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Victorian Guide — Reconnecting producers and consumers

An Introduction to: Cheese

Thursday, November 22, 2012 — Cheese, Editorial, Skills and Knowledge

Australia has long had a productive dairy industry, with lush, fertile areas like the Byron Bay hinterland and the Southern Highlands providing perfect grazing land for dairy animals and therefore luscious, rich milk. It was only a matter of time before cheesemakers began showing what they could do with it.

Cheesemaking in Australia has its origins with the first European settlers, when English cheddar style cheeses were introduced to the country, something that continues to be one of Australia’s best and most popular dairy products. Then, post-war migrants from Greece and Italy added Mediterranean style cheeses to the menu, from feta to Gorgonzola. Soon more European cheeses such as Swiss, brie and camembert followed. During this period Australia produced about 20 different cheese varieties but today we can choose from over 160 locally made varieties.

Although still in its infancy, Australian artisan cheesemaking is being internationally recognised and awarded for the many quality products coming out of the industry. Australians can now choose locally-made, delicious offerings from the likes of mould-ripened and washed-rind cheeses to cheeses made from buffalo or sheep milk to have on their plate.

While cow’s milk has been the milk of choice for many traditional cheeses made in Australia, such as the cheddar styles, more recently some cheesemakers have taken to raising their own dairy goats and sheep not only for immediate access to the freshest milk but different cheese styles and flavours that can be obtained using these milks. While the milk is richer and more suited to cheesemaking, goats and sheep produce less milk than cows. It also means working more with the seasons as production levels can differ drastically winter to summer, especially when compared to the more available cows’ milk. For the goats’ or sheep’s milk cheesemaker, it often means careful planning to maintain stock year round to have hard and soft cheeses ripe and ready – and for the consumer, it means patiently waiting for the right time of year to eat your favourite cheese again.

The seasons also affect the flavour of cow’s milk, which is especially evident when cheese is made exclusively from one herd and one farm. Often this means that different batches of cheese have subtle differences in flavour or texture, which may also be because the cheesemaker is tinkering with a recipe – just one of the many joys of eating artisan cheese. Seasonality applies to many varieties of handcrafted cheeses too, which of course have their own timelines in terms of maturation: washed rinds are typically at their best in autumn, fresh curds in the spring. It’s all part of being able to enjoy something that is lovingly handcrafted.

Small Cow Farm in the Southern Highlands is aptly named – this is a tiny operation run by Mark and Lesley Williams who raise small Irish Dexter cows to produce, together with milk sourced from neighbouring farms, some consistently sensational handcrafted cheeses: creamy brie, camembert, feta, a strong and bitey blue cheese and a mountain cheese inspired by a hard cheese made in the French Alps.

Also in the Southern Highlands is Pecora Dairy. Relatively new to the specialist cheesemaking scene, Michael and Cressida McNamara make cheese from the milk of their pure bred East Friesian sheep – as their company name, Pecora, Italian for ‘sheep’, would imply. Their Jamberoo Mountain Blue won them gold medals before they had even sold one round of cheese. Their often Pyrenees-influenced cheeses include Bloomy White, a small, mould-ripened fresh curd, which Michael says is “a cheese that showcases the milk” and is just one of the exquisite examples of how working with sheep’s milk means working with the seasons – it’s only available in spring and summer.

Nimbin Valley Dairy in northern NSW is run by Paul and Kerry Wilson, who have dairy farming in their blood. They raise goats to make pure goat’s milk cheeses with an organic philosophy. Ultra fresh soft goat’s curd and marinated goat’s feta are their specialities.

Tree-changer Justin Telfer is behind Bangalow Cheese Co. in northern NSW, where he not only makes cheese but holds cheesemaking classes to spread the love. He creates exquisite cheeses from locally-sourced cow’s milk such as a triple cream white mould cheese, brined feta and his signature cheese – the Nashua washed-rind, a fabulously smelly cheese with a distinctive orange rind.

Husband and wife team, Neil and Janette Watson, from Jannei Goat Dairy, maintain a herd of about 100 Saanen dairy goats and an artisan cheese-processing site based on their sustainable property in the Blue Mountains. Producing cheeses such as Busche Noir, a smooth and zesty fresh-pressed cheese coated in black vegetable ash and a chèvre, a fresh white mould cheese, along with other regulars like feta, ricotta and Prairie Cream, a mellow camembert style cheese. The Watsons also have a retail shop open for sales and tastings.

Hunter Belle Cheese in the Upper Hunter Valley is operated by Geoff and Tania Chesworth. Producing handcrafted cheeses exclusively from the milk of a single herd of Swiss Brown cows, sourced from a nearby farm in Singleton, their cheeses include a camembert style, a labna yogurt cheese, a semi-aged as well as a camembert-like blue, a cheddar style and an award-winning feta and washed rind cheese. Their Belleyere is a hard, Gruyere-like cheese – a style of cheese not often made locally.

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Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who, after spending seven years in Tuscany, is now based in Melbourne with her sommelier husband. She has contributed her food knowledge and keen eye to publications such as The Canberra Times, Maeve Magazine and Australia’s first magazine dedicated to cheese, The Cheese Mag, and she eats her way through restaurants and cafes for some leading food guides. She has a thing for historical cookbooks, regional Italian cuisine and sustainable, good food. Follow her on twitter @emikodavies or on her blog at www.emikodavies.com
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