Trick or Cheese!
Back before Halloween (yeah, yeah, I am just getting around to this post) I had the great privilege of helping my friend Louella with a cheese making gig at the Nicasio Pumpkin Patch. If you hadn’t gathered from past posts, Louella is the San Francisco Milk Maid and teaches cheese making classes all around the Bay Area. She’s also the one I helped test recipes for her upcoming cheese making cook book. (Check out her Milk & Mold blog for lots of great photos and thoughts about her beautiful handmade cheeses.)
Early on a Sunday morning, we loaded up my station wagon with a couple of large coolers full of curd, a giant pot, a propane tank, and some other equipment. We headed north over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County and struck out for Nicasio, which is a tiny town (population 96) in West Marin. Town center literally consists of a few neat old buildings arranged around a baseball diamond. I wouldn’t call it podunk though, as it’s got the 23rd most expensive zip code in the U.S., boasts two nearby cheese factories, and is the home of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. The surrounding landscape is some of the prettiest there is, too; consisting of rolling grassy hills, dim groves of towering redwoods, and long country roads that are fantastic for bicycling. The pumpkin patch springs up once a year at the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company and is quite extensive. There was a huge inflatable slide, food booths galore, a petting zoo, pony rides, and of course pumpkins.
Making mozzarella outside was a new adventure for me, but Louella had it all down to a science. We heated water in our huge pot over the propane stove, I cut all the delectable pre-made curd that we got from Belfiore Cheese Co. into single-serving blocks, and we set up work stations for our customers (mostly kids, but a lot of interested parents too). Each kid got to cut their block of curds into french fry-sized strips with a butter knife. Then, with the strips in a small basket within a bowl, we poured hot water over the curds, sprinkled with salt, and let them soften. This was when we asked the kids to put their imaginations to work. What shape do you want to make?! Here, Louella illustrates some ideas, while a tiny cheese maker looks on:
The kids were endlessly creative. There was mozzarella jewelery, hearts, ghosts, pumpkins, monsters, and even an airplane! It was fun to watch the kiddies stretch the curds into the cheese of their dreams, and was often hard to convince them to stop stretching. The logistics of keeping the curd hot and pliable during the long thoughtful stretching sessions was a trick, and I think a lot of them went away with some pretty tough over-worked cheese, but they were so pleased with what they made it was a delight to see them do it. Some of the kids couldn’t wait to eat it and walked away with a fistful of squishy mozzarella, chewing happily. Others made it as far as the neighboring booth, where they put their fresh cheese on a self-made pizza that was then slipped into a portable wood-fired clay oven. Hey, artisan foodie is the way we roll in the Bay Area… even at five years old! All in all, it was a really great day, in a beautiful autumn setting, teaching wee ones to make delicious cheese. How much fun can you ask for? Happy much-belated Halloween!