SO YOU WANT TO BE A CHEESEMAKER?

Hoop­ing curds, ris­ing be­fore dawn to watch milk so­lid­ify or trav­el­ling to Pied­mont for a cheese fes­ti­val. The life of a cheesemaker is a labour of love that’s as re­ward­ing as it is chal­leng­ing, writes KRIS LLOYD.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct -

Kris Lloyd’s life as a cheesemaker is a labour of love that’s as re­ward­ing as it is chal­leng­ing.

Next year I will be cel­e­brat­ing my 20th year as a cheesemaker. In the mid ’90s, I was work­ing as a cor­po­rate con­sul­tant, and if you had told me at the time that for the next two decades I would be wak­ing up at dawn each day, driv­ing to the Ade­laide Hills, don­ning my whites and hair­net and watch­ing milk so­lid­ify,

I’d have laughed out loud.

“Why would I want to do that?” I’d have scoffed. “I don’t know any­thing about cheese,” might have been the next thing, or “I like eat­ing it but I could never make it.”

But when an op­por­tu­nity came up at Wood­side Cheese Wrights, I went with my gut. Ever since I was a lit­tle Greek girl in pig­tails, my grand­mother cul­ti­vated in me a re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for good, home­made food. Maybe that was what pos­sessed me to start this jour­ney. Or per­haps I just needed some­thing dif­fer­ent.

But the road was no Milky Way. Early morn­ings, milk short­ages, iso­la­tion (not only in the fac­tory but in the in­dus­try, too), a lack of in­for­ma­tion or ed­u­ca­tion – all of these things pre­sented se­ri­ous chal­lenges. The in­ter­net was in its in­fancy then and there was only one text­book I could find, which out­lined how to make in­dus­tri­alised cheese – not the spe­cialty hand­made cheese I was in­ter­ested in.

And then there were the warn­ings. I dis­tinctly re­call my first en­counter with Aus­tralia’s res­i­dent Cheese Guru, Will Studd, author of Chalk and Cheese and cre­ator of the TV show Cheese Slices. At the time I was pro­cess­ing a cou­ple of hun­dred litres of milk a day, and was throw­ing out more than I was keep­ing, so this meet­ing was, I had hoped, the shin­ing light to solve all my cheesy wor­ries. He told me, in no few words, that most of the cheese­mak­ers he knew had died, gone mad or be­come broke, and I should prob­a­bly try some­thing else – open a café, per­haps?

But that isn’t my style, and if you tell me I can’t do some­thing, I’m sure as hell gonna show you that I can. I ed­u­cated my­self on ar­ti­san cheese­mak­ing, read his­tor­i­cal cheese­mak­ing books, reached out to men­tors and found help over­seas: Ev­ery two years I made a pil­grim­age to Cheese, a fes­ti­val in Bra, Italy.

And while un­der­stand­ing the the­ory was fine, I learnt the most on the job. Ini­tially we would stack five lay­ers of cheese hoops on stain­less-steel shelves when we hooped the curds. This was to save space – smart, right? Soon I re­alised that the lower lay­ers would al­ways have a much lower qual­ity and yield, since the higher lay­ers were drain­ing whey into the lower ones – such an ob­vi­ous mis­take, but one borne out of ig­no­rance. I be­gan to de­velop a prob­lem-solv­ing at­ti­tude to main­tain the high stan­dard that I wanted. As the Marines say: “Im­pro­vise, adapt, over­come”.

And when I fi­nally cre­ated a prod­uct I was happy with, and be­gan to en­ter it into dairy shows, I would be told: “Go away, lit­tle girl”. I had to de­velop a thick skin. The cheese­mak­ing in­dus­try isn’t glam­orous, and nor is it cosy. It’s messy, hard, tir­ing and cut-throat.

But it’s so, so re­ward­ing.

I mean, re­ally… who doesn’t love cheese?

Cheese is pun­gent at the best of times, but the fresh, sweet-milk aroma when I en­ter the fac­tory is al­ways the warm­est wel­come for me when I en­ter my cheese­mak­ing gal­axy. The drip of whey af­ter hoop­ing has be­come med­i­ta­tive, like the tick of a grand­fa­ther clock, and the feel of the curds af­ter cut­ting is like touch­ing a cloud.

And the prod­uct? Well, not many prod­ucts are as sat­is­fy­ing to make as cheese. Whether it’s day-old goat’s curd or a 24-month aged ched­dar, you can ex­pect in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion once you taste the fruit of your hard work. And the dis­ci­pline al­lows so much room for creative ex­pres­sion. One night I woke up with an idea to put ed­i­ble flow­ers onto a cheese, and I scrib­bled it on my bed­side notepad. So many col­leagues told me I was wast­ing my time: “It’s too labour-in­ten­sive and it won’t sell.” I told them to shove it. Monet is now one of the cheeses I am most proud of, and a true re­flec­tion of my cre­ativ­ity.

But even go­ing back to the ba­sic build­ing blocks of cheese­mak­ing, it’s a form of alchemy, a mix­ture of science and magic. You take the bare es­sen­tials in one form and trans­form it into an­other, with the only lim­it­ing vari­able be­ing your­self. That is what is so ex­cit­ing about it and why, 20 years on, I wake up ev­ery Mon­day ex­cited to go to work.

And let us not for­get the cheese it­self. Putting some­thing you have cre­ated on a gor­geous plat­ter with some fresh fruit and sour­dough, and eat­ing the de­li­cious creamy good­ness with a freshly popped bot­tle of prosecco and a group of your clos­est friends and fam­ily... I don’t think I need to say more, do I?

It’s been hard, and there have been some tough times, but I still con­sider this ca­reer to be one of my best de­ci­sions.

So, you want to be a cheesemaker? Go for it.

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