I began making cheese several years ago. At the time, I was living off-grid and had a couple of good milk goats who were giving an abundance of milk, so I really needed a way to preserve the milk without refrigeration. My sister had tried her hand at cheese making and bought a fairly large supply of rennet, which she passed on to me. Yes, much to the dismay of a few vegetarian friends, it was animal rennet.
Over the years, I made some good cheese and learned a great deal about cheese making, mostly through trial and error. Experience is, after all, the best teacher. I always intended to try making cheese using local wild plants to set the curd, thistle being my first consideration.
Several sources insisted it was a difficult process and only certain species of thistle could be used, while other sources implied that almost any thistle could be used. The main point of agreement was the part of the plant used, a decoction of the dried bloom.
During this past summer, with the supply of rennet running low, I decided to experiment with thistle. I know it would be easier and maybe better to just find a good recipe, but it is my nature to experiment. So off I went to find thistle blooms. By late summer, the particular plant was quite obvious. A fine specimen of tall thistle, Cirsium altissimum was growing and putting on blooms in my somewhat overgrown front yard. This is likely the most abundant species of thistle native to the area, and having often gathered the young leaves as a part of the wild greens mix that I pick in the spring, I knew it wasn't toxic. Just before the blooms opened, I harvested several and dried them for future use.
Last week, with my daughter being too busy to spend much time at my house (my daughter usually drinks up most of the milk), the milk supply built up enough that some cheese simply had to be made. After bringing a pint of water with a large bloom in it to a strong boil then letting it simmer for a little while, I turned off the fire, put on the lid and let the decoction steep overnight so it would hopefully be plenty strong before straining it into a clean jar next morning. The yield was about 1 1/2 cups.
By mid morning, I heated a gallon of the milk and added about a half cup of the decoction, stirred it in and went about my business, fully expecting to come back in a couple of hours to very nice, firm curds. I found no such thing. In disappointment, I reheated the milk and added another half cup, stirred it in and went about my business. A couple of hours later, the results were the same. Now you must understand that I am not always quick to take the hint. A third time, I heated the milk and added the rest of the thistle decotion, and once again, went about my business. Once again, no curds. By bedtime, still no curds, so I left it sitting out with full intentions of giving the chickens a treat of bread and milk in the morning.
Chicken feeding time came around and what do you suppose I found in the cheese making pot? I had a pot full of curd/ This was not the nice firm curd I had hoped for but a very light fluffy curd. Considering that soft curd is better than no curd, I strained off the whey and squeezed a bit. .
Yes, it was cheese and a pretty decent yield, though not the nice firm cheese you can press, certainly not the beginnings of cheddar, colby or even mozzarella. Instead, it strongly resembled a pretty decent ricotta in appearance, texture and flavor. Ricotta is not my favorite but it does certainly have a place and I can hardly wait to see how well it works in lasagna (Anna will have to make it though as lasagna is not my best dish). There is also the excitement of being independent of the rennet supplier.
Now, with my first cheese without animal rennet turning out to be something resembling cheese, I can hardly wait to improve on it. Some nice, firm pressing cheese would be nice. Any information or advice is certainly welcome.