Monday, June 21, 2010

Room for Improvement, Soil Improvement

This being our first growing season in the new house, we're starting to find out what does well in our soil and what really doesn't.  We've yet to do a soil test, and we haven't added any amendments, but we're working on that.

Last weekend we had the wonderful opportunity to attend a potluck dinner with the Community Gardens of Chester County.  Dinner was amazing and made even better by a talk on the manufacture and use of biochar by our gracious host.  The wheels are already turning as to how we'll be adding this medium to our soil.  Our big hope is that we can lighten the heavy clay in our soil with material sourced from our own yard.

Our garlic, it appears, doesn't like our heavy soil much at all.  The Gardeness dug up the German Extra Hardy today, and even though the leaves looked fine, almost all of the bulbs are rotten.  The Romanian Reds seem to have fared better, but they're small, with only a couple of cloves each.  I hope this doesn't mean bad news for our potatoes as well.  As you might recall from last year, the Romanian Red was the variety that survived when the other rotted out then too.  It's really important to me that we keep this stock going, even if that means replanting all of it this fall and having nothing to cook with.

On a brighter note, our heirloom family corn seems to feel right at home, and all three varieties of beans have sprouted and are growing nicely.  Our goal is to find plants that do well here naturally, and save those seeds year after year.

When Life Gives You Thistles, Make Some Cheese!

What's missing when you have a fresh peasant loaf and a bottle of homemade ale? Some good cheese, of course! We decided it was high time to fill that void, so we set out to make some farmhouse cheddar. We ordered starter, rennet, and a mold from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and bought two gallons of good quality raw grassfed Jersey milk from a local Amish family. We visited their farm and got to see their happy cows and clean facilities, and we were really impressed! They also sell sheep's milk, which we may have to try another time!

So to make a farmhouse cheddar, you heat the milk gently to 90 degrees, add some mesophilic starter, and let it ripen for 45 minutes. Then you add the rennet and let it set at that temperature for another 45 minutes until it breaks, at which point you cut it into curds.

You slowly bring up the temperature of the curds to 100 degrees, and then drain them by pouring them into a cheesecloth and hanging it for an hour.

Once drained, you break the curds up into small pieces, and mix in some salt.

Then you pack them into a cheesecloth lined mold and press, applying 10 pounds of pressure for 10 minutes, then 20 pounds for 10 minutes, and lastly 50 pounds for 12 hours. Afterwards, the cheese is removed from the mold, the cloth is carefully peeled away, and it's left to air dry for 2 - 4 days, allowing a rind to develop.

At that point you can wax or bandage it, and let it age for a couple of months. Just as with all food preservation methods, so long as you pay attention to cleanliness, there's not much else to stress about.

We plan on making a mother culture from our store bought starter, and we've read that we can make rennet from our thistles! Now if only we had a cow...