Kensho Homestead Practicals

A Tale of Two Cheeses: Part 2

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts."
~Winston Churchill

The Philosophical HomesteaderI've now made nearly two dozen different cheeses. When I started out, my only raw milk source was a five-hour round-trip drive, I was aging them in the veggie drawer of the fridge, and I was following the recipes to the letter.

I now have an aging fridge packed with cheeses, my raw milk source is at least in the ballpark, I'm creating my own recipes, and I may even spring for a pricey PH-tester. It's been a long, fun road with a steep learning curve made in a relatively short time, which is what I say about pretty much everything in our adopted rural lifestyle.

But the best cheese I've made so far was the third one I attempted, and it started out as a smelly, rather disgusting potential disaster.

In our cheese-making class, we were strongly encouraged to take notes on our every hard cheese-making venture and being the diligent student I usually am, I do. This time was no exception.

“Has odd fishy odor” is at the top, middle and end of the third cheese’s entry. I was a bit reluctant to include the less-than-savory details as to why that might be.

First, a bit of background on my past experiences with stinky cheese. I am no expert, I can’t even call myself a true aficionado, but I’m more cheese-fearless than most, especially most Americans. After all, I did live in France for a while, and spent a few months in Corsica, where I met the only cheese that scared me off.

The Corsican cheese is quite popular and, being a sensitive traveler attracted to regional specialties, I was anxious to give it a try. I went to the farmers' market, found the oldest, roughest-looking cheese-monger of all the vendors and marched right up to examine his wares. He looked like an ex-sailor with wrinkled, sun-burnt skin, black patterns on his forearms where I assume tattoos were once legible, and an easy-going, toothless grin. He eyed me as I pretended to know what I was doing. I glanced over his table and tried to make out the curious handwriting to learn what I might be able to pronounce well-enough to order.

My eyes went right to the group of words I was searching for – traditional Corsican cheese – how easy was that? I felt already triumphant. In my best French, I tell him I want that cheese, and he replies, “Avec ou sans habitants?” At that point I feel certain I saw a glimmering in his eyes. He points down to the sign below the ‘traditional Corsican cheese' sign, which reads just as he has stated: “AVEC OU SANS HABITANTS.”

Instead of triumphant, I’m instantly befuddled. I had no idea what that meant, and the question so baffled me I thought I clearly did not understand. I said quite sincerely, "I don’t understand." But, in retrospect, I think I kinda did, I just didn’t want to believe it. “With or without inhabitants,” it was clear and easy to understand even for a non-French-speaker.  This was not a linguistic block I was having, it was a reality check.

At that moment my market companion attempted to come to my rescue. She didn’t speak English, but understood my dilemma apparently without words exchanged, being French and rather snobbish about her cheeses. “Inhabitants ...,” she repeated to my complete horror, “as in maggots.” After which she pinched up her nose slightly and gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head, like she was trying to reassure me – ”Don’t worry, on the mainland we don’t eat that sort of cheese.”

So, back to my Cheese No. 3. The first two times I followed two different farmstead cheese recipes to the letter, wrapped them to age, and made my notes, nice and clean, without any question of potential perfection in outcome. This third time I found a recipe online that was so vague in steps, measurements and temperatures, I had to wing it a bit for the first time.

To make matters worse, this particular day had a pronounced increase in kitchen traffic. After I’d muddled through the recipe and began the pressing process, Handy Hubby had a dramatic building challenge of the electrical variety that required him to tear into the wall in the vicinity of the press. He’d just been on the roof cleaning up mice nests, and they’d managed to chew through some of the wires, which he now had to replace. I wondered momentarily if that was something I should include in my notes. Nah, best forgotten, I decided.

But I could not forget, and what I’d hoped would be a quick in-and-out project around the press turned into an hour, going on who knew how many more. With Hubby going in and out, meant the dogs are following him. They think this is a game and don’t understand Hubby’s irritation as he curses the mice only under his breath ... and ... is sweating through his T-shirt. Right over the press!  

