Somerset Cheddaring

This week I spent 4 days studying the art of cheddaring. Driving around the ridiculously idyllic Somerset region of England, 8 of us from UNISG had the pleasure of learning about clothe-wrapped cheddars from three of the greatest Cheddar cheese makers in England.

Montgomery, Keen and Westcombe Farms became our educators of all things Cheddar.  We stomped around in the muck; meeting cows, learning about different silage and the ever-present cheese mite. We entered the inner sanctum of their cheese warehouses and observed how these perfectly rounded cheddars age to create the rich acidic flavors we expect. Each farm produces a distinct flavor in their cheddar, making the comparisons of dryness, acid, creaminess and a hundred other finer flavors fascinating.

One thing remained the same; the traditional process of cheddaring, a method of cutting and turning curds to create the perfect hard-aged cheddar.  In addition, all of these farms have their own herds, meaning they have absolute control over their milk. Milking begins at three am, seven days a week. The creamy raw milk is pumped into a massive tank where it is slowly warmed and prepared for its starter and rennet processes. After the rennet is added, mixers are traded for wire curd cutters and the curds are cut into rice size grains, the perfect size for hard cheese.

Whey is drained and the cheddaring begins. As the curds release their liquid, the particles begin attaching themselves to each other, creating stretchy almost rubbery squares of goodness. These are cut, flipped over and stacked, flipped, restacked and cut again, over and over. The curds get flatter and more cohesive until they are sent through a shredder, salted and pressed into large cylinder molds.

After they come out of their molds, they are smeared with varying layers of pig lard and thin cotton fabric, repressed and placed in the warehouse to age about 18 months.

Each producer has his own method of cheddaring, adding starters and dealing with cheese mites but all of them honor this time consuming traditional process to create absolutely beautiful cheese. There is a purpose behind maintaining the value of clothe-bound cheddars that can only be understood when you open a wheel and inhale its rich aromas, slice off a piece and savor the creamy pungent texture. That is, of course, why we preserve the traditions of our past and value the processes that have been perfected through generations.

I look forward to a good grilled cheese and tomato soup lunch.

Bosnia or Bust

I find that as my time in Italy races forward, the more I live in the moments presented and spend less time writing about them. I know I am going to regret this if I don’t get my thoughts down for future reference.

A few weeks ago I went on my fourth stage and my first stage outside of Italy.  I traveled to Bosnia and Croatia to study how ethnobiology in these regions was affected  by war. As we loaded onto our small gold bus, no one really knew quite what to expect, including our professor.  We covered 4500 kilometers in 6 days, crossed 5 borders, acquired a stigmata, stayed in a Croatian campground, 2 Bosnian homes and on a remote island about a three hour boat ride from the mainland. It was mind-bending. I never would have taken this trip on my own. I was barely becoming an adult when the war in Bosnia began. I remember thinking that it sounded horrible but seemed out of my sphere. I knew nothing about Bosnia really. And years later, I was here.

To reach my first residence in Martin Brod, we had to cross a bridge that had been blown up and replaced…sort of. Bosnia is beautiful with forested mountains and rivers crossing and falling down sides of wild landscape. It was hard to imagine how brutal the war was here. We were forbidden to wander off the roads because there are still several minefields, yet in many places, I would watch young children running across fields to school. I hoped they knew more than I did.

While being hosted by a group of women in Bosnia, we learned about what it meant to survive.  Of the 80 women in this support group, 30 of them had lost children. The majority of them lost their husbands. They fled from their homes and foraged for sustenance to feed their families.

After the war, there was nothing left but to pick up the pieces and move forward. Many people didn’t know how to do this. How do you come home to a land that has been violently turned upside down? Without the support of each other, many of the women we met returned alone and broken. To create a community, these women gathered and began working on tactile projects; they began preserving and weaving and cooking. They also began to heal, slowly. I had to honor of looking into their eyes while they told me their stories. How could I not be moved?

The bus was small and we had lots of rain and mud. However, I am here to learn what I can and have been given these moments to take what I want. I am choosing to take  a little bit of humble grace and gratitude.  I am also the happy owner of a small hand woven rug, knit from old clothing.

Eat Your Weeds!

what's what

salad, we picked

Frittata & Weeds

When I was little, my grandmother taught me about which ferns tasted like licorice and what leaves would make stinging nettles sting less. There are a multitude of wild edibles that one can harvest. In my own hometown of Portland, Oregon, there are wonderful edibles, including dandelions, dock, wild lettuce, blackberry leaves, sorel and hundreds more. Many of these are astringent and add a wonderful complex flavor to something like a fritatta or a salad. But when you look out into a field of weeds…what do you pick? what should you avoid, and which are the really good things?!

"This one is my favorite" -Pieroni

Lucky for us, we had an expert who was more than happy to guide us through the fields surrounding the university. Andrea Pieroni is not only our Ethnobiology professor and in charge of academics for the University but also a massive connoisseur of all things wild, edible and green. Our time with Pieroni included a lecture about the mysterious land of Albania and its historical familiarity with native wild greens. Up in their northern mountains, people still live in union with the land. To supplement their diet, Albanians harvest from nearby fields of wild greens. These greens are packed full of vitamins and nutrients that would, otherwise, be absent from daily meals.

It is Springtime, the sun is warm ( ok it got hot!) and everything is starting to pop from the earth. A perfect day for foraging the wild edibles and Pieroni’s excitement was contagious.

Kimberly finding tasting bits

Ophelia, finds some wild hops

Jess picking dandelions

On our, roughly,  2 mile forage, we tasted, smelled, picked and foraged through countless wild edibles. Some were really spectacular, some just tasted like a green weed (i did overhear someone mention that they felt cow-like) and some tasted truly horrible. However, all of the greens we discovered had been used by people in this region for a thousand years and were a historical and important part of their health and diet.

"oh! this is my favorite! It may be astringent" - Pieroni

After spending a few hours foraging, we wandered back up the hill to Bra and gathered at the Gastronomic Society Villa. The University is using this space, with garden, to develop  relationships with the local community, students and faculty around the ideas of cooking and eating together. It is a beautiful space and we took it over to cook up our greens!

Lee-Anne washing greens

Peter feeding Shona and Jacqueline, our chefs

mastering the wee kitchen...and a massive Frittata

Our evening meal included risotto with wild nettles, frittata with dock and sorel, roasted vegetables and local sausages with parsnip greens, salads and panna cotta with wormwood. The university provided the wines. It was a perfect day! I overheard many people exclaim with the shake of a head, that they couldn’t believe how lucky we were or that this was our life for the next 12 months.

Prepping copious amounts of veggies in the setting sun

Now, I cant help but to look for a few edibles to include in my meals as i walk down the path.

Buon Appetito!

Washing up and singing show tunes

Renato, polishing wine glasses

Always end your evening with a boy and his guitar