Howard holds the syringe delicately, letting two drops of rennet fall into the milk he has been warming on his stove. He breaks his concentration, wipes a few drops of perspiration from his brow, and looks up at me, “So…um…that’s about it, for eight hours or so”. Howard makes his own cheese and bread, and I have hiked out to his remote hillside in Co. Galway to learn a bit about how he does both. But, like so many things, fermentation requires short bursts of work, with long stretches of time in between. So, while we are waiting for the cheese to set and the sourdough starter to get going, we go check out the mini hydro-electric project Howard and his son have set up to provide energy for his house. Then we chop some wood, feed his herd of Scottish Highland cattle (about five of the beautiful orange hairy kind with big horns), and go set dancing. Wait…what? That’s right. The cheese and bread will be left until the next morning, but tonight is Monday night, and it’s time to go set dancing. A lot like contra dancing, set dancing is a form of folk dancing in which you twirl a lot…a whole lot... and then switch partners, and twirl again. Besides referring to how milk curds form when making cheese (they set), a 'set' has two meanings in the dance context, it is both the number of people in each basic unit of the dance (4 couples), and the name of the dance: the Connemara Set, the Claire Set, the Caledonia Set etc.
Before we leave Howard teaches me the basic step in his dining room/kitchen, and I nervously tap out the rhythm of the jigs, reels, polka’s and hornpipes that make up each set. However, when we get to the town hall, the teacher (luckily this evening was half dance, half class) makes it her personal mission to make me a passable participant. I like to think that I took to it like a duck to water, but it was probably a result of the teacher who kindly followed me around, firmly shoving me into place and shouting out the steps for each figure “Now Cross up! Settle down Max! Now Move! Not NOW! NOW!”.
It was a ton of fun, and as I took off into the freshly falling snow the next morning (with a bit of sourdough starter tucked into my jacket like an old 49er), I thought to myself “If this is how the Irish occupy themselves while their food is fermenting, then they need all the high calorie bread and cheese they can get!” So a big thanks to Howard. Tomorrow it is off to Co. Cork, where I have an appointment to meet with a goat farmer/cheese maker on a tiny island off the coast.