Seven days in a secluded cabin, I return ambivalent about cheese

It was a cheerful sunny afternoon when the unbearable heaviness of being caused me to flee from my evening responsibilities and retreat to my favourite place hoping it would bring me a moment of clarity. It had been one of those days.  The world felt so deafeningly loud, like everyone was talking at once and the biosphere was a highly reverberant chamber. The echoes were heavy and vertiginous, barricading my thoughts and causing me to lose sight of my priorities. Trying to make sense of it all felt like trying to interpret a fortune cookie written in an unknown and indecipherable language. You shrug it off, but you can’t ignore the swell of urgency and frustration as you grapple with an unknown destiny.

Standing on this bridge, you shrink away into the world.  The Grand River stretches out lazily below, and nature’s white noise—the rustling of leaves and the rippling water—cocoons you in a blanket of comfort and naive wonderment. I thought of nothing but the hawk that soared above the vibrant trees and the rabbit that dashed across the gravel path. I could see fish nosing the surface of the water looking to snatch a meal from the world of eternal air and sky. Henry David Thoreau’s words tumbled through my head, “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.” It occurred to me then that’s exactly what I needed: to sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods.

So I packed my battered yet reliable ’98 Corolla with provisions and drove five hours north-east to a tiny cabin in the equally tiny hamlet of Gunter, Ontario.  Situated in the lush wood surrounding a 96-acre hobby farm, I lived—or, I might say, thrived—for seven days without running water or electricity. From sunrise to sunset, I lay stretched out in the warm sun that filtered in through the enclosed porch with the likes of M. F. K. Fisher, A. J. Liebling, Adam Gopnik, Ruth Reichl, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. I learned almost as much about food writing as I did about myself. It would be days before I realized I hadn’t spoken a single word or seen another human being.

It was with mixed feelings that I returned. Flicking a switch and turning a tap for instant access to artificial light and fresh water felt foreign, if not a bit ostentatious and my spacious 1100 sq ft apartment felt both embarrassing and overwhelming. The very sight of commercial shopping centres was oppressive to me, more so than usual, and the sheer convenience of being able to purchase virtually any food item on whim—produced or processed—saddened me.

For seven days I lived simply (or should I say I simply lived?). Fresh fruit, raw vegetables from my CSA, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, honey, tea, coffee, a bottle of good olive oil and locally grown and cured summer sausage sustained me. Clearly this is not a righteous argument about choosing local over global—there are no commercial olive groves in Ontario, nor are there any shade-grown coffee plantations. Rather, it’s a personal reflection on want versus need, and how sometimes we blur the want so thoroughly with the need that we confuse which is which. When you are so fortunate (as I am) to live in a place where your wants can be readily and easily satisfied, you are apt to indulge without respecting it as an act of indulgence.

I lived without want for those seven days. I craved for nothing. I learned fairly quickly to enjoy my coffee black and to eat all manner of vegetables raw. For the most part I lived like this out of necessity, but I also took pleasure in my simple meals. Because we so often place our needs and wants in juxtaposition to one another, it can become easy to forget that satisfying a need can be as gratifying as indulging a want, in fact, even more so.

I have tried to continue to live like this despite my return to the world of surefit. And so it was not without some hesitation and ambivalence that I approached the first Cheesepalooza challenge.

The first cheeses are simple cheeses made with basic ingredients—mascarpone, queso blanco, whole milk ricotta—what Mary Karlin categorizes as Fresh Direct-Acidification Cheeses. Essentially, the process requires boiling milk or cream and adding a simple acid, lemon juice, for example. But as you progress through the book, the cheeses become far more advanced and require daunting ingredients such as Capalase lipase powder and Thermo B powdered thermophilic starter culture. These cheeses will also require, no matter how great a do-it-yourselfer you might be, the purchase of equipment. And that’s where I start to feel a bit queasy.

As with my bread, I enjoy using very simple ingredients to create an exceptional product. I wince at the thought of using additives (and I include dry or fresh yeast in this category) and flinch away from the science, feeling that it fragments the organic magic of the process.  This approach, however, limits my repertoire significantly, and fails to admire the history, terroir and traditions behind some great breads (I can of course turn virtually any bread into a sourdough based bread, but then, is it really the same bread? More thoughts on that later). And so I find my interest in the process and in the products it creates triumphs; I step forward, still somewhat timidly, to begin Cheesepalooza.

