KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 17 — We know people who will drive many kilometres just to eat something but would you pretend to be someone else... just to score some cheese?
When Annisa Iwan, 42, set up a booth to introduce Milky Whey Cheese in Bangsar, someone misled them to take away another person’s reserved portion of her coveted Brie cheese!
Maybe, it was an honest mistake, but we reckon that’s how crazy people are for her cheese.
The cheese geek in Annisa developed when she was just a young girl living in Sukabumi, West Java. Every year, her relatives from The Netherlands would visit her family to escape the dreary, cold winters, and bring with them cheese, pâté and chocolates.
“All those three things, I cannot live without till now,” she said. She recalls that her first cheese was probably either a Gouda or Edam.
“They knew I had the taste for it so they kept bringing weird stuff. I am very thankful to them,” she added.
Interestingly, her palate was sophisticated enough for smelly, creamy cheese but she couldn’t stand the smell of petai (stink beans) or jering, which are common Javanese ingredients.
About seven years ago, back in Indonesia, she started to make cheese, hoping to recreate that same mozzarella taste she had sampled in Italy. “Their mozzarella is very nice and juicy. It’s not hard and plasticky,” she reminisced.
Hankering for a simple Caprese salad, she was frustrated when the mozzarella she bought for the salad was rubbery.
Another time, she bought fresh mozzarella from the supermarket, opened the packet and discovered that the cheese had dissolved already in its packet!
Fed-up with the situation, she turned to making her own, learning through trial and error. She added, “In the beginning it was just through research. I bought books and Googled.” Initially, she started with just four litres of milk in a batch but there was a lot of failure.
Rather than wait for three days to make mozzarella which is the traditional way, she opted for the quick, fast way without acidifying the milk. Unfortunately, that mozzarella taste from Italy still eluded her.
When Annisa met a cheesemaker in France, she found out that mozzarella is not a beginner’s cheese. Instead, he recommended she start making English style cheeses since it uses a dry salt method and it’s much easier.
Things started to change when she got in touch with experienced cheesemakers who shared with her their tried and tested recipes, and even gave her many tips to perfect her cheese.
“The cheesemakers’ community is very close-knit and they are very helpful with each other,” she said. However, work was still needed to tweak the recipes, adjusting to our environment.
She adds, “You cannot make exactly the recipe the French guy gave me for a French cheese because their weather is so much different.”
When her husband’s job brought her to Malaysia, she moved her hobby here. Most times, she would make cheese only for her family’s consumption.
Her husband’s favourites are haloumi and mozzarella — cheeses that are relatively mild with not much smell since he cannot stand the stinkier cheeses.
Even her three-year-old son loves cheese; he can eat the Italian cheese Caciocavallo like an apple!
It was only last year, when the amount of cheese she made was just too many, that she started to sell them at a food fair. As word spread about her superb cheeses, many individuals and even restaurant owners approached her.
Occasionally she still brings her cheeses out to bazaars. With the demand, she has set up a cheese tasting room in her home, where one can visit by appointment to taste and buy the cheese, in quantities as small as 100 grams.
“I think the satisfaction is, the face that goes ohhhh, it really tastes good, as they were ready to taste something yucky today,” she said about her customers’ reactions.
At any one time, depending on when they ripen, she offers around 22 types of cheeses which include rarely-seen varieties here such as Mutschli, Cotswold, Derby and Dunlop, a Scottish cheddar.
“I don’t try to compete with the supermarkets so I make different cheeses that are not available.”
She also avoids making cheddar cheese, as the process is too tiresome. Moreover, there are already a lot of cheddar in the market.
As some cheeses are AOC designated, she is respectful of not using their names and will rename them say Melaka or even Turquoise Blue.
She also makes three types of blue cheese which many are acquiring a big appetite for... so much so that they are always sold out!
