Dairy Demystified: In Which I Learn How to Make Cheese at the Urban Ashram

Butter and Ghee and Cheese, oh my!

In the beginning, Tomas Hicks, founder of the Urban Ashram, was simply moved by the urge to understand the process of how things are made.  He picked up a book, Wild Fermentation, experimented with making yogurt, moved on to Ghee, and from there began creating his own cheese.   Once a month, the kitchen of the Urban Ashram and his home is turned into a dairy processing area in order to initiate newbies to the process.  

The Urban Ashram is just what its name connotes—an ashram run out of the living room of Tomas Hicks' residence where yoga classes, silent retreats, natural food workshops and kirtan are held regularly.  The ashram offers an opportunity for the local community to meet and gather in an intimate and comfortable setting in order to nurture connections to the earth and to each other which are often lacking in urban landscapes.  Part of this process is gaining an understanding of our food sources and how to prepare them on our own.  Last week I was fortunate enough to have this experience for myself as I participated in Tomas’ dairy workshop. 

Got Milk?

As the six participants gathered around the kitchen of Urban Ashram, Tomas introduced us to raw milk and started us out by lightly skimming the cream off the top of the milk.  He then set us to churning in the simplest way possible: one takes a jar and one shakes the bejeezes out of it remarkably resulting in freshly churned unsalted butter and butter milk.  Dairy demystified indeed.  At this point I began to feel a little sheepish about my lack of knowledge of dairy products.

He next demonstrated two different ways of creating cheese—one from simply adding vinegar to boiling milk and the other from adding rennet.  After being drained, the vinegar batch resulted in soft, slightly salty cheese curds that could later be pressed into blocks to form panneer (the fresh cheese added to Indian dishes) or simply eaten as is.  The batch produced from rennet, on the other hand, what was known as “hard cheese,” was suspended in a cheese cloth to drip to readiness.


All this was already very impressive to us dairy novitiates.  As if that weren’t enough, Tomas set about showing us how to create Ghee (clarified butter).  Because Ghee does not need to be refrigerated, it retains its soft creamy texture and packs a more intense flavour than butter.  Clarified butter also does not need to be refrigerated and has a higher smoking point than butter and thus can be heated to very high temperatures. 

One of the highlights of the workshop was one of Tomas’ own concoctions, something he calls Ghee-lish.  Picture mixing organic dark chocolate and butter together to form a soft, smooth velvety spread.  Ghee-lish spreads beautifully on bread and melts in your mouth with a rich nutty flavour.  I know it sounds like Nutella, but trust me, it’s actually much more “Ghee-lish.”     

Whey cool

An exceptional feature of this workshop is that Tomas demonstrates how simple it is to ensure that nothing in the dairy making process is wasted, down to the milk solids collected while clarifying butter.  The butter and the resulting buttermilk were used to produce a batch of fresh scones. He then showed us how the whey that resulted from making cheese could be turned into an incredibly palatable soup, simply by adding chopped beets and potatoes.

Whey was a product that I had never encountered, except perhaps in one of the Little House on the Prairie novels in which Ma teaches the girls to make cheese.  For me at least, whey has been an astonishing discovery.  Tomas explained that the whey could be used for many different functions such as for fermenting fruits and vegetables or for creating ricotta cheese.  After experimenting at home, I have found that using whey instead of chicken stock imparts a slightly tangy, cheesy flavour and lends a pleasant golden hue to dishes. 

I must say that after going through this experience, a visit to the dairy aisle of the grocery story where everything is neatly packaged and labeled will never be the same for me.   Part of the demystification process is that it instills in one a sense of appreciation for the vast quantity of milk that goes into cheese making and an awareness of the effort that goes into making dairy products.   Personally, it has given me a sense of ownership over a food source that has remained a mystery for most of my life.  Imagine, just a few days ago I made cream cheese from scratch; and just like that, rather than being the conclusion of the process, I became a part of it.

The Urban Ashram Specs


 2290 Saint George Street (buzz 2290)

Tel. 604 708 9058 

e-mail: [email protected]            


The natural food classes include dairy products

as well as how to make fermented fruits and vegetables.  

Three classes will be run by Chef Chris Fletcher involving

pastry, pizza and chocolate. 


 Check the ashram calendar on the website to find out more.


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