Have you ever tasted cheese so fresh, so creamy, so deliziosa that you can’t find the words to fully describe the experience? Have you ever eaten cheese made from milk just three hours after milking? Can you remember the last time you ate ‘real cheese’?
We are at Oscars on the Yarra in Warburton to learn how to make four popular Italian soft cheeses – the versatile ricotta, the sweet and creamy mascarpone, a heavenly mozzarella and the rare and luxurious ‘burrata’. Our cheese masters are Pieter and Nicky Tromp, of Mill Grove Dairy and our chef for the day is Matt Dimech.
We start our day with a locally roasted Silva Coffee espresso as we watch the family of resident ducks wander the banks of the Yarra River. From the deck there is birdsong and the laughter of people meeting for the first time, excited about what lies ahead. (And tasting real milk!)
After a short lesson about the history of cheese (it’s thought to have originated in Egypt around 3200 BC, a happy accident when milk was being transported in an animal stomach, which contains rennet that is one of the key ingredients in curd making!) With scrubbed hands, aprons and hairnets in place we are ready for our first lesson – mascarpone!
We learn quickly that stirring is one of the key ingredients in making any cheese and enjoy lively conversation as we keep our cream moving until it is exactly the right temperature on the stove. We add lemon juice, stir some more and leave to drain and set. Mascarpone is ubiquitous in Italian desserts and perhaps the best known way to experience it is in a tiramisu.
We’re then ready to start on the ricotta, a milk-based cheese that is simple to make once you’re shown a few simple tricks. You will never buy it from a supermarket again!
By now our stirring arms are quite developed and we’re all great friends – further proof that cheese making is a social activity as much as a culinary one. As Pieter loves to remind us – it takes lots of patience to make a good cheese. You cannot rush.
When it’s time for lunch, chef Matt prepares us platters of ‘stuzzichini’. We gather with a glass of the Italian white wine – a Pinot Blano – at a table on the Yarra River at the front of Oscars.
Il Pranzo is baked ricotta dusted with homemade dukkah on crusty grilled bread, thick slices of zucchini alla grillia, and ricotta fritters (with fresh garden mint, garlic and lemon). Simple and delicious, made even more satisfying knowing we ‘fatto a mano’ – made by hand.
After lunch is mozzarella making. It’s a labour of love, but many hands help the amore! We heat our milk, add the starter, then later rennet. Soon what was once milk has been transformed to a soft curd. We cut, then drain and turn the curd until it forms a solid mass. Then it is time to start kneading and stretching the curd to create the long silky string-like strands that will be formed into balls. We work with our rubber gloved hands in super-hot water and learn how to ‘know our curd’ and when it’s ready.
By the time our mozzarella balls are safely packed away in water, dusk is setting in. We chat about wine and cheese pairings and taste a De Bortoli prosecco, a Pinot Noir by Kate Goodman (Winemaker of the Year – Australian Women in Wine Awards 2018) and a Hoddles Creek Sangiovese. We nibble on a selection of salamis, olives, biscotti and other appetisers and then Matt brings out the star performer of the night – pizza!
A simple thin crusty base, house made passata, fresh basil and our mozzarella (fior di latte) sliced on top. Dinner is served – with tiramisu for dolce. We are ten happy amici!
We are reluctant to leave and our farewells are typically Italian, long dramatic and full of promise there will be a next time!
You can join in the next exclusive cheesemaking day at Oscars on the Yarra on Monday 26 November as part of the Ciao Yarra Valley Ciao festival. It’s a day out that will tantalise the senses and inspire you to create wonderful cheeses at home.
Written by Lindy Schneider, who attended the day as a guest of Oscars on the Yarra.