Late, mind you, and already breaking the rules. I have made whole milk ricotta frequently in the past after a friend, intent on supporting my interest in fermentation, gave me a buttermilk starter culture. I have made it using lemon juice, vinegar and buttermilk culture, so despite being urged to make it again if we had already done so, I decided not to in order to limit this indulgent hobby. Mascarpone, however, interested me as it is frequently used in baking. It hails from the Lombardy region of Italy, and is a rich, creamy, spreadable cheese, unlike the curdled and sometimes dry ricotta, great for filling tarts or draping across fresh fruit.

The process was as simple as making ricotta, but it requires an overnight rest in the refrigerator and called for the use of skim milk powder, which I do not understand why, but I have asked in the Q&A section of the Cheesepalooza site.

I also did not follow the recipe exactly, using whole milk powder instead as I already had some on hand. Nor did I heed Mary Karlin’s (wise) advice to “familiarize [myself] with what the cheese looks, and better still, smells and tastes like.” I’ve never had unadorned Mascarpone, and so I’m not too sure how aligned my tasting notes might be. My one suggestion would be to use weight measures with the lemon juice. Lemons can vary in size quite dramatically, and even those of the same size might produce extremely different amounts of juice. I added nearly 1/3 cup of lemon juice (from one lemon!) and it has really dominated the flavouring of the cheese.  It complemented well a warm bowl of fresh tomato and zucchini soup, nonetheless.

Tasting Notes:

  • Appearance: White, thin, like a low-fat sour cream.
  • Nose (aroma): Sour and mildly yeasty, like yogurt.
  • Overall Taste: Fresh, rich, but far too lemony.
  • Sweet to Salty: More sweet from the lemon.
  • Mild (mellow) to Robust to Pungent (stinky): Mellow with a bit of piquant sourness.
  • Mouth Feel: (gritty, sandy, chewy, greasy, gummy, etc.): Predominantly smooth, like yogurt or sour cream, but with a slight chalky or grittiness.

13 comments on this post. Leave your own...

  1. Ilke says:

    I need to find a place to escape. What a great break! It is like hitting the reset button and much needed.

    • Calantha says:

      It was also like a (rude?) awakening – it made me reflect on my life as I was living it, and puts life in a strange perspective. It can be hard to determine whether it’s just vacation syndrome or not. Either way, I’m trying hard not to lose the glimmer of the insights I had when there!

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your experiences…you have a real gift for writing, Calantha :)

  3. I thought when I posted this with the ricottas that you made ricotta – I would have loved to have seen a photo of your cheese…. that is so telling. I am into mascarpone making, too , and plan on trying several different recipes. We will have to keep track of one another’s adventures in that. :) V

    • Calantha says:

      I would definitely want to try another recipe. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the result, but it was decent enough. August was crazy for me so I never got around to taking many photos / experimenting. That, and I’m always worried about not being able to finish the cheese before it goes off. I quickly used the mascarpone in a soup to try to prolong its life!

  4. Stephanie says:

    I wish that I had a chance to get out of the city this summer! Last year I went out to the farm (no running water, toilets, or electricity.. or fires) a few times and it was a great get-away.

    I have mascarpone on my list of cheeses to make, your tasting notes sounds delicious and after our success with the ricotta I’m itching to make more fresh cheese!

    • Calantha says:

      There’s still time yet to take a quick get-away. Even a few days seems beneficial to me if you can manage it.

      As for the mascarpone, I really wish I had had time to bake with it. It was yearning to become a fig and mascarpone tart, drizzled in honey… but alas, time wasn’t on my side. I’d be interested to see what you would do with it (other than just eat it)!

  5. I haven’t yet embarked on Mary Karlin’s mascarpone but it does seem complicated given how I have made it in the past. I guess I too will cross that bridge when I get there. Your post was striking though… I read it as I stare out the window of our cottage in the Kawarthas… I think it may be time for a walk in the woods.

Pings to this post

  1. [...] about the trail that brought her to us, but am sure glad we found one another! Calantha from piecurious at Elora, Ontario, Canada Calantha is a fellow Canadian. I believe she found Cheesepalooza through [...]

  2. [...] about the trail that brought her to us, but am sure glad we found one another! Calantha from piecurious at Elora, Ontario, Canada Calantha is a fellow Canadian. I believe she found Cheesepalooza through [...]