Finally, the straw to break this camel’s back – I glance over from the sink as Tori’s tail brushes over the press. Tori is our Dane-Mastiff and about 6 feet from nose to tail tip. In a flash I imagine it snake-like engulfing the entire cheese. “Stop, stop, oh my god, stop the pressing!”

I neither wanted to perceive myself as excessively anal nor offend Hubby’s already delicate mood any further, but my stomach was churning and my mind screaming at me for what I was allowing to happen to that poor cheese. I immediately disassembled the press, moved it to the office, and, with trepidation, examined the cheese, slowly unwrapping it from the muslin.

Just as I had suspected, dry-wall debris, dog hair, and who knew what other invisible entities had found their way onto the surface of Cheese No. 3. In a moment of panic and disgust, I nearly threw it in the garbage. Then I thought, no, wait, chill, this will be the perfect testing ground. I’ll continue to do everything wrong, according to all things science and sensibility, and see what happens.

So, I stopped following the vague directions and followed instinct instead. What would the Corsican cheese-monger have done, I repeated to myself as I decided not to wrap it, to leave it at room temperature uncovered for days, then put it in with the others to age in the drawer of the fridge.

Not only did it look completely different from the others, it also smelled completely different. The fishy smell had stabilized, mold started growing on the air-dried, uncovered rind, and the texture softened inside until it began to sort of pooch out around the middle like a chubby belly. I felt some encouragement then, thinking, "Might good cheeses be like good dogs and begin to resemble their masters?"

A couple weeks more and it began to look and smell so delicious the temptation was starting to weigh on me. It was becoming irresistible. On Christmas Eve, I could wait no longer. The vague directions said it would be ready in two months, but my instincts were saying, ”Dig in, woman!”

So I did, and it was delicious! I am now convinced the best cheese recipes were discovered quite by accident and our ancestors turn over in their graves every time we get squeamish over a few dog hairs or maggots. The only problem is, I have no idea how to imitate it.

Does anyone have any advice?

Cheese #3

Cheese No. 3, aging for days on the kitchen table, but still maggot free!

A Tale of Two Cheeses: Part 1

The Philosophical HomesteaderCheese-making doesn’t really lend itself well to multi-tasking, but since I’m a modern American woman, I invariably try anyway, sometimes despite my best efforts.

I’m trying to become more conscious of this tendency, and with that awareness comes a true piece of perennial wisdom, expressed efficaciously in a Zen proverb: “A life lived in haste is lacking in value.”

Indeed! Even in Texas the pace isn’t slow anymore, and somehow the expectation is we should be proud of this. 

Cheese-making is teaching me a lot about life, and I’ll try to sum it up with two not-yet-proverbs: You can make it extremely complicated if you want, but it’s still pretty darn good when you keep it super simple. And the other: Mistakes can be magically delicious!

So, following are the two cheeses that brought me to these grandiose conclusions, and I’ve named them: The Faux Coulommiers and The Stinky Old Corse.

The Faux Coulommiers Mold

The improvised Coulommier mold.

According to the fascinating but out-of-print book The Cheeses and Wines of England and France (with notes on Irish Whiskey) by John Ehle, the Coulommiers is: “about the size of a Camembert and has the taste of a fresh Brie; it is, in fact, a small, fresh Brie, but less carefully made as a rule.”

Less carefully made, great, it sounded right up my alley! Except, I was unable to find the classic Coulommiers molds anywhere. Handy Hubby, being the great problem-solver that he is, again came to my rescue and crafted two molds according the general idea I read about, out of PVC pipe. The uniqueness of this mold is that you are able to have the typical reduction in mass as you would with a Brie or Camembert, but without having to flip the cheese as much for draining, which considerably reduces the risk of shattering the curds, which affects the consistency of the final product. 

I know I’m not the only one who has had messy and disappointing flipping issues with the mold-ripened cheeses, because in our advanced cheese workshop at the Homestead Heritage Ploughshare Institute in Waco, our teacher tried to demonstrate flipping a Munster with the same messy result, and another student had a quite a time getting his large fingers to maneuver the tiny Crottin molds.

