Archive for April, 2010

The traditional art of cheesemaking

By David Parkinson

(Cross-posted to the blog of the Powell River Food Security Project.)

Workshop attendee and cheesemaker-in-training Julia Downs cuts curds into a workable size

After the full-on whirlwind of Earth Day, about 30 folks in Powell River had a stimulating opportunity to learn about cheesemaking from itinerant cheesemaker David Asher Rotsztain, who visited us from Mayne Island, where he farms and works to preserve the traditional craft of small-scale cheesemaking.

During the course of a three-and-a-half-hour workshop, we went through some of the basics of cheesemaking. David talked about the choice of milk, the politics of rennet, the odd history of orange Cheddar, the structure and types of milk proteins which are being manipulated to provide us with such a variety of textures and flavours, and plenty more.

What was most heartening to me was to see so many people come out on a Sunday interested in learning how they can engage with one of the most venerable means of food preservation. Some (like myself) were complete novices, never having deliberately made cheese; others were fairly old hands at certain types of cheesemaking willing to learn more about the complexities and details.

We started off adding some kefir to 4 litres of local whole milk warmed to somewhere close to body temperature, the perfect zone of warmth for bacteria to proliferate in. The bacteria, yeasts, and other critters in the kefir culture got to work souring the milk by converting the milk sugar lactose to lactic acid. Then David added a small amount of rennet, a digestive enzyme extracted from the fourth stomach of a suckling calf, in order to start the coagulation. Throughout the workshop, as we discussed other techniques and worked on other processes, we periodically checked the progress of the curdling as the curds separated from the whey.

Finally, as shown in the image above, we were able, gently, to cut the curds and, again gently, stir them to expel whey and firm them up. This is the step before pulling them from the whey and placing them in a mold where they would expel more whey, compress, and settle into the final shape and size.

David Asher Rotsztain setting out the samples of cheeses... first we learn, then we eat.

David told us all about the amazing and complex world of molds and their cooperative interaction with the process of ripening. I did not know that in order to create a camembert or blue cheese, all that is needed is to inoculate the souring milk with some spores from the desired mold (Penicillium candida or P. roqueforti respectively). The mold in question will create a mycelial network throughout the ripening cheese, much in the same way as mushrooms create vast networks throughout the soil of a forest. Spore-producing bodies analogous to mushrooms will pop up on the surface of the cheese, as in surface-ripened cheeses like camembert and brie — that’s what that furry rind is on those cheeses. In the case of blue cheeses, the spore-producing bodies are blue in colour and appear wherever the mold comes into contact with air. The veins in blue cheese are produced by thrusting skewers through the cheese to create air holes where the blue mold will appear.

We made paneer, a traditional Indian cheese produced by heating milk close to boiling and then adding something acidic as a curdling agent. We used a nice organic apple cider vinegar, which instantly created about three pounds of soft curds which David pulled from the whey with a slotted spoon, setting them aside to drain and solidify somewhat. Later he salted them lightly, split the batch in two, and added some ground chipotle peppers to half. (Delicious!)

After a dizzying ride through the amazing world of cheese, yogurt, and kefir, we concluded by sampling the paneer we made, along with a camembert from Salt Spring Island, another washed-rind soft cheese with a very pungent aroma, and a wonderfully yellow blue cheese from Moonstruck Organic Cheese also on Salt Spring Island. Some wine would have been nice…

Since I was coordinating these workshops on behalf of the Powell River Food Security Project, I sat through two in a row. Even then, I was fascinated both times to learn about the simple processes which convert milk into cheeses with such rich and complex flavours and textures. It’s an extraordinary art and one that would be nice to see revived here more visibly. There seems to be a cheese underground out there, and let’s hope that with some more practice and exposure we can work towards a flourishing local cheese industry.


There’s no place like home

By Tom Read

We came home to a plum-blossom surprise -- this young tree given to us by a neighbor a few years ago has never blossomed before now. Bees and other pollinators abound hereabouts, so we’re hoping for plums this summer.

Our 3,500-mile road trip from Texada Island to southern California and back is over at last. Our little Toyota Matrix burned about 110 gallons of gasoline during the 19-day sojourn, but this extravagance (for us) allowed us a rare and thoroughly enjoyable visit with family and friends ranging from Victoria, BC, all the way south to San Diego. Our previous road visit to California took place in 2007, involved travelling by pick-up truck and burned a lot more gas. Depending on the global price of oil a few years hence, maybe next time we’ll go by bus and train.

It was a refreshing, though tiring, trip. Being away from our island gave us a chance to see our lives here from a different perspective. For example, I’ve long been interested in the agricultural potential of Texada, which stands in sharp contrast to the huge agribusiness centres along Interstate 5 in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Any casual traveler along that route sees the vast monocultures of fruits, nuts, vegetables and grasses. My eye also caught the occasional grouping of bee hives, some looking normal but in several cases carelessly piled in a heap — dead.

What happened to the bees? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I saw, in nearly every field, at least one grouping of translucent liquid-filled plastic tanks boasting chemical company logos. Bees and toxic chemicals didn’t evolve together, so is it any wonder the bees are disappearing?

And then there was the soil. At 65 miles-per-hour you can’t do a soil test on the passing scenery, but you can see the emerging salt flats — white crystals on the soil surface amid flourishing salt-bush — caused by excessive irrigation and lack of soil tilth in a field that still shows eroding furrows from former food growing. There’s just mile after mile of it.

