Monday, April 6, 2015

Cheese, Revisited

Coming into the home stretch--only three and a half weeks left in my challenge, and several projects left.

With the help of some really wonderful friends, I got to check another one off my list this weekend!

I am a huge fan of cheese. It's funny, because though I accepted the eating of cheese as a child (mostly mozzarella and cheddar), I wasn't terribly fond of it.
It wasn't until I met my husband that I discovered all the wonderful types of cheese out there: Brie, Havarti, Boursin, Gorgonzola, Ricotta, I love them all!

I attended a class quite a few years ago now, called "Hard Cheese is Easy", taught by my friend Lidia the Cheesemaker. Still, I was a bit daunted, especially because of the lack of a cheese press.

The challenge helped push me, and so did hanging out with my dear historical-cookery friends: Sadira, who lent her amazing kitchen since mine is a wreck right now, Nuzha, her daughter, and one of the first SCA cooks I met, Katja, whose recipe booklets from feasts have been my go-to guides for several things, including my favorite Roman cheese recipe, Elzbieta, who didn't let being quite with-child prevent her from attending and taste-testing our water for chlorine, and of course, Lidia and her dutiful husband, Rycharde.
Tibetan Breakfast Bread
There were others who had intended to come, but life got in the way, but I'm sure they would've been great if they'd been able to attend.

We got started on the late side, and probably all the wonderful conversations slowed us down, too, but it would've been much less fun without them!
Sadira made Tibetan Breakfast Bread, which is a wonderful unleavened bread which still somehow rises and is sweet and a little salty. She also made herb-butter for it, which was divine!
My favorite, the Tacuinum Sanitatis again!

I brought along a gallon of milk, 4 dozen eggs for selling (our girls are getting productive these days), the cultures and rennet I got from, and directions for three different cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, and Farmstead Cheese. All of them were listed as beginner level, and the Farmstead Cheese was specifically mentioned as a suggestion for a first hard-cheese.

Once we were all there, I realized that the Farmstead Cheese was the best choice, since the cheddaring process takes a long time, but all of the recipes wanted 2 gallons of milk, and I only had one.
Luckily, they live near a grocery store, so we ran out and got another gallon of milk.
We arrived back at the house at the same time as Lidia and Rycharde.

Lidia told us about her experience learning to make cheese from Swiss farmers (because why wouldn't you go to the source?). She explained that most of what we do as American cheese makers, is to add back to the milk all of the things industrial farming takes out of it.

The Swiss farmers milked the goats in the evening and left the milk in the dairy overnight, then added the morning's fresh, hot milk to the bucket to bring it up to temperature. The cultures we add as a powder are present on the goat's udders, so they naturally end up in the milk with no extra step. Then the milk is let set for several days to coagulate, and finally it is drained through cheesecloth to make your typical goat cheese. You would still need to add rennet to make it a hard cheese, but that is found in the stomachs of the baby animals you are culling from your herd, so it's also present and easy to come by.

However, the process of pasteurization takes a lot of the calcium and all of the cultures out of the milk, and
then we cool it down in the refrigerator, requiring all of those things to be returned before you can make cheese with store-milk. Ultra-pasteurization (high temperature pasteurization) denatures the casein in milk, which makes it impossible to make cheese with that milk. It is convenient for large-scale farmers, because it is quicker to do than regular pasteurization, and it keeps longer on the shelf, but you cannot make cheese with it.

We added calcium back into the milk by adding dry milk, which is not pasteurized (because it is dried, and therefore not growing bacteria). You can also add straight calcium chloride to the milk, but dry milk is easier to find and works just fine, you just have to add a bit more of it.

After heating the milk in a makeshift double-boiler up to "blood temperature", which you can feel with your hand, similarly to checking a child's temperature with your hand on their forehead, we added the culture.
Mesophilic cultures are used for Northern-style cheeses, because they like medium (meso) temperatures. They are naturally occurring in places with a similar climate to where we are.

Thermophilic cultures are used for Mediterranean cheeses, like Parmesan or Feta, because they like high  (thermo) temperatures. We can use them, but they work better in the summer with high temperatures and high humidity.

For this cheese, we used Mesophilic culture.
Lidia also recommended adding Lipase for flavor.

We kept the cheese at a warm temperature by putting it in a hot water bath (Sadira's large sink), and let it coagulate, periodically checking it by poking the surface lightly with a fingertip until it was clearly custardy. Then we poked it with a knife.
It was warmer near the edge, so the knife going in closer to the outside showed a clean-break (the custardy milk cut cleanly and you could see clear-greenish whey in the crack). In the middle it was still a bit mushy, so we let it sit some more.

