levels it finds toxic, cheesemaking had its own suicidal microbes. This seemed a little more manageable. I began to relax.
Mark got up and called the class back to their stations. It was time to add the rennet to the milk for our hard cheese in order to set the curd. Whilst the rennet used at the fromagerie in France was animal-sourced, High Weald’s was vegetarian, a fungi based substitute developed to avoid the use of rennet obtained from the stomach lining of newborn calves. Though Mark explained we were using a large dose due to time constraints, the splash we used was tiny in comparison to the quantities we'd seen added in France. As we waited for the curd to set, Mark told us about their herd of cows, milked fifty yards from the dairy, and talked of his passion for making sheep milk cheeses too, something developed when he lived in Cyprus. He began to walk among the tables, testing milk consistency, as he spoke of how each animal's milk demanded a different approach. His enthusiasm was infectious, judging by the faces around the room. His smile broadened when he found what he was looking for: the 'clean break' as he crooked his finger through the curdled milk and it split neatly. 'We're ready to cut,' he said. Pam and I grinned as we criss-crossed the tender curd with our spatulas. 'Now we need to stir,' Mark said, 'whilst maintaining temperature.' Pam reached for a spoon but Mark intervened. 'No, roll up your sleeves and use your hand. You need to feel the curd for consistency.'
'Is it hygienic?' I asked.
'A washed hand is as clean as a washed spoon, although I did have to convince our environmental health officer of that. She was new to cheesemaking when she first came to us. It wasn't easy.'
A look of delight appeared on Pam's face as she plunged her hand into the pieces of curd. 'What does it feel like?' I asked.
She thought for a moment. 'The tenderness of the curds really forces you to be gentle. It's very pleasant, soothing, I suppose. You have a go. I'll check the temperature.'
I dipped my arm into the pan and wafted my hand back and forth, careful not to crush the rounded cubes swirling in the translucent whey. My nerve endings tingled as the curd brushed my skin. I wondered whether Cleopatra had gone the extra step and added rennet to her milk baths; if not, she had certainly missed something. I scanned the room of contented cheesemakers. 'It's a lovely set up. Mark and Sarah clearly enjoy what they do,' I said.
'Yes, that's obvious,' agreed Pam, watching numbers stabilise on the thermometer.
'A wonderful lifestyle,' I hinted.
Pam looked up, eyes narrowing, sensing there was more to my comment than compassion. 'Yes, Mark was saying how much fun the courses are, but they are a sideline. It's the farm that allows them to do this.' She pointed out a brochure on a sideboard. 'They make a lot of cheese; have a look at their range.' Pam resumed stirring duties and I wiped my arm then thumbed through pages detailing all manner of cheese styles: soft, semi-soft, hard, smoked, blue, red, chilli-infused, even an organic three-milk halloumi. The antithesis of Monty Python's cheese shop, it seemed the only thing missing was Venezuelan Beaver Cheese. It put things into perspective, but I still harboured hope.
Mark joined us and I quickly placed the brochure to one side. 'Do any of your students go on to make cheese professionally?' I asked.
'One or two have,' he said. 'Why, do we have potential competition?' The humour in his eyes told me no reassurance was needed.
'Hardly,' I confessed. 'We haven't a farm or the funds for anything like your dairy.'
'That shouldn't stop you,' he said. 'You can easily buy milk in and do it on a small scale. You won't make a fortune, in fact nobody gets into the cheese business for the money, but you'll have fun.' I looked to Pam, still elbow deep in the curds. She was smiling.
'Why not?' she said, oblivious to the many reasons we would soon discover.