Along with the ruined soil I also saw signs, literally, of renewed political conflict over water in a place prone to increasing drought. One empty field after another for hundreds of miles contained a political campaign-style sign reading “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” California agribusiness exists on federal subsidies, particularly for water, but since the state’s rivers and reservoirs have run much lower in recent years, the water-war propaganda has become more intense.

Bear in mind that these valleys provide much of the fruit and vegetables we find on grocery store shelves on Texada Island and in BC. Our dependence on this dying system becomes much more real when one sees it in person.

Which brings me back home to our island, where water is usually not an issue and the soil ranges from Agricultural Land Reserve Class 5 rocky pasture to occasional pockets of Class 1 bottom-land richness. Small-scale mixed farms once flourished here. The time is coming when factory food will no longer be cheap, and small local farms will once again become economically viable. Let the transition begin.

Rattled by the rush

By David Parkinson

A tangle of young fennel sprigs

My apologies to those regular readers and subscribers who felt the silence on this end for the last couple of weeks. Tom is on vacation, and I have had one of those periods during which it feels as though everything is happening all at once. Funny how the times when the most is happening are the times when it’s hardest to write about what’s happening.

At any rate: time to catch up.

Transition training in Powell River

Last weekend, Transition Town Powell River brought Michelle Colussi to town to lead a group of about 20 people through Transition Training, and I participated in that. The training, which introduces participants to the basics of peak oil, climate change, and the need to adapt to a world of lower consumption of petrochemicals, was spread over one evening and a full day, and was fairly solidly packed with information and techniques for community engagement. One of the good things that happened is that we Powell River Transition types got to meet a couple of people on Texada Island, a couple from Denman Island, and a couple from Courtenay who are interested in getting some of this activity going in their communities.

It was inspiring to see the turnout from Powell River and Texada and to reflect on the fact that we are only Canada’s eighth formally declared Transition Town, after Peterborough (ON), Guelph (ON), Victoria (BC), Dundas (ON), Nelson (BC), Ottawa (ON), and the delightfully-named Cocagne (NB). Quite an honour for such a small town; but like so many similar honours it speaks to the hard work and dedication of a small handful of upstarts and noisemakers. It was nice to feel as though we could learn from the experience of folks in Victoria, where Michelle was coming from, and also pass along some of what we know to folks coming up behind us in Texada, Denman, and Courtenay.

I imagine that everyone who participated in this training came away with a different perspective, having gone in there with different experiences and questions. My takeaway was a renewed sense of how vast will be the work of finding new ways to live well in the face of oncoming and extreme challenges from the climate and the economy. One area we did not really explore is the threat of severe social upheaval from all of these threats and reversals; it’s hard to look into that black hole for long without losing hope. Instead, the Transition movement focuses its energy and attention on positive action, even while acknowledging that we can have no sure insight into the directions the future might take. This is scary stuff, but liberating. And it’s gathering momentum.

Lund to Langdale Part Deux

After a day of unwinding from these two days, I leapt into ‘Lund to Langdale Part Deux’, the follow-up event to the ‘Lund to Langdale‘ get-together back in November 2009 which brought together farmers, foodies, and food activists from the Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast for a day and a half of connecting and learning. That event ended with a commitment from the attendees to continue meeting with the intention of figuring out what it would mean to form a bioregional coalition and start trying to narrow the Jervis Inlet.

With support and organizational mojo from the BC Healthy Living Alliance, specifically the amazing Jamie Myrah, we were lucky enough to have a second opportunity to get together, share information and experiences, and start to really work on the outlines of this coalition: who we are, how we can work together, and what we can do as a ‘whole-coastal’ coalition that we can’t easily do as two separate loose coalitions on either side of the inlet.

And so about twenty-five of us, fairly equally balanced between Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast, came together and brainstormed our way towards a working coalition. I have complained about bad brainstorming experiences in the past, and it can sometimes turn into a random collection of impossible dreams or dead-ends; but the process was very productive this time. Part of the reason for that is that the people in the room were pretty familiar with the terrain and there was a high degree of consensus about what matters, what is feasible, and what we can actually commit to, given our many other commitments.

What did we achieve? We came to a better understanding of what we would gain from having better communication among the food-security and food-sovereignty projects on both halves of the Sunshine Coast. We all learned an awful lot about the huge number of projects and organizations already doing this work, and thought about how we can connect these existing resources together better. We ate well and laughed and got to know one another. We committed to another get-together in November, this time back down on the other side of the coast, specifically Roberts Creek.

One of the exercises we used as a way to illustrate the complexity of the situation was a mapping exercise, where we posted the names of all of the organizations, projects, and groups that we are aware of doing something to support the regional food economy. The resulting picture on the wall was overwhelming: there really is a lot going on, but often the people most likely to know about it are unaware of it all. And of course the public often have no conception of how much is happening under their noses.

Sadly, by the time we meet next, the BC Healthy Living Alliance will have been rolled up and packed away — the funding that enabled them to start so many projects around the province, including the Sliammon Community Garden and the Garden to Table workshop series at the Community Resource Centre in Powell River, was always intended to expire eventually. But with a little luck and a lot of hard work and constant commitment, one of their the lasting legacies will be a fierce and forceful network of food activists from Lund to Langdale, connected together through shared information and stories, collaborating on projects that benefit the Saltery side and the Earls Cove side, and forming a coherent and powerful voice for local food, agriculture, farmers, growers, and all the coming heroes of the relocalization movement.

Thank you, Jamie! Thank you, BC Healthy Living Alliance! And thank you to everyone who came out for this get-together. We meet again in November…

And finally

On April 6, 2010, the BC government granted our application for incorporation as a cooperative. And so the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is official. Stay tuned for more news about that.

Post facto

April 2010
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