Eventually we decided to go ahead and cut the curds. With a long, thin, stainless steel knife, we cut down through to the bottom, and made long 1" thick slices. Then we cut at a 90degree angle to make columns, then (lacking an offset spatula) we made diagonal cuts through the columns to make them into chunks.
A little bit later, we started stirring them slowly and gently with our hands, lifting the chunks up and letting them split into smaller sections. It's an amazing feeling, and hard to describe. They split in half if you just touch them gently with a finger.

The goal was to have them release a lot of whey, but not all of the whey (dry enough, but not too dry). As my cooking mentors say, cooking is an art, not a science. A lot of this is done by checking, and guessing, and knowing what it's supposed to look like. I'm pretty familiar with that from making pie-dough and jelly.

The cheese directions are great for a starter, but it's all sort of adjustable by time and heat, and seeing and feeling the consistency.

We raised the temperature a bit, and then went and had dinner, coming back to stir a bit here and there.
After dinner, it was time to mold and press the cheese.
Lidia has a cheese mold made by Honnoria, a fantastic ceramicist we both know. Honnoria had given me one, too, but mine is a standing mold, with no follower (the piece that goes on top and presses the cheese). She also brought her standing cheese-press, which was really good, since I have directions for a wall-mounted one, but haven't made it yet.

We poured the cheese through the mold, lined with hemmed loose-weave linen, over another pot, and that took out most of the whey. Both Sadira and Lidia wanted the whey (Sadira uses it for bread, Lidia was planning to try preserving lamb in whey), so they split it between them. You don't want to pour whey down the drain if you have a septic system, since whey kills e. coli, which is what breaks down your waste in the septic system.
On the plus side, if your internal septic system is feeling off, you might consider drinking whey (or yogurt, of course).

Next, we folded the linen over the cheese, and placed it in the press with the follower on top.
Then we remembered to salt the cheese! Lidia turned it into a bowl and kneaded salt in. Then we put it back in the cheese mold and prepared it for pressing again.

Lidia pointed out that you want the cheese cloth to be as un-wrinkled as possible, because wrinkles cause cracks, and cracks let in bad bacteria. She also explained that the cheese cloth one gets in the grocery store, while nice for jelly making, and in multiple layers workable for soft-cheese, is not going to work for hard cheese. The weave is too loose, and the cheese will press right out through the holes.
Cheese press with the medieval style mold

The first press was supposed to be at 10 lbs.
The cheese press has notches at 2.5, 3, 3.5, and 4. These are the multipliers of your weight. We filled a gallon bottle halfway water, and hung it from the 2.5 notch. At this point it was 9pm, and Lidia and Rycharde had a 2 hour drive back home, so we said goodbye. I stayed at Sadira's long enough to finish the first pressing, and then I put the mold in a plastic bag, wiped off the press, and put them in my car. This allowed my car to stay clean of whey, and luckily I live quite close.

When I got home, I set up for the second pressing (having flipped the cheese), at 25 lbs. I thought there was something wrong with it, because the follower was kind of loose on the cheese, so an hour later I double checked and realized that the weight was resting on the press, not hanging, as it should be. Before I went to bed, I flipped it again and pressed it at 50 lbs.

In the morning, I opened the press and looked at the cheese. It was a little crackly-looking at the edges, so I followed their suggestions and pressed it once more at 70 lbs.

After this, I turned it out onto a wooden cutting board, sliced off the end with a dent from the follower, and put it in the oven to dry out. Lidia suggested this as a way to avoid cats getting the cheese while it dries for 5 days. Cats in the cheese were even a problem in Medieval times, as evidenced by the passages Lidia read to us from The Good Housewyfe's Cookbooke. Apparently, cat-tongue-hair causes hemorrhoids, which caused us no end of hilarity.

I put a large sign over the top of the stove, reminding me that the cheese was in it, since I have a tendency to forget things are in the oven (wax, or the pizza stone) and turn on the heat. We got to have a lovely new-cheese snack from the bit off the end.

At the moment, I am flipping the cheese periodically to keep the moisture from pooling at one side, and it will stay in the oven for the rest of the week.
Then I will coat it with butter, and put it somewhere out of reach to cure. Lidia suggested taking the door off a cupboard and covering it with cheesecloth instead, to allow for air flow without bugs and other things getting in. If I ever get to renovate my kitchen, there will probably be a cheese-cupboard of that nature.

