Transforming dollops of rich yogurt, colourful blossoms and wild herbs into beautiful rounds of fresh cheese is more magic than food science. The process is as old as the hills and requires nothing more than yogurt, cloth, gravity and time. According to Andrew Curry’s Archaeology: The milk revolution:
During the most recent ice age, milk was essentially a toxin to adults because — unlike children — they could not produce the lactase enzyme required to break down lactose, the main sugar in milk. But as farming started to replace hunting and gathering in the Middle East around 11,000 years ago, cattle herders learned how to reduce lactose in dairy products to tolerable levels by fermenting milk to make cheese or yogurt. Several thousand years later, a genetic mutation spread through Europe that gave people the ability to produce lactase — and drink milk — throughout their lives. That adaptation opened up a rich new source of nutrition that could have sustained communities when harvests failed.
Thank God for genetic mutations, am I right?! Apparently while we waited for that little evolutionary miracle, we made yogurt. Although herding primarily fell to men, the milking and yogurt, butter and cheese-making—the magic—fell to the women. And ever since we’ve been practising the dairy arts, we’ve had dairy goddesses to look over us. Nimhursag of Mesopotamia and her dairy temple, the ghee-producing Kamadhenu, Roserta and her butter churn/magic cauldron…the list goes on. (Roles of the Northern Goddess, Dr Hilda Ellis Davidson)
And where there’s deities, there’s religion and superstition. Should the family goat’s milk dry up or the farmer’s butter spoil, it was women who took the fall. I’m sure more than a few witches were burned over spilt milk. It seems, the pure, life-giving properties of milk have often been at odds with the dangerous sexuality of the women who kept it. Like those wanton 16th-century milkmaids, for example. With their widemouthed jugs and smooth milkmaid arms, tempting good men and threatening the honour and security of Dutch homes! Those poor fellows. Powerless in the face of such milky seduction!
Until fairly recently, women continued to man the churns and cheesecloth on family farms. Nowadays—unless you have a neighbourhood cheesemonger—we get most of our dairy from the supermarket where estrogen growth hormone is the only feminine magic that touches it. Of course, the cheese-making women still exist in other parts of the world—like Turkey’s Yörük people—but not so much in North America.
And so, this cheese-loving, North American woman, is pretty smitten with the idea of following in the footsteps (clogs?) of the many milk maids and matrons before me. With my confidence buoyed by Danielle’s yogurt cheese successes and the fact that Tree Island Goddess Yogurt (full fat, grass-fed, local and my favourite), was marked down due to an impending, over-zealously perceived expiry date—I set out to make my own magic.
Wild Herb Hung Yogurt Cheese Recipe
4 cups of full fat organic yogurt “greek style”, if you can swing it (pun intended)
1/2 cup chopped lemon balm
1/2 cup chopped sweet cicely
1/4 cup chopped cranesbill geranium leaves & blossoms
2 tablespoons chopped wild mustard leaves & whole blossoms
2 tablespoons chopped mint
ground black pepper and sea salt to taste
unbleached cheesecloth, string, sieve, small plate and heavy rock or weight
1) Harvest your wild herbs & blossoms just before noon, if possible. This way the oils have had a chance to reach the leaves, but haven’t been burned off by the afternoon sun. Rain can wash away some of the aromatic oils, so you may want to postpone harvesting for a dry day.
2) Chop up everything fairly finely. Chances are you’ll be spreading your fresh cheese, so think about what kind of texture you’d like.
3) In a bowl, mix your herbs and yogurt until fully combined. Add salt & pepper to taste.
4) Douse your cheesecloth with boiling water. With clean hands, ring the cheesecloth out, double it up and line a sieve big enough to hold all your ingredients. Make sure you leave enough excess cloth for hanging. Place the cloth-lined sieve over a clean bowl.
5) To create a bit of floral art on the top of your finished fresh cheese, drop a few herbs and blossoms into the bottom of the cheesecloth and spoon the yogurt gently into the sieve.
6) Gather up the corners of your cheesecloth, tie your bundle of yogurt up with string or elastic and find a place to hang it. I hang mine off a cupboard handle in my kitchen. Make sure you place the bowl under the yogurt to catch the whey or you’re going to be super annoyed when you next visit your cheese-to-be.
7) Leave for minimum 5 hours or overnight, if you’re after a cream cheese consistency. I personally like a firmer cheese, so after a day I transferred the hung yogurt back into the sieve and weighed it down with a plate and a rock for another day or two to strain out even more liquid. I also really like the dome shape this gives the finished cheese.
You do not have to refrigerate your yogurt during this process. You just want to find a cool place in your house, out of the sun. I made mine in April, so after a night in my kitchen, I left it out in a shady corner on my porch. If you’re more comfortable with controlling the temperature, there’s certainly no harm in keeping it in the fridge—I just don’t think it’s necessary.
8) Once you’re happy with the consistency, place a plate over the bottom of your cheese, flip it over and remove the cheesecloth.
Allow time for marvelling, photographing and social media bragging. Seriously. You will want to just spend a few moments looking it at it. The imprint & texture left behind by the cheesecloth, your artful herb and blossom art on the top, the smooth creamy texture and incredible herbal flavours… sigh. Feel free to experiment with different herbs. This version is very mild with a subtle anise lemon flavour. Adding wild onion or garlic gives it a totally different taste—zippy and bright. Try adding honey and rose for a show stopping sweet cheese. Really, the possibilities are endless.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis):
Medicinal: Carminative, diaphoretic and febrifuge. Induces a mild perspiration and makes a pleasant and cooling tea for fever
Magical :Love, Success, Healing
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata):
Medicinal: Aromatic, stomachic, carminative and expectorant. Gentle stimulant for debilitated stomachs. Valuable tonic for teen-aged girls. Roots are antiseptic.
Magical: Lifts the spirits and bring joy and happiness to ceremonies, particularly those of Beltaine and Midsummer.
Wild Mint (Mentha sativa):
Medicinal: Emetic, stimulant, and astringent qualities. Used to treat diarrhea and as an emmenagogue.
Magical: Money, Love, Luck, Healing, Exorcism, Travel, Protection
Field Mustard (Sinapis arvensis):
Medicinal: Used in Bach flower remedies – the keywords for prescribing it are ‘Black depression’, ‘Melancholia’ and ‘Gloom
Magical: Fertility, Protection, Mental Powers
Cranesbill Geranium (Geranuim maculatum):
Medicinal: Soothing to the digestive tract—helps alleviate diarrhea, inflammation in the bladder and other symptoms related to Chron’s disease. Used to treat conjunctivitis.
Magical: Counter-magic, Sympathetic Magic, Luck, Happiness, Good Fortune, Health, Fertility