So, while this recipe is for the more advanced cheese-maker, it has been tested by my clumsy self, and is absolutely delicious, even after being shattered!

Take 2 gallons whole raw milk, very fresh; heat slowly to 86 F, add 1/4 teaspoon mesophillic culture aroma B (or any meso culture) and 1/4 teaspoon Penicillium Camemberti, stir well and allow to ripen 30 minutes.

Add 1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet dissolved in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water.

Once you get clean break, cut 1/2-inch columns, allow to rest 15 to 30 minutes.

Then gently scope the columns into two faux-Coulommiers molds, keep adding curds until the molds begin to overtop, then wait and wait until all the whey slowly drains out through your very thin grating or sushi mats. Leave them about 8 hours to drain, take off the extension and gently flip onto another grating or sushi mat and allow other side to drain several hours.

Depending on the temperature and humidity, it will take about a day before you can completely remove the mold, gently flip again, and sprinkle all sides with salt. Let age about six weeks at 50 F, 80-percent humidity. After white mold begins to grow on outside, flip daily until mold engulfs entire cheese, then wrap in cheese wrap to create the natural rind and continue to age, flipping regularly.

Cheeses draining after molds lifted and mats removed

For the first draining, use sushi mats so the curds don't smush through and flip using boards or something else solid and flat.

Ready to eat and delicious!

Ready to eat!

Coming next time, the stinky Old Corse!

Hail the White Knights

The Philosophical HomesteaderHis first morning back after a two-week work hitch, and he has to dig me out of another whopping mess, this time quite literally.

Handy Hubby is my white knight, no horse necessary, just some good old-fashioned masculine common sense and a bit of very basic gear: some rope and a come-along. I’m shivering in jeans and my city-girl mittens while he’s dressed appropriately in rain gear and washable work gloves. Within a minute our rubber boots are carrying several pounds of glue-like clay.

He studies the problem, then the environment. I scan with him, but have no clue what he’s considering. He is slow, methodical, patient, cautious – all the characteristics I wish would rub off on me.

I, on the other hand, am excessively curious, impatient, prone to mischief, and periodically irrational, like yesterday, when I chose to drive up a one-lane mud hill, because I wanted to take the scenic route home.

He chooses a large tree for leverage, uses several fancy knots he’s tried many times to teach me to no avail, and with genius ingenuity, according to this geometrically challenged woman, inches the left back tire out of the ditch, then tows the car into the center of the road, leaving not a scratch.

Sometimes I'm a bit ashamed of my old suburban girl ways, she who considered herself a feminist, wore a T-shirt that read “Anything boys can do girls can do better!” and loved singing along to “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!” Heavens, forgive me please, I was only 12.

I don’t know if it was embarrassment or gratitude or lingering shame in my folly, but as I sat in the car, warm and waiting as the minutes turned into hours, watching him heroically solve my problem, I couldn’t help but tear up. Not only did I not have the physical strength to crank that come-along, I hadn’t any hint of the knowledge or skill to get-r-done.

He came up to the window panting and covered in mud and still found the heart to offer consolation. “Don’t cry, sweets, it’ll be fine.” Which only made the tears fall more freely, much to his confusion.

I felt terrible, but he hadn’t spoken a single reproach and wasn’t even cursing under his breath, the darling.

His only comment on the entire affair came when it was over, as he was gathering up rope and carry-along: “I think I’ll buy a winch.”

My reply? "Of course, dear."



That looks like geometry!

That looks like geometry!

What about y’all, what has your white knight done for you lately?

Trying to Make Sense of the Senselessness

A photo of Mishelle ShepardI have been traveling more lately and reading such diverse works as The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty First Century by Thomas L. Friedman, an interesting but long-winded testament to the glories of unfettered Capitalism and Technology, published in 2007. Simultaneously I’m reading what could easily be classified as the polar opposite in ideology and practice: Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World by Helen and Scott Nearing, widely considered as the original book on homesteading and the forerunner of the back-to-the-land movement, published in 1954.

