Cheesemaking has been around since nomads decided it was easier to carry cheese long distances than buckets of milk. Danielle Wright heads along to a craft cheesemaking course to find out how it's done.
Fifteen of us sit huddled inside the community centre, while the noise of a busy Gillies Ave filters through the heavy rain. For five hours, time will slow down as we discover the craft of cheesemaking at a one-day course run by the "cheesemaker's cheesemaker", Katherine Mowbray.
Katherine has been hosting her self-described kindergarten of cheesemaking for 20 years in this venue, while Alcoholics Anonymous meets in the next room.
"When I started there were just four cheesaholics to each class," she explains. "But in the last few years everyone wants to know how to make cheese at home."
Increasingly, people want to know where their food comes from and what's in the food they are feeding their families.
This, as well as the appeal of being able to offer guests a table full of food from your own land, is why many people are here today.
The lifestyle block farmers are hoping their cheeses will sit next to the bottled pears and blackberry jams from their gardens at family gatherings.
We're all wondering just how simple is it to make cheese?
Well, not very simple at all, at first, but once you've mastered the science it can be a creative pursuit, says Katherine, who has been making cheeses for 30 years and has never had one batch turn out the same.
It's been said that making cheese is 75 per cent hygiene and 25 per cent routine, and, like most things in life, a nice hot sunny day helps.
Simply, the process of making cheese involves:
Setting the curd
The milk is warmed and then cultured with cheesemaking bacteria. Rennet, an enzyme from a calf's stomach, is also added to coagulate the proteins; trapping all the goodness of the liquid milk into delicate curd.
Cutting the curd
Next, you delicately slice the curd into different-sized cubes depending on what cheese you're making. Cutting the curd releases the whey, or watery part of the milk, so that the milk solids (protein, fat, sugar, minerals and vitamins) can become the desired cheese. The smaller the curd is cut, the drier the cheese.
Draining the whey
Recipes vary but at this stage you might need to gently stir the curd for half an hour. Over time, and sometimes assisted by gentle heating, the curd firms up. The firm curd is then ladled into a cloth and hung to make soft cheese, or placed in a cheese mould. Each cheese is different - a soft cheese will drain by gravity alone, but a firmer cheese requires pressing.
Salting the curd
Salt changes the curd into cheese, adds flavour, reduces the action of the bacteria and gives an indication about why cheesemaking is often referred to as a process of food alchemy.
Further draining and turning
"You're always fiddling with a cheese," says Katherine, and never more so than in this stage of the cheesemaking process.
Finishing and maturing
When the cheese is made, you can coat it with wax, which stops the cheese drying out and going mouldy, or with a food-grade EVA plastic coating.
Finally, you get to eat it all by yourself or share it with friends - they will either love or loathe your cleverness.
It's not a cheap hobby and your cheese will start off costing you a lot more than buying it in even the priciest gourmet delicatessen, but with a bit of Kiwi ingenuity you can be creative about your equipment.
Katherine has seen it all - from presses made with pebbles off the beach, a car jack or a coffee tin with a box of Speight's on top - to reduce the weight, just drink a can. However, she does not recommend these options.
If you're thinking of making cheese to sell at the farmers' market next to your home-made honey, you might want to reconsider. There are tight regulations in New Zealand about selling cheese.
Cheesemaking can be a way to slow down and be mindful but if you're a galloping gourmet relishing the end of the culinary journey, it might well be a frustrating lesson in patience. Whichever you decide, you'll come away from the day with an appreciation that somewhere, someone has worked really hard to make the cheeses you eat.
Courses: Katherine Mowbray's one-day craft cheesemaking courses are run regularly in Auckland ($140), or you can book a "mozzarella party" for 12 to 15 of your friends in your own home at $40 a head. Farro Fresh Foods also hosts Katherine from time to time.
For the more serious cheesemakers, consider the industrial cheese-making courses run by Neil Wilman, a Champions of Cheese Awards judge, at The New Zealand Cheese School, ph (07) 883 8238.
Vegetarian options: Unhappily, the calf must be killed for its rennet, so consider a vegetarian rennet, known as modulaise, which Katherine says tastes exactly the same. Mad Millie sell a vegetarian rennet.