Anybody who has read the Barbara Kingsolver book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is likely familiar with the cheese making workshops of Ricki Carroll. Before the Kingsolver family took off to southern Appalachia to live only on locally produced food, Barbara took Ricki's cheese making class, at the foot of the Berkshires, in Ashfield Massachusetts. Since the publication of that book, Ricki's cheese making supply business has doubled... and shows no signs of slackening.
Now, while both Anna and I have read Kingsolver's book... and her description of cheese making was indeed the prime motivation for our taking a class on the subject... we wouldn't have taken Ricki's class if it wasn't a mere 2.5 hour drive away in a part of Massachusetts we both love visiting. There are lots of cheese making workshops out there, and many that are not nearly as expensive as Ricki's. However, since she is one of the pioneers in home cheese making, has written a book that is well reviewed, and her class was reasonably convenient... Anna and I decided it was worth it... and after taking the class and thinking over the material I think we both still feel that way.
One thing to keep in mind as I describe the class is that selling cheese making supplies is Ricki Carroll's primary business, and many aspects of the workshop reflect this. I'm not saying there is anything nefarious about this (it is a business after all), it's just that nearly everything you use during the course of the class is something you can buy from them... from the elaborate $279 cheese press to the milk thermometer to the curd cutting knife to the curd stirring spoon. It's not that they make an over the top effort to sell you stuff, but they don't necessarily mention that you can make ricotta with the juice of a couple lemons instead of a $6 package of citric acid.
The course costs $175 per person and lasts from 10 am to 5 pm with a break for lunch (provided, and quite good). There were 4 tables of 6-12 people each, so it's a relatively crowded class... so not the best choice if you are looking for more one on one instruction. The general theme is soft cheeses, but the only cheese that everyone gets hands on experience with is actually a hard one: farmhouse cheddar. The reason for this is that cheeses like ricotta, queso blanco, and mozzarella require higher heat and thus a burner of some kind... which they (wisely I think) restrict to direct supervision. It is the making of this farmhouse cheddar that forms the structure of the whole day of instruction... in that, as you wait (say) for the curds to form after adding the mesophilic culture and rennet, she'll either lecture on cheese making or demonstrate the making of another cheese with a volunteer. This back and forth is the general pattern of the workshop, but you also pause to taste various yogurts and and overnight cheeses as you learn how to make them.
Included with the workshop are an intro DVD and the recipe booklets that come with all the starter kits they sell on their website. The recipe booklets let us decide exactly what supplies we wanted to buy... as opposed to the kits that often had things (like cheesecloth) we didn't need. Obviously you could much more easily (and cheaply!) get a cheese making book to make those determinations; assuming you don't see much value in the direct instruction of the workshop. As you would expect, they have everything you need to get started available for purchase and take home that day... and I have to admit we (and probably everyone) filled a big bag with supplies on our way out. Though they did give 10% off, so it wasn't complete impulse shopping after a fun filled day of cheese making... only mostly.
One of the more informative aspects of the workshop was seeing the effects of pasteurization on cheese making process. Ricki is very much a raw milk advocate, but you don't have to be a believer in the beneficial effects of the organisms living the said raw milk to see the dramatic effects of pasteurization... especially ultra-pasteurization... on curd formation. You will have a tough time making anything more than ricotta with milk that has been pasteurized at high temperatures.... and unfortunately nearly any name brand organic milk you buy will be pasteurized like this. At minimum, what you need is milk that hasn't been pasteurized past 170 °F (HTST)... but apparently, while it's required by law to label milk that's been pasteurized up to 275 °F (UHT), there is a lot of milk that's been pasteurized 191-212 °F... i.e "ultra-pasteurized", that sucks for cheese making, but requires no special label. I think you can still make some cheeses with the latter milk, but mozzarella made from this will certainly disappoint... and without a doubt your yield (i.e. pounds of cheese per gallon of milk) will be much worse. Ricki says that Whole Foods 365 brand is generally local (and thus doesn't need the ultra-pasteurization treatment to get to the market and last on the shelf) and might be worth a shot, but she recommends simply buying raw milk from your local dairy farmer... however that's obviously not an option in every state in the Union. Thankfully, Ricki and her team have compiled a list of "good milk" as a helpful resource to finding milk in your area for cheese making.
The difference is really quite striking. For the making of farmhouse cheddar she passed out a gallon of milk to each of the four tables ranging from raw to ultra-pasteurized... and the difference in curd formation and even cheese coloration was stark. However, it was really the most obvious in the making of mozzarella, where the texture and flavor of the cheeses made with pasteurized and raw milk were quite distinct. Pasteurized milk produces a much more tender mozzarella, while the raw milk mozzarella was much more chewy and buttery... however, both were delicious, and preference would mainly be a matter of personal taste.
So that's my review/overview of the class. I've got a more pictures with detailed descriptions on Flickr if you want to better understand the pictures I've put up here. But hopefully this gives a fairly clear idea of what was involved for anybody who might be interested. As I mentioned, we have quite a bit of supplies and are anxious to get started with the cheese making thing... so in the coming weeks I'll be posting more specific thoughts/guides about individual cheeses as we work through them. You should be able to find such posts under the (fairly barren at the moment) cheese making label.