I try to approach each of these works as open-mindedly as possible. I am, after all, a big fan of technology: It provides part of our livelihood and sanity, considering I work entirely online, and my only real sense of “local” community exists only in the cyber-world. Thanks to Friedman I also finally understand why in India, China, Japan, and most of the rest of the world they have cheaper, faster, and more reliable cell phone and Internet service than we poor rural folks in America do, and why that won’t be changing any time soon.

Conversely, I see handy hubby and I have much in common with the Nearings. Like me, they lost their teaching jobs – where I lost mine thanks to Hurricane Katrina, they lost theirs thanks to the Depression. They also left the city for a try at self-sufficient living after many years dealing with the disillusionment stemming from hypocritical American politics and a society rampantly chasing materialistic dreams. The Nearings chose their “experiment,” as they themselves called it, not to get away from working hard, but to embrace more meaningful work which was more directly related to “real” life. They also would have preferred a more cooperative or communal environment for themselves, but found there was none that existed in which they could “happily and effectively fit.” Just like us, when they started their adventure they were far from spring chickens, and had no experience at living such a life.

The Nearings were at odds with the 60s hippie “counter culture” as well as with the ideologies and lifestyles of the locals in Vermont. Still, they welcomed them regularly as guests and lodgers, understanding that a real community is not made-up entirely of like-minded individuals, and if it were, I’d be inclined to add, it would be torturously colorless and bland.

Unfortunately, the Nearings and the very many who followed in their footsteps in the 60s never did become part of the mainstream, or even close to it. Many expected it would, and felt even that it was inevitable. Now, 80 years after they first made their move, American politics has in fact become more war-mongering, and mainstream America ever-more materialistic.

Friedman, on the other hand, makes a very cogent argument regarding the market brilliance of Wal-mart, one apt to convince even me that I may have unfairly boycotted them years ago. Still, I won’t go back, as long as I can help it.

So, what exactly is my point? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. But, when I think with my head, I see maybe there is good reason why we need the world to become flat again, and allow the materialism and corrupt values of the American lifestyle to infiltrate the world, since that is what they seem to be screaming for. But when I think with my heart, I’m glad we’re whittling down the ways in which we are collaborators in this insanity.

Woman Gone Wild

A photo of Mishelle ShepardNot many people know this because there are those loved ones who think I shouldn’t share such personal information with the cyber world. But since I think those loved ones are my only readers anyway, I don’t see why not. So here’s the big secret: For exactly half the month while handy hubby works, I am alone out here. Half the month I go a week or more sometimes without seeing another human being in the flesh, or without hearing an actual voice not garbled by static. I’ve complained in this blog about the ever-growing list of challenges to my recently adopted rural life, so it seems strange that until now I wouldn’t write about the very biggest one of them all: Solitude.

I know very few people have experienced anything like it. Consider, before you believe you can relate, just because you feel alone in your head or at your desk, or maybe you imagine you are not really registering the dozens if not hundreds of personal human interactions you are having each day, but this is something entirely new for me. I was always one to appreciate solitude, but I see now it was because I didn’t have that much of it. Imagine for a second, a married woman totally alone half the month, no children, only virtual colleagues, very few neighbors, no real schedule, no real boss, no employees. Almost complete flexibility. Almost no responsibilities. Almost total freedom. A long time pursuit of mine achieved prematurely par hazard. It sounds so easy but nothing and no one could have prepared me for the toughest part of it. It’s unbearably lonely sometimes. Not only are there very few people, there are only a handful who would ever choose to be in such isolation, literally or figuratively, even if given every opportunity.

