Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making Cheese in Belize

Kathleen and Andrzej are living their dream in Central America
Kathleen (at left) and her husband, Andrzej with Colette (a fan of their cheese).
Their home when it was almost completed in 2007.
We first heard from Kathleen when she made a comment at our post about Ashley in Zambia:

We're making cheese in Belize!  We've had many of the same problems, (tropical climate) and have overcome many of them using similar methods.  We're pasteurizing the milk, got a cream separator (sent all the way from the Ukraine!), made our own cheese press - and it's now in action.  We've successfully begged visitors to bring us wax, cultures, books, cheesecloth, etc.  (Note:  We do ship to Belize, but Kathleen discusses the postal system further on.)
Separating milk - cream on the left, skimmed milk on right.
2 quarts of cream from 10 gallons of milk.
How did you end up living in Belize?

I (Kathleen) first visited Belize in 2004, and fell in love with the beauty of this country, the only English-speaking nation in Central America.  We moved here a few months later to make a new life after retirement, when the kids went off to college.

We wanted to do the sustainable life, sort of a back-to-nature deal.  We're raising pigs, goats, sheep, geese, guinea fowl, Muscovy and Rouen ducks, rabbits, and chickens, a little of everything.  We have a small six-acre farm (Darwin Farm) in a rural area, near ancient Maya ruins .

(Note:  Kathleen has had MS since she was 30.  Thankfully, she is now in remission but after 24 years of residual deficits, she is pretty much totally disabled.  Andrzej emigrated to the US from Poland just before the Martial Law crackdown in 1981.)
This picture was taken 7/7/2007.
Photo by Maya Papovic / Conch Creative
Leeloo, Puck and Zaggy
Alia with her twin kids- Tekka Maki and Kappa Maki
Ann with her newborn lambs-Clarice and Starling
The 3 Xs barn, under construction in 2006.
How did you start making cheese?

In Belize, a few cheeses were imported from the US, but they're very expensive and there is only one dairy in the country.

Caught between the high cost of imported cheese, and the limited varieties of local cheese, my husband figured he could do better than that, and decided to make hard cheeses.  (My husband is the cheesemaker.  I'm just the cheerleader and photographer.)

We started small, saving up milk from our two goats, making soft cheese and yogurt.  These are not dairy goats, and only give about a quart per milking, so it takes a while to collect enough for a batch of cheese.
First chevre made from goat milk.  Holes are drilled in plastic cups for drainage of whey.
A visiting friend brought us a kit from The New England Cheesemaking Supply (our Complete Home Cheese Making Set) Opening the package was very exciting!

But then, supplies in the kit started to run out and the cheesecloth disintegrated due to mold.

Around that time, the economy fell apart, and nobody had money to visit us (and bring more cheese-making supplies), so we were thrilled to find that Western Dairies at Spanish Lookout would sell us Guatemalan rennet tablets, and mesophillic culture.  (A long trip on unpaved roads, and a river-crossing via hand-cranked ferry.)
The hand-cranked ferry they take when they make the trip to Spanish Lookout for supplies.
The reason we have people bring things to us when they visit is packages tend to 'disappear' in the postal system, (similar to what Ashley deals with in Zambia).  There's no such thing as UPS here, and the postal system is ... shall we say, interesting?  (Note: Below are a few pictures of typical post offices in Belize.  They were chosen randomly (by Jeri) from Kathleen's picture album.):
Gales Point post office
Bermudian Landing post office
Then came the Great Cheese Embargo in Belize in 2009.  The embargo was a temporary government measure to allow the local dairy to sell off its surplus cheese, which took a while partly because people were smuggling cheese in across the border from Chetumal, Mexico, and Melchor, Guatemala.

Happily, we found a nearby cattle rancher who would deliver raw cow's milk weekly, and after that, things began looking up. The embargo is over now, but we're pleased with our own cheese.
Anton holding payment of $50 Bz. ($25 US), for 10 gallons of milk.

How did the cheese making go?