We will have a cheese-tasting party in June. Lidia is lending me her press until then, and I may be inspired to try making a Gouda-style cheese as well.
In August, we may try cheddar, too!
Thank you, ladies and gentleman!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dancing with Long Swords

Longsword dancing is a type of dancing found all over Western and Central Europe and Britain, consisting of a group of people in a ring, linked by some form of rigid metal or wooden swords. It is often called hilt-and-point sword dancing.

It originates as early as the 13th century, but was recorded most often starting in the 14th and 15th centuries in Western Europe, primarily in The Low Countries, Spain, and Germany.

It seems likely that this style of dancing was for city festival entertainment. Sword dancing seems to have originally been associated with late winter festivals, such as Shrovetide, but is now associated with any and all festivals.

Based on the evidence from the 15th and 16th centuries, it appears likely to me that it was associated with sword-makers: first with blacksmiths, then with “cutlers”, people who specialized in sword-making.

 Sword Dancing Across Europe

The oldest continuous sword team is the Überlinger Schwerttanzkompanie in Germany. While their costume is currently based on 18th century clothing, and they follow their sword dance with a 19th century-style couples-dance, the first recorded mention of it is in 1646, and the guild which founded the team was first mentioned in 1538.

Several other, potentially older, dance groups have been revived and are currently performing in other parts of Europe:

Traunstein, Germany, in Bavaria, has a sword dance first recorded in 1530, which was revived in 1926. They dance in Landsknecht garb.

Lange Wapper dance, based in Antwerp, was revived by Renaat van Craenenbroeck in 1970, who also helped revive several other Belgian and Flemish groups. Flemish sword dancing was most popular between 1515 and 1565, before the wars with Spain.

Basque sword dancers wear Basque costume and have a very large number of dancers at one time. There is also a revived version of a many-dancer sword dance in the Piedmonte region of Italy.

Galicia, Asturias, and Castile, in Spain, all have linked dances, some of which use swords, and some of which use sticks. 

There are sword dances in Central Europe, mainly in formerly German-speaking areas. Similarly to the Überlingen dance, they often follow a sword dance with couples dances.

In the Shetlands, on the island of Papa Stour, there is a very unique sword dance which uses long, slightly flexible swords. Though no one lives on Papa Stour anymore, people come back there sometimes just to perform the dance.

There are two kinds of sword dance in Northern England, one which is only loosely connected to the hilt-and-point traditions, called Rapper, and the other is Longsword.

Similarities and Differences

The main similarity between all hilt-and-point linked sword dances is just that. They are danced by a group of people, linked by the hilts and points of “swords”. The swords are not actual swords which could cut you, because otherwise holding onto the point would not be fun.

There are dances done with sticks, with flat wooden slats, with wooden swords similar to wasters, and with blunt metal swords with wooden handles. The dances all feature weaving figures where all of the dancers go over or under one of the swords without losing hold of the others. Some are more complicated than others, and some involve specific stepping, while others just march.

Many sword dances involve a lock, or a star, in which the swords are woven together at the end of the dance. In Northern Europe, this often culminates in a dancer being raised on a platform made of locked swords, and either waving a flag, or sword-fighting with another dancer raised on a second platform.

In English sword dancing, the lock is usually used to display as a star (English longsword dances involve 6 people, where the European ones often involve a dozen or more, and historical European ones involved up to 28 people in a lock, and over 100 in the dance itself), and/or to “kill” a fool figure by beheading. The beheading also features in several of the European dances. In the European version, the “dead” fool is carried off, but in the English version, they are often revived with a maiden’s kiss, allowing for audience participation.

The fool features in almost all of the dances, Longsword, Rapper, and even the related Morris Dancing done in England. Sometimes it is a Molly, a man dressed as a woman for comedic effect, sometimes it is a Medieval-style jester, or a character, such as Saint George. The fool is also sometimes accompanied by a hobby-animal (a person dressed as an animal, or a person dressed to look as if they are riding an animal).

The English Longsword Dance

 There are a few overall rules: Don’t drop your swords. Don’t bend your head/back unless you’re bending down to put your sword on the ground. If you have to duck, use your knees. Don’t stab anyone! Always move forward, never backward.


All dancers hold their sword, point up, on their right shoulder, with their right hand on the handle, and their elbows down near their waists. Start on the right foot, on the beat. Follow the leader.

The leader will lead the line into a circle, going clockwise. When the leader puts the point of their sword into the center, every other beat, the next person in line does the same, until there is a pyramid-shape in the middle. All dancers twist their swords to the beat 4 times.

