The magic ewes of Winsam Farm
Every year, the best of New Zealand cheeses are judged by experienced New Zealand and overseas judges. The NZ Champions of Cheese Awards has been run for many years to encourage the local cheesemaking industry.
The entrants range from those who produce tens of thousands of tons, like Fonterra and Open Country, right down to the artisans who produce less than 25 tons a year, often family businesses that involve multiple generations.
For an artisan to reach medal-winning status requires dedication and an absolute love of cheese. This year one of the big winners was Cathy Oakley of Just Ewe and I was honoured to accept the Champion Sheep Cheese Award and Champion cheesemaker award on her behalf.
I met Cathy last year and was charmed by her quiet strength and absolute determination. Her cheese impressed me so much I rather forcefully encouraged her to enter the cheese awards.
That turned out to be a great idea. It was her first time entering and Cathy achieved a 100 percent score for her Just Ewe Winsam Farmhouse cheese, the highest-scoring cheese in the entire competition.
Cathy lives and farms on a beautiful piece of elevated land in Kerikeri with amazing views. Her flock of East Friesian sheep have been carefully selected and bred by her husband, Rod Clarke.
It all sounds idyllic and it really is. We sat in the sun, enjoying a delicious cuppa with a fantastic cheese, surrounded by woolly sheep. It’s enough to persuade you that this is the life.
But I am a farmer too and I know that these moments of bliss are hard won. To make that fantastic cheese, the leggy woolly wonders have to be moved, motivated and milked. There is back-breaking, unrelenting hard work involved. It requires dogged determination to go out in the freezing rain and save a soggy lamb, or sometimes sadly not save a lamb or its mother.
Cathy told me that working in her cheese room was her calm time. She enjoys the slow and methodical steps in the process to relax and unwind, and her care and attention to detail shows in her award-winning cheese.
Ewe’s milk cheeses are quickly gaining popularity in New Zealand. A few milking ewes are a viable option if you’re on a lifestyle block – even a small one – and want to make cheese. A small milking stand with a single electric milking machine will work well for a few sheep or goats (or a house cow).
the milk, then stir gently for 30 seconds. Put the lid back on the pot and leave for another 30 minutes, again maintaining the temperature at 30°C. 4. Do a test cut across the set curd. If the edges of the cut are sharp and the curd firm, continue cutting the curd into 1cm cubes. These are quite narrow cuts but be bold and cut cleanly. If it’s not ready and the cut edges look floppy, check the temperature is at 30°C, warm it up to that temperature if required, and leave it for another 5-10 minutes. 5. Leave the cut curds undisturbed with the lid on for 15 minutes. You will see a lot of whey weeping from the cut curd. 6. Increase the temperature to 35°C over the next 30 minutes. This is a very small change in temperature and the easiest way to achieve this is by adding a cup of boiling hot water at a time to the outer pot of the bain-marie. You may need to remove some water before you can add more. You can stir very gently to begin with during this time, but the curds are really fragile so try not to make mush. If they begin to look like scrambled egg, stop stirring and leave them to firm up a bit in the warm whey. When they have firmed up and there is a lot of whey you can stir regularly (every few minutes) until the 30 minutes is up and the curds are at 35°C. 7. Let the curds settle for 5 minutes, then drain off the whey using a sieve. Leave the curds to mat together in the bottom of the pot. I elevate one side of the pot by placing a spoon under one side. Push the curds up onto the high side of the pot and let the whey drain downhill. Leave for 10 minutes. 8. Drain off the whey, turn the matted curds over and leave for another 10 minutes with lid on the pot. Keep the curds warm (35°C). 9. Place the firm curd on a sterilised board and cut it into 2cm cubes. Place it back in the pot and sprinkle on the salt, then use your sanitised hands to spread the salt through the curd. 10. Press the curd firmly into your lined mould. Place the follower on top and press using a 2kg weight for 30 minutes. 11. Remove the cheese from the press, unwrap it, place the lining back in the mould, then turn the cheese upside down and put it back into the mould. Replace the follower and press using an 8kg weight overnight. 12. Remove from the mould, place on a sterilised board and dry the cheese at room temperature for two days until the rind is quite dry. Put a cake cover over it to stop dust and insects from getting at it. Turn once during this time. 13. Cure at 10-12°C for four weeks. You can wax or vacuum pack it as soon as the rind is dry.
An East Friesian milking ewe on Winsam farm.