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Plastic Free Cookery: Nice bit o’ cheese (and crackers)

Despite my devotion to Sunday Baking, I actually far prefer savoury options, and especially cheese. The cheese is even better when it comes atop a cracker, but both are regular sources of plastic in my rubbish bin, and that’s something I would like to change.

Cheese came to New Zealand with the European settlers, who had strong cheese cultures at home. Cheese is an excellent way to preserve milk, and is portable, long-lasting, a source of protein, fat and calcium. Predating human history, cheese’s origins are a bit of a mystery (like many things food), but a study of trace fatty residues on Croatian pottery that may indicate that they were used to strain curds from whey, or to store fermented milk (source: academic & approachable). There’s arguments about the study, but as similar findings dating back to Neolithic times illustrate: cheese has been around a long, long time.

Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles

As Europeans migrated to New Zealand they brought their cheese with them: This advert from 1840 advertises a rage of imported goods, including vinegar, mustard, pickles and cheese.

An early advert for a shipment of food, including cheese. New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 18 April 1840

A cursory search for New Zealand cheese history brings up claiming that brie and camembert have been made in New Zealand experimentally since 1911, and with successful commercial production from the 70s. And apparently New Zealand’s first blue cheese was made in Taranaki in 1951, but this is not backed up in the post so I take it with a pinch of salt.

I’ve made cheese once before, in a blue cheese making class under the watchful eye of an expert. Thanks to the post-lockdown hangover, there were no classes running nearby, so I pulled out my copy of Curd & Crust by Tamara Newing and decided to have a go myself. I won’t supply a cheese recipe here as I am not an expert in cheese making, but hey, did I have fun!

The cheese is aging in our fermentation fridge – usually reserved for beer – and sadly isn’t quite ready for eating, after the steriliser I used on my hands inhibited the mould growth on the edges as I turned the cheese. I also salted it too much (left it too long in the brine), so it’s saltier than camembert or brie you’d fins in the shops, and also firmer. Therefore, I would like to announce that I have made fetambert – a salty cheese with a white mould. You read it here first, folks.

A gratuitous mould shot. Look at that fluff!

I also had a try at crackers, making some under the sweet name Crickle Crackle” from The Victoria League of Auckland’s 5th edition of Tried Recipes. These were simple, plain crackers with an easy-to-handle dough. Rather than roll them into disks as suggested, I rolled larger portions of the dough out and cut into haphazard squares with a ravioli cutter.

I’m yet to try making them with cheese in the mix, but they wold be yummy with cheese added, or some minced garlic and sprinkled with salt. I lost count of how many I made, but there were over 50 of them, which sat happily for the two weeks they lasted in an air-tight container and some recycled silica sachets to help prevent them from going stale.

And so here we are: at the end of Plastic Free July. I didn’t get through perfectly, but it’s freshened my awareness of the pervsiveness of plastic, and how satisfying and tasty it is to make your favourite foods from scratch. Chips are now a treat, pasta isn’t intimidating but relaxing, and I’m planning on making more cheese this weekend. Challenges like this are good: they remind you that even in this age of convenience it is possible to make do and mend, and that you actually can make what’s now industrialised. And that has to be a very good thing.

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