The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.
South Taranaki teens have been making an artisan product they once wrinkled their noses at – blue cheese – as part of exploring the science behind cheesemaking.
At Hāwera High School, students have been busy exploring how to turn regular silver-top milk into blue cheese with help from experts from Fonterra and Massey University.
The students began their Schoolyard Blues cheesemaking project by trying lots of different types of cheeses and learning about what gives each cheese its unique flavour.
“We got them to try a big range of blue cheeses, from Fonterra's Creamy Blue to Roquefort – where the culture comes from a specific cave in France,” says teacher Hayati Abdullah.
“I enjoyed trying the blue cheeses 'cause I’ve never done that before,” adds 14-year-old DJ. “I didn't think I would, but I actually like blue cheese.”
When asked why the teens were making blue cheese and not another type, Cathy Lang, Lead Cheese Maker for Fonterra in Eltham, explained that most of the students did not know that they lived in a region that is in fact New Zealand’s blue cheese mecca.
“Blues have been made here in Taranaki right back to the 1950s and we’ve used the same blue mould for decades,” she says. “Ironically, blue cheeses are some of the most technical cheeses out there!”
Hayati adds, “We decided to go hard out and go for the blue cheese, because we wanted a challenge! Taranaki’s a big cheese producing region and many of the students' families are likely involved in dairy farming, so this project is really relevant to them.”
Project initiator Eve Kawana-Brown, from Massey University, says that a positive ‘side effect’ of the project is that some students might want to do specialist cheesemaking as a career, which would boost Taranaki’s artisan cheese industry.
Once the students had tried all the cheeses, they started to make their own blue cheeses, guided by Cathy Lang and Alistair Carr, a Food Scientist at Massey University.
“We cleaned everything to make it sterile first and then heated a big vat of silver top milk in a hot water bath,” explains 15-year-old Liam. “Next we added the bacteria and mould to the mixture and then, once it had heated up enough, added the rennet.”
The rennet helps the milk to separate the milk into solids (curds) and liquid (whey). Large pieces of curd are cut down into small cubes before putting the mixture into a circular mould that drains the liquid as it shapes the cheese.
The students then salted the surface to harden it into a rind and pierced the inside to create paths for the mould to grow as the classic ‘veins’ seen in all blue cheeses.
While Cathy shared her cheesemaking expertise, Alistair got the students thinking about the science behind different foods and doing activities in between the cheesemaking steps, such as making nutritious smoothies from the whey.
The research part of the project was through each of the nine student groups making one ‘control’ batch of blue cheese – where they simply followed the recipe provided by Cathy – and one experimental batch.
The plan was for only one element to be changed in the experimental batch, so that the students would be able to find out how certain factors can change the flavour and other cheese characteristics.
All but one of the groups used Himalayan pink salt instead of white table salt to salt their experimental cheese, with some also varying how they pierced the cheese. One student decided to treat both their control and experimental cheeses identically with table salt to see whether variation might naturally occur anyway.
The cheeses were then left to mature for five weeks, being turned several times to ensure all the liquid had drained, and then wrapped with a special foil.
“I found it an amazing experience that was fun and interesting,” says Emily, 15. “I learnt about all the food hygiene and there was a lot of hand-washing in between steps!
"It was also great learning about the chemical reactions that happened and how to be patient while waiting for the milk to reach the right temperature – which took forever!”
Once the cheeses had fully ripened, the experimental versions were put to the test. Not by the students, however, but a panel of cheese judges who had travelled from as far as Christchurch to partake in the project’s final palate-driven event.
Most of the students found small differences between the texture and colour of their control and experimental cheeses. The individual who salted both their control and experimental cheeses with the same table salt also found some natural variation between the two final cheeses.
"There wasn’t a major difference although the pink salt would have other minerals so this can affect the flavour slightly," Cathy says. "When the students pierced their cheeses less, less oxygen was able to reach the body of the cheese, so less blue mould grew - because the blue mould grows mostly where there is available oxygen.
"If you did not pierce the cheese at all, or the texture of the cheese was too high in moisture, the blue mould would move to the outside of the cheese and still form a nice blue rind but it would not be blue inside the cheese."
After the taste test, the judges declared teammates Maddison and William as the winners, giving them both an at-home cheesemaking kit. Classmates DJ and Shontel also received a prize for earning the most team points for their efforts throughout the project.
“It's been great seeing how we can physically do science and not just talk about it,” Shontel says. “I really like doing the method behind the science - the experimenting and trying things out to see what works.”
Photo credits: Cathy Lang (close-up of cheese), Josh Richardson (cheesemaking class).
Schoolyard Blues is run by Massey University, Fonterra and Hāwera High School, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform.