‘Class, today we’re going to make some cheese and have a cheese tasting.’
‘Eew, Yuk … cheese. ’ comes the grumble from the back of the stools.
I need bottles of sour milk for my lesson to show how curds from curdled milk make cheese. Old, half empty milk bottles lurk around the school, stashed in places where teachers hide, drink tea, smoke and escape from being caught to cover lessons or do extra break or lunch duties. Some sour milk might be months old so I don’t choose bottles that look greenly gangrenous. I should make fresh curds by squirting Jif lemon juice into fresh milk but last night was a much needed wine bar date and I’ve got no milk and my yellow Jif lemon is empty.
They’re round my table and ready to start.
‘How do you think people found out how to make cheese?’
‘Went to the Cheddar Cheese factory.’
‘No, Kevin, don’t be daft. Cheese making is a very ancient process.’
Kevin hasn’t been to my lessons for ages. The relief of having a class without Kevin is enormous. The rest of us can get on and don’t have to watch for Kevin’s angry outbursts or wanderings around the room, picking at other people’s food. This must be his first day back after his recent suspension, but he’s not subdued, and he could make this lesson tough going.
I’m into my legends about food. The ‘did you knows’ and ‘you’ll never believe this’ type of storytelling that maybe helps them remember the lesson and gets them settled, just like nursery school children.
‘According to legend, cheese was invented thousands of years ago when Arab herdsmen carried milk in bags made from sheep’s stomachs. By the end of their journey, the milk had turned into cheese. An enzyme called rennet in the sheep’s stomach curdled the milk and made curds which then became cheese as the liquid drained away. They’d discovered the art of cheesemaking!’
Please Kevin, don’t ask why they put milk in a stomach. Or why the Arabs carry a stomach bag around. Why not just take a sheep or cow on their travels? But then these ancient people would not be credited with cheese invention!
The wooden stool legs screech. They’re getting restless.
‘Let’s make some cheese. Kevin hold this sieve and pour the milk through.’
I don’t risk leaving Kevin amongst the stools – I need him beside me to watch what he is doing. As Kevin pours, I chant Miss Muffet’s nursery rhyme about her eating her curds and whey and hope it distracts from the pungent odour of the sour milk. The muslin-lined sieve fills up with creamy lumps.
‘Kevin, show the group your curds.’
Kevin tilts the sieve towards the class.
‘Can the rest of you see Kevin’s curds?’
No-one wants to see anything of Kevin’s. He might pin them against a wall later and ask what they know.
‘These are like the curds Miss Muffet eats before they become cheese.’
‘Kevin – tie the muslin bag with the curds to the tap and let it drain over the sink please. At the end of the lesson we’ll have a look and taste it.’
‘I ain’t eating that. It looks like sick’
It’s Liz, the only girl who speaks when Kevin’s around.
‘Write these words in your books and describe them for homework then we’ll start the cheese tasting.’
My chalk stub makes teeth tingling screeches on the black roller board.
Milk, Sour, Curds, Whey, Rennet, Enzyme, Cheese.
Half the class shuffle through their duffle bags for pencils and notebook. Half follow Kevin and do nothing. I’ve rolled out homework sheets on the school Banda machine, so I’ll hand them out at the end of the lesson. It’s not worth a fight now. Cheese and curds could go everywhere.
The cheese tasting
For their cheese tasting I’ve bought large chunks of Cheddar, Caerphilly, Lancashire and Double Gloucester from Budgens supermarket from my tiny food budget. This lesson is educational so they don’t pay. Just like they don’t pay for chemicals in chemistry or paint in art classes. But £50 a year does not go far and I need to talk to the headmaster as he keeps sending more students to join my lessons.
Sylvia, my right hand woman and helper, labels and chops the cheeses into tiny pieces. Equal pieces. Yes, the same size pieces. Pieces that look and taste the same to avoid squabbling.
‘His is bigger… smaller … than mine miss. It ain’t fair.’