I found a blog-entry from my husband around that time, on his first try at making Wensleydale goat cheese (July 2009):

I started making this cheese mostly because the recipe didn't call for any kind of dairy starter so it's not like it was a choice either... The recipe comes from McKinzie's "Goat Husbandry."
The original recipe calls for 2 gallons of milk but I use 4 US gallons because then I get just enough curd to fit in my mold with a heap which gets pressed - so as a result I get a nice round almost as high as the mold itself. But any amount is okay - you just have to calculate the right amount of rennet for hard cheese and salt.
I'm using Guatemalan rennet tablets which contain Mucur Pusillus y/o Mucur Miehei, Pepsina, Cloruro de Sodio, Celulosa Microcristalina y exipientes c.s.p. (whatever that might mean in Spanish...) The label on the phial says 1 tablet for 50 liters, but I found that half a tablet works just as well for 4 gallons = 15 liters and it's easier to divide the tablet in 2 than into three. 

But it was a hassle to get the tablets to dissolve, so we're now using liquid rennet which the (above mentioned only dairy in Belize) is kind enough to sell us. The culture packages we buy are industrial size, which practically guarantees our commitment to cheesemaking. 

The Thermo pkg (MA-ll) is 125 dcu and the Meso (TZ-60) is 250.  They come from Danisco in Canada.  We keep them in the freezer, and have a UPS battery back-up, as well as a generator, to protect our stuff from the frequent power failures.

The liquid rennet cost to us is $1.50 an ounce, US, and the meso/thermo packs are around $40 US, enough for many happy months of cheese-making.
First Wensleydale goat cheese
Here's another of my husband's cheese-log entries: November, 2009, so you can see the challenges he faced:

I'm using a plastic gallon bottle filled with water, set on top of a plate sitting on the curd wrapped in cheesecloth (I actually use diaper material) and I give it 5 minutes initially and then turn it inside out after 5 more minutes. I noticed that the curd sticks together much better if I don't squeeze the whey out of it too hard. 

I don't know what pressure I use after that in the press but I just turn four nuts compressing the mold via boards connected with 4 threaded rods, finger tight. The pressure increases, I suppose, (the mold cracked and broke - DUH!) as the curd expands a bit due to gas developing in the curd while its being pressed in ambient temp, which at this point hovers around 75-80 deg F, and 98% humidity.
Jerry-rigged press with leather belt and spatula.
Regarding their press:

Andrzej adapted the design from a standard Dutch lever press.  He used 1x6 for the back spine (with grooves routed into it), and 1x4 hardwood for the rest.  Ten dollars worth of wood, five dollars worth of screws, nuts, and bolts, plus glue... (3/8" bolts to attach the base to the backbone) to add rigidity.  He added two more 1x4 boards for stability.
Under construction from Rosewood and Cabbagebark hardwoods.
Their new press in action.
Regarding their molds:

Finding high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe is difficult in Belize.  It took many months of searching to find pipe of the right size.  He finally got a length from some builders who were putting in a new culvert in our village.  It's an 18 inch diameter piece that was left over, and my husband eagerly snapped it up.

Husband's notes from March 2011:

I finally was able to make an 8" mold. It's actually a little smaller than 8" inside and 7" tall. Making it involved drilling 3/32" holes every 1/2" which came to 715 holes. After drilling, the holes needed to be deburred by hand both inside and out (715 X 2=1430). Oy... I taped some cushioning to the tool I used for deburring because when I made my last 6" mold with less than a 1/3 of the holes, I got blisters on my hand from pushing the metal against the holes and twisting it.
715 hand drilled holes.
Turbo Air single-door glass-front
merchandising cooler
Our cheese set-up was greatly enhanced by the recent acquisition of an old-style glass-front soda fridge.  My husband was able to fiddle with the temperature controls, so we finally have a safe place to age our hard cheese in this hot and humid climate.

We sure hope Ashley is able to get one like it, as that was the key to having our cheese come out well.

Every time I pass the fridge on the porch, I look at the beautiful waxed wheels of Jack, Cheddar, Gouda, Wensleydale and Colby, and I smile. The cheese still comes out different every time (quality control is difficult in such a variable climate), but it almost always tastes good!

