The thought of attending a three-hour class involving a lot of stretching would normally have me running screaming for the hills. But it’s a new year, and I’ve resolved to work on overcoming my pathological fear of exercise and also to learn a few new things.
I seem to have found the perfect combination of the two with a cheesemaking class at Contentious Character winery in the hills of Wamboin just outside Bungendore, 30 minutes’ drive from Canberra.
Today our group of 11 amateur cheesemakers will be making ricotta and mozzarella, which we’ll take home once we’ve finished, as well as enjoying a wine tasting and a light lunch. The stretching that had me a little twitchy will not feature unseemly gym gear and a yoga mat. Instead, it turns out to be quite an enjoyable exercise involving freshly formed balls of mozzarella and a bit of arm movement that even I can handle without falling into a wailing heap on the ground.
Leading the class is Bridgette Cathles, who combines her day job as a schoolteacher with her love of making food from scratch through her thriving little business, Yes Cheese. Bridgette visits Contentious Character three or four times a year to conduct cheesemaking classes which are perfectly complemented by wine tastings delivered by Contentious Character’s effervescent head of brand, marketing and sales, Tony Mansfield.
Our class is being held in the winery’s atmospheric cellar, lined by wooden wine barrels and fairy lights cascading from ceiling to floor. It’s a lovely space secluded from the action in the dining room and bar upstairs, where visitors to the 20-acre vineyard drop by for wine tastings and to have lunch or dinner inside or out on the deck.
Contentious Character took over the 24-year-old winery from previous owners Ruth and Steve Lambert in 2016. They have injected their own quirky style, including events and classes such as the one we’re attending today.
Alongside limited-edition Founder’s Museum and Founder’s Reserve wines from the previous Lambert Vineyards stock, Contentious Character’s chief winemaker Jeremy Wilson is turning out contemporary New World styles. They’re names you won’t forget in a hurry. Among the five or six we will try today, Tony pours a drop of the ironically named 2020 No Riesling to Worry into our glasses. There’s also the 2017 Redhead and a Lightweight shiraz/pinot blend and a 2019 pinot grigio, 50 Shades of Grape. Today is not the day to get stuck into the Dry as a Dead Dingoes Donga 2018 riesling, which is probably for the best.
“We all have input into the names, but sometimes Jeremy does go a bit far,” says Tony, raising a 2020 rose, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, to pour into our glasses.
On each table is a wooden platter featuring four kinds of cheese (a labneh, a Havarti, a blue and camembert). Tony is adamant that the old saying about cheese needing to be paired with red wine is fake news, and the drops he’s selected for today’s pairing prove his point.
While we’re doing our wine and cheese matching, Bridgette sets us up with the gadgets and ingredients we need for the cheesemaking session.
“You don’t need fancy equipment, pH tests or that sort of thing,” she says, dropping a few small vials of liquid, milk and various pots and pans onto each table. “My friend uses a pool filter for hooping her ricotta.”
We soon find out that even the most incompetent cook is capable of making ricotta. One of the easiest cheeses to make at home, and with little more than milk and vinegar as ingredients, it’s also very economical.
We each heat a litre of milk (you can use UHT, fresh, goat or soy) to just before boiling point, then Bridgette instructs us to add the vinegar (or lemon juice), give it a quick stir and leave it to rest for the curds to form.
After 20 minutes, my classmates Ricardo and Margi (far more adept kitchen hands than I am) begin gently lifting the curd out of the saucepan and dropping it into a ricotta hoop – a small strainer that allows the whey to run off. A colander with muslin or a Chux wipe on a clean sink top will also do the trick, says Bridgette.
Twenty minutes later, the ricotta is ready to eat as it is, or to be used in the likes of cheese and spinach pastries, cannelloni or whatever else takes your fancy.
The mozzarella is slightly more involved, even though we are making a 40-minute version (it usually takes a few hours).
After a bit of backwards and forwards heating, mixing, dipping the curds back into the whey and folding them a few times, it’s time to start the stretching.
I limber up, iPhone in hand, ready to take some shots of my teammates as they do all the work (old habits die hard).
Margi and Ricardo quickly get the hang of things and are stretching with the best of them; the elasticised cheese remaining satisfyingly intact at every stage. Once coated with a bit of cheese salt and massaged a bit more, the balls of finished mozzarella are dropped into a container of cold water, destined for the fridge.
As we eat a lunch of haloumi salad (we marinated the haloumi ourselves, along with the strawberries in sugar and balsamic reduction served with mascarpone, mint and black pepper for dessert), I resolve to check the Contentious Character events calendar to line up the next big day (or evening) out.
There’s a lot to choose from. At the end of this month, local musical satirists John Shortis and Moya Simpson will present an original show focusing on the hellish year that was 2020; there’ll be classic Aussie tunes courtesy of Canberra-based acoustic covers band The Advocates (and a python called Sylvester) to support regional wildlife recovery on Australia Day; and for Valentine’s Day, weekend dinners are featuring live music and a new Summer Tasting Menu.
Even the morning yoga in the vines sounds appealing, accompanied as it is by a brunch including cheeses, homemade focaccia, pate and preserves, plus a regenerative glass of rose.
I could get used to this exercise lark.
Contentious Character is open for lunch and dinner from Thursday to Sunday. Check online for upcoming events. For more ideas to explore the Treasure Trail – Braidwood, Bungendore & Queanbeyan – see Visit Queanbeyan Palerang.