The mildest is Blue Sapphire, a cheese done in the style of Bleu d’Auvergne. It is also good for beginners who want to start eating that type of cheese. “I cater for the locals who want to branch out to the blue cheese. I try to enrol them into the blue side, not the dark side, “ she said with a laugh.
Her next level blue cheese is her Amber Blue done in a Fourme d’Ambert style. This is followed by her bestseller, her creamy, sweet tasting Turquoise Blue, done in the style of an Italian Gorgonzola Dolce.
“It’s the strongest we make, as I’m not very into blue cheese. I only make what I eat. I think that is ideal so if nobody buys it, I can have it.”
As the culture to make the blue cheese tends to be quite strong, she even bought air filters to prevent the mould from spreading to other places in her house. “The blue cheese, I enjoy making it but I have to be very careful. We have separate chillers as they are really rascals.”
With the availability of local ingredients, Annisa has also been experimenting. They have wrapped cheese with palm leaves and added dried cili padi into the cheese.
Sometimes, the taste and smell may not turn out to be what she expects. For instance, when pandan is used to make cheese, it smells like skunk!
She is now working on ingredients such as daun salam and even our eponymous blue pea flower for the cheese rind. One of her cheeses, the Melaka is a cross between a Gouda and a British-style cheese — a happy accidental discovery when she used the wrong culture.
Some restaurants have even asked her to design cheeses for them. She does offer that service only if it’s a bulk order. She tells us that you can design any cheese, using a different culture, different method and different temperature.
For Annisa, making cheese is the perfect hobby for her. A self-confessed germophobe, she’s incredibly particular about keeping things clean... a must when making cheese.
She adds, “I am in my natural environment. I am hanging out with germs but the good guys.” She tells us that she uses a lot of vinegar, baking soda and gloves to ensure it is all hygienic.
But the most important thing, she advises about making cheese, is it requires top quality milk. Since she has no cows of her own, she quips, she sources the milk directly from farms located in Banting, Tanjung Malim and Serdang.
“Cleanliness is everything in cheese making otherwise you will be heartbroken when you get spoiled milk. I hate wasting things and also the thing I hate more is making people sick.” Since she makes cheese by the batches every two to three days, she uses around 200 litres of fresh milk a week.
In July this year, Annisa who was once a language teacher, started to impart her extensive knowledge to others through her cheese-making classes. “I always like to teach people things. It’s a transfer of knowledge and that’s why I started to teach them about the process and how to make cheese.”
Previously, when she stayed in Pakistan for four years, she also taught the ladies there how to cook and bake.
She does caution that making cheese is not for everyone. Firstly, it’s a long process, from making the cheese, to ageing the cheese for a few months. For some cheeses, you need to move it to different places with different humidity levels and temperatures. You also need to be quick on your feet to adapt to the changing environment and incredibly methodical about the processes, which she records in her notebooks.
For Annisa, she likes to focus on the process which takes two to three days a week. On a daily basis, there’s also maintaining the cheese; flipping, cleaning and brushing the wheels. “It’s my Zen time, I am focusing on something other than myself. I find it relaxing.”
There is also a huge investment needed to ensure proper cultures (they have short life cycles) are purchased, a fully air-conditioned environment and equipment, for the cheese making process.
“It is not easy. It is not cheap. For me, it’s satisfaction, to know, that I produced it. It’s like a chef who produces food and people appreciate it. I appreciate it before everyone does as I love eating cheese and I think I am picky about the cheese I eat.”
Moving forward, she wants to maintain her artisan principles rather than industrialise her small business. “if it’s a factory, it is very industrial and there is no more personal touch. I still want to hang out with my cheese every day. I want to touch, clean, and talk to them. The reason why I am making this is because I love making cheese. I love eating cheese and I also love the craft itself.”
Milky Whey Cheese
Open: 10.30 am to 5pm, Monday to Friday
Cheese sampling is only done by appointment. Price ranges from RM10 to RM15 per 100 grams for the various cheeses.