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Maureen Blais-Gestrich in Sarasota, Florida

Maureen Blais-Gestrich in Sarasota, Florida

Maureen with Butterkase, Dunlop and Red Leicester on the press, Mountain Tomme on the platter and Pyrenees on the bamboo mat.

Maureen has made 49 different kinds of cheese so far and she’s a relative beginner.  We’ll call her a “Quick-Start Master of Cheese Making.”

She learned it all while working full time, gardening and making fabulous furniture.  In other words, she’s just another home cheesemaker, doing impossible things in relative obscurity.

We know just how amazing she is and we’re honored that she took the time to do this interview.

Maureen’s Story

I am a physician assistant by profession, but I have many hobbies. I started making cheese about 2 years ago, just about when the pandemic hit.

I was already making yogurt because I felt bad about throwing all that plastic from the single cups in the landfill.

Making yogurt

I started making cheese because I was trying to find a decent paneer to make some Indian Paneer Masala. The only stuff I could find was ridiculously expensive and tasted like rubber.

I am a fan of Pinterest, so I looked online and found a recipe for paneer. Thirty minutes later – Voila! I had delicious paneer. I couldn’t believe how easy it was!

I love tasting all different kinds of cheese, so again I went to Pinterest and found a New England Cheesemaking recipe for farmer’s cheese. Three hours later – Voila! Delicious, fresh farmer’s cheese.

It’s like magic, turning milk into cheese. I felt like Rumpelstiltskin! Not only that, but the cheese keeps for months.

From then on, I was hooked. I think I read just about every recipe on the NE Cheesemaking website (cheesemaking.com) and decided to try some aged cheeses.

Mont d’Or wrapped in spruce cambium strips

This required a cheese cave and molds. I bought a used, small wine cooler and hooked up an Inkbird controller to get the right temperature.

Now, I have a freezer full of cultures and molds and 3 “cheese caves” with about 20 pounds of cheese aging. (I had a max of about 35 pounds just before Christmas.)

Piora is a hard, Swiss cheese from the Piora Valley of Switzerland. It is traditionally made from mixing 2 days of milkings.

I went a little crazy buying molds of the plastic kind and of the microbial kind as well.  Thus far, I have made about 40 different types of cheeses!

Making Mozzarella

I have made Sao Jorge, Montasio, St. Nectaire, Pyrennes, Mountain Tomme, Romano, Asiago, Piora, Reblochon, Bel Paese, Brick, Brie, Butterkase, Caciotta, Caerphilly, Camembert, Cheshire, Canastrato, Cream Cheese, Danbo, Colby, Cotswold, Dry Jack, Dunlop, Edam, Esrom, Formaggio Val Campella, Fontina, Gouda, Gruyere, Halloumi, Ibores, Italian Basket Cheese, Jarlsberg, Lancashire, Leerdammer, Manchego, Mont d’Or, Port Salute, Piora, Raclette, Robiola, Queso Fresco, Mozzarella, Red Leicester, Tallegio, Tilsit, Triple Cream. . . .and a partridge in a pear tree. And of course ricotta from all that whey.

Phew! I make a cheese almost every week.

My favorite cheese to make is probably Esrom. There is something about coaxing that lovely orange rind into being that I find satisfying.  And it’s absolutely delicious, too!

Esrom.  The lighting does not do the light orange rind justice.

I tend my “cheese babies” every night. I have a variety of washed rind, natural rind and waxed cheeses.

Manchego, straight out of the press.  Looks like a fancy wedding cake.

My one attempt at a cloth-bound Red Leicester was a disaster. Chickens would have been handy for that 4 pounder.

Cloth-bound Red Leicester.  Condensation dripped through the cloth and ruined the cheese.

The most popular one I make is Butterkase. Everyone loves the creamy, buttery flavor and soft texture.

I find everyone wants cheese as gifts and my friends like requesting which cheese they want. It’s only my husband and I at home, so my friends and my co-workers eat the bulk of the cheese.

People can’t believe anyone actually MAKES cheese (apparently, it’s something that only magically appears in the grocery store).

