Chef and cooking instructor Gillian Gifford displays her homemade, hard and blooming-rind cheeses. - Bob Pennell

Cheese Whizzes

The next phase in cheesemaking classes at Ashland Food Co-op will be hard, but not necessarily difficult.

"They're like the step up," says Mary Shaw, Co-op culinary educator

After overwhelming demand for instruction in making soft, fresh cheese, the Co-op will host its first two-day workshops in the art of aged, mold-ripened and hard cheeses. The store's culinary outreach program tapped the expertise of Gillian Gifford, a graduate of Seattle Culinary Academy and former intern at dairy farms in Portugal and Ashland.

"It's really part of the localism, know-your-farmer movement, too," says Shaw. "More and more people are having their own herd share."

Gifford, 27, helped Willow-Witt Ranch set up its herd share program, which provides weekly allotments of fresh, unprocessed goat milk to customers who subscribe to the service. Now Gifford teaches classes for Rogue Valley Farm to School when she's not making small batches of cheddar, Gouda, Camembert and blue cheeses.

"Really, it's more of a sensory thing," she says of cheesemaking, explaining that she finds the science a bit "overwhelming."

"There's been a lot of flops that I've made, too," she says. "A lot of the French cheeses ... they look like a lump of moldy stuff."

Molds — both the biological and geometrical kinds — will be discussed at the start of each of Gifford's workshops. No previous experience in cheesemaking is needed to participate, and students can register for just one or both weekend sessions.

The first day includes lessons in coagulating milk to produce curds, cutting, cooking and washing them, expelling whey and finally pressing curds into cheese molds. The second day will be a much shorter follow-up in the process of removing cheeses from molds, salting them and establishing a curing environment. The hard-cheese class will go over trimming, as well as waxing of a previously air-dried cheddar.

"It's like OK, people know how to can and dry things," says Shaw. "And this is like a whole other level of food preservation."

While numerous books and online sources provide entries to cheesemaking, Shaw says watching someone else is the best way to learn, particularly where hard cheese is concerned. Although Shaw made many batches of fresh cheese when she had a goat herd decades ago, her hard cheese didn't turn out so well.

"It made me realize that there's a lot to it," says Shaw. "I wish I had had a mentor to teach me."

Just as they can spend as little or as much as they want on ingredients and supplies, hobby cheesemakers can produce myriad styles of cheese by adding different strains of mold, wood or vegetable ash, herbs and spices. Gifford will demonstrate blooming-rind chevre, French Camembert and cabrales, a Spanish blue, in the first workshop. The second will feature cheddar and Gouda.

While Gifford usually makes her own cheeses from raw milk, she plans to pasteurize all the milk for the Co-op's class. Curing raw-milk cheeses for about a month typically renders them free from harmful bacteria. But novice cheesemakers should be wary, says Gifford, of cheeses that develop red-colored mold if they weren't purposely inoculated with that type and cheeses that turn black in the absence of ash.

But an ugly, strong-scented cheese isn't necessarily inedible, she says.

"There's a lot of cheeses that smell funky."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email

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