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.
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.