I was a chef in my younger years, so making cheese is a natural extension of that. I have even taught a few friends how to make simple cheeses. It’s gratifying to pass along the knowledge and I love to teach.

Last fall, I took a vacation to Shelburne Falls, MA to visit family and to take a cheese making class with Jim Wallace. It was really great to meet “The Guru,” and it was fun meeting other amateur cheesers.

I brought some of my less successful attempts at cheese making and learned a lot about what went wrong. I think this is as important as what goes right.

I am also a woodworker, so I made 2 cheese presses – one for anything under 50 pounds using a spring and one for over 50 pounds using dumbbells.

One of my other hobbies is making furniture. I love all things Shaker style. I have been to several of the Shaker Village Museums in New England and have plans to stay at the Shaker Village in Kentucky when the Covid situation is better.

I designed and built my desk.  This desk is 30 years old. I’d say it has held up pretty well.

I recently finished a pair of nightstands.

And I made a display case for my husband’s watches as a birthday gift (it only took me about 5 years to get it together).

What’s neat about this piece is that you can change the display just by switching the drawers.

It is gratifying to build something useful out of planks of wood. When I am working at the saw, I get “into the zone.” I lose all track of time. It’s a kind of meditation, just like when I am making cheese.

Of course, it requires rapt attention, lest I lose a finger or two. Luckily, I only broke a finger once when I had a board kick back at me. That hurt…..alot. The good news is from that little error, I got a new table saw with more safety features for Christmas.

I also enjoy gardening. We live in Florida, so our planting season starts in September and runs until May. I’ve still got some beans, carrots and summer squash left, but the growing season is getting too hot.

Lettuce, beans, broccoli, zucchini and under the shade cloth–carrots.

We have definitely noticed the climate change here. We are getting hotter and drier summers and all kinds of crazy hurricanes.

We made it through Hurricane Irma a few years back. We were lucky to have only 2 trees down (which, thankfully missed the house), but we still had power! Thank God for air conditioning!

River of stone. One of the projects revamping my front garden. Made of marble, river rock and blue glass pieces on the marble with succulents at the edges.

Lantern project. I call this my Feng Shui gate. The red near your front door is supposed to attract prosperity. The Chinese lettering translates to Love, Buddha and Light. It looks spectacular when lit up at dusk

We have planted butterfly habitat in our back yard and that is another of my interests. Can’t really call it a hobby, since I don’t make the butterflies. I just provide the habitat for them to do their thing. I encourage everyone to plant vegetation to attract butterflies and other pollinators.

The arbor I built. On it is a passion vine which attracts Gulf Coast Fritillaries.

It is incredibly cool to watch the caterpillars make a chrysalis and then watch them turn into a beautiful butterfly. Occasionally, I have even gotten to watch them emerge.

Black Swallowtail caterpillars. They LOVE parsley.

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars. They eat the giant flowers of the Dutchman’s pipevine, shown below.

The flower of Dutchman’s pipevine. They are as big as saucers and last only 1-2 days.

Black Swallowtail just after emerging from it’s cocoon. They hang upside down for hours until the fluid in the wings is distributed so they can fly. They are vulnerable to predators during this stage.

Long winged Zebras mating. They also love the Passion flower on the arbor.

My hobbies sort of converge – woodworking to make presses, and growing/making some of our food.  Hopefully, in the next few years, we will retire to the North Carolina mountains and leave the tourists and hurricanes behind.

I would love to have a little woodworking shop out back and a dedicated cheese making area and a cave in the basement (there are no basements in FL) at our retirement home.

I am eternally grateful to NE Cheesemaking for the recipes and supplies and to Jim for all the knowledge he so freely shares.  Also, many thanks to the Cheese Queen, Ricki Carroll who started NE Cheesemaking and helped so many discover this wonderful hobby.

My advice to beginners:  Be curious. Don’t be afraid of failure. There is always a lesson to be had.

Share whatever knowledge you have.  Here’s some:

My sous vide set up. LOVE this thing. It makes regulating and gradually raising temp soooo easy. Highly recommended for cheesers.

I encourage anyone who is a bit timid about making cheese, to just jump right in.

Happy Cheesing!

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