Everyone has a plate, a wooden cocktail stick to spear their cheese chunks, one Jacob’s Cream Cracker and a glass of palate cleansing water. And a tasting chart to fill in with a mark out of ten for each cheese. And there’s a pot of pencils for those with no writing tools.
This is a serious and I want them to learn different flavours, new tastes and textures but I bet the results will be the same as other groups.
‘Which is your favourite cheese, class?’
‘What about all the others?’
‘We don’t like ‘em, we only like Cheddar.’
‘What cheese would you choose to crumble onto cheese on toast?’
‘Why don’t you like the other cheeses?’
‘Because we like Cheddar.’
I pass round the first plate of tiny pieces of a creamy, mild cheese.
‘This Caerphilly cheese is made in Wales and is moist and salty. Welsh coal miners need a salty cheese to replace all the salt they have lost in sweat when they are working in the underground mines. When you’ve finished tasting eat a piece of cracker and take a sip of water to clean your palate for the next one.’
It’s Kevin. What now?
‘Got any more biscuits miss? To clean my palate?’
Sylvia, instinctively snaps the remaining crackers in half. I can see where this is going. For Kevin and the other boys this cheese tasting is lunch. If they fill up on cheese and crackers, there’s more time to spend down the betting shop.
The National Dairy Council is keen for me to promote cheeses in school and has sent booklets and coloured charts to decorate my room. If the class is good, we’ll go on a trip to their headquarters near Oxford Street for a demonstration. But only if they are good. Really good. And if I can persuade Kevin not to come.
I point to the large wall map which shows chunks of cheese dotted around England and Wales. Quite what’s happened to cheeses from Scotland or Northern Ireland, I don’t know. Next on the tasting plate is Lancashire cheese.
‘Lancashire cheese comes from the north of England. It’s much colder there and this cheese is used a lot in cooking.’
‘Is it where you come from, miss?’
‘No, Len, I come from north of Watford, the Midlands. Not the north.’
They don’t get this adult tease. Watford is an unknown land to many Londoners.
‘This is crumbled onto cheese and potato pie and baked in cheese pasties.’
‘Don’t like that miss.’
I shouldn’t ask. I know Cheddar will be in the answer somewhere.
They fill in their tasting charts and we move onto the deep orange Double Gloucester, and finally golden, solid, reliable Cheddar.
‘Now in groups, add up the votes on your charts please.’
They busy themselves giving sums to the adding up person. Kevin sits munching the spare cream crackers. No one wants his votes.
‘What’s the favourite cheese then from this tasting?’
‘Cheddar!’ they shout. How could I have guessed?
I’ve got a surprise before they go. From the fridge I take out a wedge of pungent, Stilton cheese with its nobbled, crusty rind, and creamy inside mottled with blue veins. It’s called the King of Cheeses, but I reckon it can’t kick Cheddar off the throne.
‘Can you see the holes in the rind? They do this on purpose and the mould grows and spreads through the cheese and gives it a special flavour.’
This is a perfect piece of Stilton. Delicious.
‘Do any of you want to taste it?’
Even Kevin reels back in horror.
‘Why would we eat mouldy, stinky cheese?’
I’m not going to show them the slice of pongy Brie, its creamy goo seeping through the paper, that I’ve bought for my lunch. It smells like the boy’s toilets, and tastes heavenly.
They pack up ready to leave and I hand them each a red National Dairy Council book on cheese making, their Banda-ed homework and the recipe for next week, Cheese and potato pie.
But I’ve forgotten Kevin’s curds. The whey is still dripping out through the muslin bag over the sink.
‘Does anyone want to taste these curds?’
Their looks speak the silent answer. ‘Na, thanks, looks like sick.’
‘Alright, well you might want to pop in later and see how I’ve made the curd into Yorkshire curd tarts.’
Tarts, tarts. I know Len likes tarts, so he might be back, even though he’s left his sheet of homework on the window ledge.
Publishers of my first textbook Finding out about Food really liked my stories and Did you knows and included them in the text.