My husband said it was easy to fiddle with the fridge (he's handy like that) he simply adjusted a little screw on the thermostat (being old it has no digital controls, that's why he chose that fridge) on a dial, and lowered the temperature to 50 degrees.

In order to get to that little screw, he had to pull the thermostat and fan cover, (an angled metal plate on top of the fridge, inside, in the back).  There's an opening for repair access.

It's not like a household fridge, where the controls are hidden, this is a commercial soda fridge, so the control cover was just a piece of sheet metal. We paid $250 US for a Turbo Air (an ancient version of the one in the picture above).

We also got a pH tester, so my husband could attempt to duplicate his best results.

That's why record-keeping is so important, as well as labeling and dating the cheeses.

"Honey, what's THIS one?" 
"I dunno, but it sure tastes nice!" 
"Yeah, sorta like Jack climbed onto an Edam!"
Gouda in brine.
Gouda drying.
Dipping in wax.
2 coats of wax and ready to age.
Have you thought about selling your cheese?

Actually, we sold two 6 lb wheels (Jack and Cheddar) to a butcher shop in San Pedro back in January.  We had to drive halfway across the country to the nearest airport, where a little Cessna plane took the package out to the island.

Alas, the store went belly-up before they paid. (That was discouraging, to say the least!)

We've had a few other inquiries after that from restaurants in Belize, but no nibbles after we say all shipments are COD.

That's why we're going to try direct sales at the busy market, using an ice chest, and a sample tray for taste-testing. We already have a market canopy, and a sign, 'cause about once a month we sell baby chicks, laying hens, and sometimes a goose or a turkey.

Belizeans are remarkably conservative, and shy away from new things, but everyone who's actually TASTED my husband's artisan cheese RAVES about the flavor.  So, we have middling-to-high hopes.

Scenes from Belize

Beginning with one of Kathleen Johnson's e-mails to me during the course of our interview:
(I think she should be a writer)

Warm regards from the tropical jungle, where the howler monkeys are makin' a lot of noise this morning, Red Lored parrots are chattering in the Sapodilla trees, vibrant Blue Morpho butterflies are fluttering by, and lovely little Ruddy Ground doves are cleaning up all the tiny bits of feed corn the chickens missed... the morning is full of birdsong, and the sun's peeking out after torrential rains, hooray!
Sunrise looking out from their home.
Bringing in the Rotoplas for rainwater collection, 2006
Their village of San Jose Succotz, near the Guatemalan border.  The painting is of Xunantunich, the ancient Mayan ruins behind the village.
Xanantunich (More info at:
The Discovery Channel came to film the ruins.  The soldier is there to guard their valuable camera equipment.
Their village is 6 streets wide.  In the background is the school and the neighbor's houses.
Sometimes in the rainy season, the village floods (as it did here in October, 2008).
Succotz underwater.
Their backyard after Hurricane Richard (October 2010).  Their Muscovy ducks were loving the water.
Funny sign.
A Wishwillie (aka: black iguana)


MavericksHMB said...

I'm thrilled to find my friends featured here on your blog. Their cheeses have been a labor of love, as have the many animals they raise, and the fruits & vegetables they grow. Living in the Continental U.S., I haven't had the opportunity to actually TASTE any of their cheeses, but knowing the love and care they put into making it, I can almost guarantee they're yummy! (And you're observation about Kathleen being a writer is right on! Most of what she writes is not only informative, but humorous and interesting!)

Patrick said...

Great post! Thanks for all the tips. I am in Sri Lanka, tropical climate with very little cheese selection. I brought a cheese making kit from the US, but have been having problems. The humidity even in the fridge is 100% Everything has condensation on it. **I was wondering where they were able to dry out the cheese?** It takes a long time here (90deg 95%humidity). So mold and bugs become a problem. I have also thought about getting a beverage cooler fridge for the cheese cave. Though I'm guessing a lot of my problems are from not waxing the cheese. Didn't bring that and didn't find any in Thailand. Can you use any food wax? Thanks so much for any help I can get!

Jeri said...

Good news - we do ship to Thailand. So, you can order wax. Regarding some of your other issues, please send any questions you have to Jim Wallace - He is our technical advisor and he will be happy to help you.
Happy Cheesemaking!