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A Face Like Glass

Say Cheese…

Research is a very important part of preparing for any book. If you know what you're talking about, then you can describe things in a way that seems more real. However, it's also a good excuse for running off to try new things.

Neverfell, the heroine of A Face Like Glass, is brought up as a cheesemaker's apprentice, and at the start of the book has spent years locked away in her master's cheese tunnels, never permitted to set foot outside. Even though the cheeses in the book would be much weirder than anything you could find in the real world, I thought I should try to learn something about making cheese.

So I attended a one day cheese-making course at the Yarner Trust (based in a 600 year-old farmhouse near the sea). We made a hard cheese, a mozzarella and a soft cheese with herbs, using milk that was still warm when it arrived because it had been taken from local cows that morning.

The milk had to be just the right temperature, then we added a few drops of a 'starter culture'. (This is basically bacteria, but don't let that put you off!) Then we added rennet, which causes curds to form in the milk. These are glossy and pale, and when you poke your finger into them they feel like crème caramel or really soft blancmange. Our next job was to reach into the vat with knives and cut the slippery curds into chunks, so that they started leaking whey (a watery, greenish-yellowy liquid).

For the hard cheese, we warmed the curds and whey again, and the curd-chunks shrivelled into small, pale, rubbery blobs like overcooked egg, floating in the whey. We scooped out all the curds from the whey using sieves. After that, we forced the curds into round moulds and put weighted lids on top to squeeze the remaining whey out of them. Even when we took them out of the moulds they weren't ready to eat, though – we had to take them home and let them ripen for weeks.

For the soft cheese we let the curds stay soft, mixed them with herbs, and hung them up in pillow cases to drain.

The most fun part was stretching the mozzarella. We had to reach into this big vat of hot whey, drag out lumps of the cheese and then pull them about in our hands so the cheese would have the right texture. It was like playing with hot, stretchy play dough - we could twist it into braids or smooth it into balls.

Cheesy questions

Everybody else there asked sensible questions about temperatures and quantities of milk. My questions were far crazier, but the lady running the course was very patient, and managed to answer most of them.

Q: What is the biggest cheese anybody has ever made made?
A: There have been giant cheeses six feet across, and weighing as much as four people.

Q: Which of your cheeses has gone most disastrously wrong?
A: One of them had a colony of flies hatch out of it.

Q: Is it true that ripening cheeses occasionally explode if there is a build-up of gas inside them?
A: Well, they don't actually go 'bang!' but the gas can blow a hole in the side of the cheese.

Q: Is the flavour of the cheese changed by the food the cows have eaten?
A: Yes. Grass milk makes for better cheese than hay milk. If the cows have been munching wild garlic in the fields, sometimes the milk and cheese have a garlicky smell.

Q: Did the Romans really make cheese out of rabbit milk?
A: (The lady couldn't answer this one, which isn't surprising, but other people say that rabbit cheese is at least possible.)

Four Odd Cheeses

  • Rope Cheese! It's called chechil and it's made in Armenia, out of dozens of strands of plaited cheese. Sadly the 'ropes' are rather short, so we won't be climbing down from windows on cheese-ropes any time soon.
  • Chhurpi (yes, it really is spelt like that). The hard version of this is best described as Himalayan chewing gum cheese. Imagine chewing on a chunk of hard cheese for hours…
  • Camel cheese. Yes, it does exist. Apparently there are even plans to make camel's milk chocolate.
  • If you think camel cheese sounds scary, that's nothing compared to Casu Marzu. This Sardinian sheep's milk cheese is deliberately left outside to rot so that a certain kind of of fly will lay eggs in it. Thousands of maggots hatch and start chomping on the cheese, which apparently gives it a special flavour and texture. Did I mention that these were special leaping maggots that can jump half a foot when they're nervous? Hmm… I might give that cheese a miss.