MALAYSIA (STAR 2) - The small fridge-turned-cheese-cave is full of wheels of creamy, off-white Tilsit, stripey-crusted Tomme and Morbier, veined with black. The larger storage fridge next to it brims with more wheels, wedges and chunks. And that’s how Annisa Iwan, 41, started selling her home-made cheeses locally.
“My husband said we just have too much cheese in the house!” she said. “So late last year, we set up a stall at an international school bazaar – and we sold out in half an hour.”
So the catchily-named Milky Whey cheeses was born. Annisa’s cheese-making facility is in the top storey of her house, and her production remains small and artisanal. She sells mainly at markets and to clients, who have heard of the unassuming lady making a large array of cheeses at home. “I regularly have Lancashire, Leicester, Dunlop, Caerphilly, Raclette, Morbier, Tomme, Tilsit, Gouda and Asiago,” she said. She also makes other cheeses, but less frequently.
They range in price from RM13 (S$5) to RM17 (S$6) per 100g.
“Many of my clients come over to collect the cheeses and make a bit of a party of it – they have me put together a cheeseboard for them, and then have a little tea-time gathering at my place with friends,” she said. Annisa is taking a break from cheese-making during Ramadan, but she will still be selling from her stock.
Many of them are locals or Asians – and sometimes, they’re happy to apply their love of cheese in fairly non-traditional ways. “One of my customers loves to eat her ramen topped with my cheese!” said Annisa.
Annisa’s foray into the world of cheese-making began in 2012, in her original home of Jakarta, Indonesia. “I travelled quite a lot with my family, and in France and Italy especially, you could find such delicious cheeses,” she said.
“The Italian Mozzarella especially, it just blew my mind. You could have just pizza dough topped with that Mozzarella, and it was amazing! But the Mozzarella I found at home (at the time), it was always rubbery.”
“Now, the cheese culture in Jakarta is much more advanced, there are a few artisanal cheese-makers there.”
Spurred on by a hankering for good Mozzarella, she decided to make her own. Annisa scoured the Internet and bought books on the subject, but it was when she found an online cheese-makers’ forum that her knowledge really grew in leaps and bounds.
“There are cheese-makers from around the world there, and all are very happy to share their knowledge, very helpful,” she said.
She spent a year just making the Mozzarella that started it all. “I thought at first that it would be the easiest cheese to make, but it turned out that it’s not a cheese for beginners,” she said. “Because you have to know how to get the acid balance just right – a pH that is too low will make it disintegrate, but if there’s not enough acid, it gets rubbery – and also when to pull it into balls. Let’s just say there was quite a lot of milk wasted when I started, and I had to take a step back and start making more reasonable cheeses instead.”
“I hate wasting though, so if milk doesn’t become curd or something, I use it in my cooking, or give it to the cats – we have cats coming here all the time, asking for cheese!”
Stacks of meticulously-kept notebooks recorded the exact parameters of each cheese made, from culture to process, so that she could replicate a particular result.
In 2014, Annisa’s husband was transferred to Malaysia, and the whole family settled here. “I had no friends, and no social life, so I started to make even more cheese to fill in my time!”
In Jakarta, she had sourced milk straight from the farm; in Malaysia, she found Bright Cow, which sold the raw milk she needed. “I also found a second source, a university that has its own cows,” she said. “And luckily I did, because Bright Cow doesn’t sell raw milk anymore.
“A cheese like Mozzarella needs to be made with raw milk,” said Annisa. “But for other cheeses, if I need to pasteurise the milk, I do it myself.”
When using raw milk, Annisa follows the guidelines set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as she says they are the strictest. “You have to age it for at least 60 days, and absolutely everything in the facility has to be sanitised – trust me, we go through bleach and vinegar in this house like anything!”
Constant checks are run on the milk itself, and on the health of the cows. “I get between 200 and 300 litres of milk a week from the farm on the university. It comes in on Tuesday, and I aim to finish making any cheeses with it by Thursday.”
Annisa is respectful of the appellations that govern the provenance of cheeses, so you’ll come across some unfamiliar names. “Like the Snow White, which is like a Camembert,” she said.
“Or the Moonwalker, that is actually made like a Jarlsberg – but the Jarlsberg name is protected so I had to rename it.” Originally from Norway, the mild cow’s milk cheese is also produced under licence in Ohio in the United States, and Ireland.
“I also like to add my own touch to some of the cheeses – I wrapped a bloomy rind cheese in bamboo leaves, something like how San Marcellin is made,” she said. “And I used coconut palm fronds when I made a Vacherin – it smelled a bit ketupat-y!”
“I like to give it a bit of a unique twist, and we have so many leaves here in Malaysia that can do that. I think kayu jati (teak) leaves will work nicely for a Caerphilly.”
The cheeses are like children – they are all individuals, and need tender care. Some of them need to be wiped every couple of days with a salted whey mixture, while other washed rind cheeses, like the Swiss Raclette, are wiped with a mixture of weak brine and Brevibacterium linens (a type of bacterium that helps develop a nice rind and flavour).
“The trick is just to get a good balance of mould for each cheese – just enough for proper ripening and flavour, not so much that it’s yucky,” she said.
“English cheeses like Cheddar, Lancashire and Caerphilly don’t need brining, you just need to salt them. The cheddaring process is tedious though – all that cutting and stacking and flipping every 15 minutes or so, sometimes up to two hours.”
Annisa ages all her cheeses herself – some for up to one and a half years. Humidifiers in the cave adjust humidity levels according to what each cheese needs.
In contrast, Alpine cheeses need to be babied a bit. Tomme, an Alpine-style cheese, is her favourite to make. “It has a slightly strong, unique smell, but is very nice and creamy. I also like the Tilsit, because it’s so creamy,” she said.
“I love the sweet nuttiness, and the simplicity and straightforward nature of making Alpine-style cheeses – it’s very therapeutic! Some people listen to music, others go to the spa – I make cheese, and find myself centred!” said Annisa.
“And trust me, I’m a mother of three, so I need a little quiet time sometimes!”
Making cheese has deepened her reserves of patience too – it’s not a process that can be rushed. Everything will take exactly as long as it needs to take.
“You need to be methodical when you make cheese, it’s a very structured process. But it’s so interesting to see the velvety fuzz grow on a bloomy rind cheese, to see any cheese take form, grow and age.”
Right now, Annisa is working with a local tea company to come up with a tea and cheese pairing. She has also expressed a wish to teach cheese-making to anyone who wants to learn locally. “We have so many resources here, it is easy to make natural artisan cheese in Malaysia.”