If I have one physical human interaction in a week it’s because I found some excuse to go to town or to visit the neighbors. The internet is my only lifeline to civilization. My truest connection at the moment is to nature, and I think we are really starting to understand each other. Maybe I am facing my fears, because since childhood my worst dreams always centered around losing virtual connection – the perpetual busy signal, or for hours a line where I can’t get through for some unknown reason, or I can’t remember or find the phone number, or the number’s been disconnected, the buttons won’t push, there’s no dial tone, or oh my god, the line’s been cut! Nowadays the dreams are more often a screen that won’t respond or storms that take out the satellite.

If you’ve traveled seriously you know what I’m talking about, at least to some degree. You have to get used to some degree of loneliness as a traveler. It’s not as challenging today as it once was, now that it’s so much easier to stay connected. What I most remember about my stay with a French family in 1984 is the loneliness. I was a hyper-self-conscious 15-year old with little means of communicating on an isolated family farm for the first time. I cried so much the family was probably shocked I stayed. I came home a different person, a better person, a stronger person I instinctively felt.

In the Peace Corps something similar happened. Along with the regular symptoms of occasional purposelessness, emptiness, lethargy, there bloomed something more. But in the thick of it, it was bitterly lonely and that’s all I could feel. It wasn’t friendships, or a lack of them, it was a lack of deeper connections.

The inner and outer journeys share the common instinct of exploration, that’s what drives the explorers among us to pursue them. They also share the common features of surplus time and adequate means and ample courage. Just like those lonely days as an exchange student and PCV, they set a precedent of self-reliance, they open new worlds, they teach humility. Without these travails I wouldn’t be who or where I am today – someone with excessive time, enough means, and compounding courage in order to thoughtfully observe loneliness, no doubt the fear of which helps induce us to adapt to many of the laws and various unpleasantnesses of civilization.

We love to brag about the outward journeys, sometimes keeping track on a map with little pins, different colors for the places we’ve been and those we still plan to visit. The green pins on Paris and London and Prague for “Been There”; the red pins on Moscow and Istanbul and Buenos Aires for “Going Soon.” But where do we keep track of the inward journeys? From whom do we gain bragging rights for the trips through Pain, Failure, Rejection, Loneliness? Where are the pins to stick on future stops at Loss, Disease, Humiliation? I guess we don’t celebrate those because we don’t want to go there so much. But then again, maybe if we had less fear of life’s travails then we might find both our travels and our connections would become far more meaningful.

Some are so disturbed by what they find on those journeys inside or out that they instinctively retreat and only go back if absolutely forced by circumstance. How do you comfort these poor cowards of love and life? I can only offer this advice: If you embrace solitude and heed nature’s voice now, you’re sure to avoid pricey therapy later. Otherwise, prepare to live the rest of your days among those sad civilized individuals in perpetual fear of the wild side.

Gone Fishin': But Not in the Gulf

A photo of Mishelle ShepardI told handy hubby yesterday I didn’t have any ideas for the blog post this week and I didn’t feel like coming up with one.   Being the ever-supportive man that he is, he said I shouldn’t worry about it, and just post a “Gone Fishing” sign.   And that really got me thinking about all those folks who can’t go fishin’.   Which of course got me thinking about BP: Certainly not the first to pollute our waters, and I suspect not the last.

My oh my, has the Gulf Zone had a string of really bad luck lately, or what?!   Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and now this, all of them major disasters occurring within five years– not enough time to recover from the previous disaster before the next one slaps ashore.   I wonder how many times a region can get kicked down before they can’t get back up again?  And when that happens, will everyone just keep continuing to point fingers?

We always try to push blame.  I’m not talking about BP executives here, or the various parties involved in the drilling operations, or even the local or federal governments; we should expect that anyone directly responsible there won’t take any real responsibility.   I’m talking WE, as in you and me.  WE, as individuals, are the ones that keep them all in business.  WE need them, or so we have come to believe we do.  We are the ones who have allowed our dependence on these companies to become so consequential that we consider them ALL too big to fail.  It is not new news that drilling is dangerous, ugly, and destructive work, it has been that way forever.  We have decided, and sent the very clear message, that we are willing to pay that price.  WE, you and me, are not willing to suffer the consequences of reduced oil availability or increased prices, and therefore WE are the ones responsible for this disaster and every other one past and future.  Not only are we allowing them to do it to us, we are encouraging them to, every time we make a choice on a dozen decisions big and small every day.  We are willing to let our planet suffer, our children suffer, and our natural environment and all living things in it suffer, so that we won’t have to change.