Take your sword and place it over your left shoulder, right hand still on the handle, pointing the tip backwards so that the person behind you can reach it. Take tip of the sword in front of you with your left hand. Continue walking in a circle during all of this.

On the leader’s command, lift both swords over your head and drop your arms to your sides, to form an open ring with the other dancers.

Figure 1, Single Under:

The leader and the person to their right (Number 2) raise their sword between them and stop walking forwards. Continue stepping in place. 

Number 6 leads the line under the raised sword, raising their sword (the one in their right hand) up over Number 2’s head. Both 1 and 2 hold the two swords together. If you are not 1 or 2, keep moving forward, staying behind the person in front of you. Once everyone is through, both 1 and 2 rotate and drop their swords down to form the circle again.

Ideally, this should take 8 beats. On beat 1 of the next measure, Numbers 2 and 3 raise their sword, and the circle begins again. This continues until all of the dancers have been the bridge.
Circle up for 8 beats to re-set.

Figure 2, Double Over:

Again, 1 and 2 will begin the figure. This time, they put their sword as close to the ground as they can. The position should be similar to grabbing your ankles, but without actually grabbing your ankles, because you have swords in your hands. The sword between the two dancers should be sort of in front of their feet, so the whole length isn’t between them.

Again, don’t move forward, step in place.

The two dancers directly opposite them (4 and 5) put their mutual sword directly in front of them and walk forward, stepping over the sword together. 3 and 6 follow as a pair. As soon as the sword is crossed, banana-peel, bridging the sword over the other dancers (not hitting them in the head). Number 1 follows their higher sword over the lower sword (spinning over the sword on the ground), and Number 2 stands up after Number 1 is over. Form the circle again.

Again, ideally this is 8 beats, though it’s harder than single under, so it might take longer. On beat 1, Numbers 2 and 3 drop their sword, and the circle begins again.

A nice flourish here is for the pair first over the sword to spin and hit the two swords of the next pair briefly with their sword before going over them. This is only a flourish, though, not necessary, just pretty.

When everyone has put their sword down, the figure is over, circle up for 8 beats to re-set.

Figure 3, Lock, or Rose:

All dancers spin over their right shoulder (right shoulder back, staple your right foot to the floor and spin clockwise, whatever makes sense to you) swords over their heads. Don’t grip it too tight, the swords are allowed to move in your hands, just don’t drop them.

Pass your point to the dancer on your right, and take the point of the dancer to your left. Your hands should not be crossed. 

All dancers even up the swords so it looks like a 6 pointed star.

On the leader’s command, (“make”) cross them so that the lower sword is on top. If you had a proper handle, you would want the cross to be above the handle. Without one, just make sure they overlap really well.

The other dancers let go, and the leader lifts the swords to show off the star. At this point you can either walk around them, stand in a line with the star in the center (rapper-style), or have a fool come into the center, and lower the sword-star around their throat.

Either way, bring the sword star back down, and everyone takes a handle with their right hand.
On the leader’s command, everyone pulls the handle of the sword in the right hand, so that the star dissolves.

Points on the floor. On the leader’s command, raise your sword tip up and place it on your right shoulder. Follow them out.

If you left a dead fool behind you, at this point, you could either carry them off (usually done before the dancers leave), or find someone in the crowd to revive them with a kiss or a pill or something.

Your dance is done!

There are many other figures that can be added, such as Double-Under, Single-Over, Over-Your-Own-Sword (hard and requires some athleticism), Triangles, and Weaving.


 Sword Dancing in Europe: A History, Stephen D. Corrsin, 1997

“The Longsword Dance”, Rapper Online,

A number of articles, mostly based on articles published privately in the 80s by Trevor Stone in the “Rattle Up My Boys” longsword publications. This website is kept by the Newcastle Kingsmen, a rapper team in England.

Roy Dommett’s Morris Notes, Volume 4: Sword Dances. Taken by Roy Dommett over a long period of time, edited by Anthony G. Barrand, Ph.D, 1986, Boston University.

Also very helpful were the following videos, available online:

“Hilt-And-Point Sword Dances” (a review of the Watson Fellowship Year in the above blog by Jeremy Carter-Gordon)

“Zwaarddans Antwerpen 30/03/2014” (The Lange Wapper Sword Dance)

The dance at the end of this handout is taught and performed by the Pokingbrook Morris Women, Albany, NY, primarily in the winter. It is (somewhat loosely) based on the Kirkby Malzeard Sword Dance.

For a more modern take on Longsword, check out Orion Longsword.