So this week I am going fishing, in a way.  I’m going to throw some ideas out and fish for some replies.  In what way would you be most willing to reduce your reliance on oil if you could?  Would you:

Buy a hybrid car?  Choose locally raised food?  Work from home?  Fly less often?  Stop using disposable plastics?  Support research for alternative energy sources?  Purchase fewer imported products?  Make your home and lifestyle as sustainable as possible?

Have you, would you, do any of these things?  What else might you consider doing to show BP, and all the rest of them, that you don’t really need them as badly as they think you do?

Historical Reenactment: How Far Can You Go?

A photo of Mishelle ShepardSome folks think what we’re doing out here is really out there, so I thought I could put things into some perspective. Extremes exist even among the extremists – the hardcore homesteaders, the survivalists, the simplicity freaks – but the bar is moving even lower these days. Restaurant chefs in big cities are buying into the trend to go low big time, some of them even planting their own kitchen gardens and requiring their menus come from within 30 miles. Now that lowering our carbon footprint is an international movement (being manipulated of course by advertisers to sell new products), I’ll bet within a few years even the craziest of the crazy won’t be considered that crazy anymore.

So I’d like to share some stories of folks who have led the pack in low, even when they might not have meant to do that. My first fascination with self-reliance was observing the Czechs and their various skills during my Peace Corps service, talk about a low carbon footprint, they hardly even produced any garbage in the home! But it was not until a few years later, when I was interviewing a young Czech man for my first novel, that I really witnessed low. His name was Petr, a buff and handsome 20-something who was into historical reenactment.

Maybe you don’t know what that is. It’s a troupe of amateur actors and history buffs who sometimes travel and work at castles recreating scenes and skills for tourists. Most of the time they do it for free, much of the time they don’t even have an audience.

Shooting a Bow

He took us to his “camp,” a few acres among lovely rolling fields and meadows where he and a dozen others practiced their various trades: pottery, metal work, old school carpentry, savory dishes cooked underground or over fire, and of course the crowd-pleasing skills of swordsmanship and archery. It was one of the most far-out things I’d ever witnessed first-hand and relatively sober. This small group of folks, who had full-time day jobs as bank clerks and secretaries, and school teachers, chose to spend their entire weekends and vacations there, way out in the sticks, doing everything exactly as it would have been done in pre-Medieval times. There were no motors or electricity or plumbing, all the structures were built by them with tools replicated from the period. It was as authentic as could ever be imagined by an American – the needle to mend their boots was carved from bone, the thread was home-spun, the boots themselves were cut from leather tanned and fashioned themselves. They bragged that one pair of boots had taken months to produce, and they had only the one pair to show for it, several others having been total failures. I have never seen such pride in achievements in my life, not before or since, nor have I been among a happier group of 20-somethings. They had no clue about carbon, these guys were doing it just for kicks!

There are also the hardcore homesteaders and survivalists I read about and DO NOT envy one little bit. The ones who refuse fridge and freezer top the list (Hello, how do you keep your vodka and paté chilled?!). There are others out there who live without electricity altogether (so how on earth do you connect to the web?!), NO thanks! I will never be one of these hard core types.

But there are other ideas out there that sound crazy that I am dying to try, like the composting toilet. I’ve been researching this one and can’t wait to share all that crap with you here (hehheh). I’m willing to try just about anything, but I know myself pretty well, the only kind of homesteader I can really aspire to becoming would be of the somewhat spoiled diva variety, except I think I might be the only one. I would love no motors, but how would the work get done? I would love handmade tools, but who the hell would make them? We will try milling our own lumber and growing and grinding our own heirloom wheat someday, but for now, it’s still baby steps. Thank heavens.