Gone are the days of one hard, one soft, one blue; the new cheeseboard is more complex and better than ever. ANTHONY HUCKSTEP meets the cheesemakers who are breaking rules, and reinventing the (cheese) wheel
Meet the makers who are reinventing the (cheese) wheel, one board at a time.
Age doesn’t matter, unless you’re talking about cheese. And the older we get, the more cheese seems to matter. Yep, one of our greatest creations has become the culinary opium of the masses. Melted on toast, shaved over pasta or spectacular on its own, cheese is addictive, and perhaps more than we realise.
Cheese contains a protein called casein (found in all dairy) that releases opiates during digestion, so you get a little high with every bite. And as our appetite for fabulous fromage ripens, so too is our artisan cheesemaking industry.
Renowned cheese writer, expert and general ‘big cheese’ Will Studd says he has watched the Australian industry come of age over the last decade.
“There is a growing consumer understanding of the importance of season, breed, and pasture, and it’s encouraging to see producers like Bruny Island [in Tasmania] moving to create their own herd of traditional, rare breed cows” he explains.
“Australia is a world leader in a unique ‘marinated’ cheese – think Meredith Dairy or Yarra Valley. We also have some great examples of surface-ripened regional goat’s milk cheese in Holy Goat, and blue cheese in Berry Creek.”
Australian cheeses are moving forward in leaps and bounds, and it’s largely due to two factors – quality milk and not being bound by tradition.
Take Pecora Dairy in NSW, one of only a handful of sheep’s milk dairies in Australia and winners of the 2017 delicious. Produce Awards’ Alla WolfTasker Foundation Scholarship. Owners, husband and wife Michael and Cressida Mcnamara, make cheese using sheep’s milk from their own flock, and they’re soon releasing Australia’s first uncooked raw-milk cheeses. Before now, Australian cheese has been made from pasteurised milk, which is heated then cooled to remove bacteria. “Raw milk cheeses don’t make use of this, instead relying on other methods to eliminate potential bacteria,” explains Cressida.
And just as the French have used terroir to give personality to their wine, Pecora’s cheeses have the same potential by maintaining the unique microflora from the soil and pasture. Cressida says their milk is rich and sweet, and possesses distinct seasonal variances because of the animals’ lifestyle.
“The completely pasture-based system makes all the difference”, she explains. Michael says he can “ramp up provenance” in the cheese. “You’ll be able to distinguish the difference between cheese made in winter, where the sheep have been eating rye grass, to the cheese made in summer, where the herd has been eating tropical grasses such as millet.”
Cressida also points to the fact that not being bound by tradition allows youthful exuberance to flourish.
“While sometimes we look to the wonderful traditions of cheese-making across the world with envy, we don’t have the centuries-old traditions that Europeans have to abide by,” she says. It means that innovation, backed by the lessons of tradition, is rife.
Meanwhile, at L’artisan Cheese on a small family farm on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, owner and thirdgeneration cheesemaker Matthieu Megard agrees on challenging tradition.
“In Australia we feel free to get inspired and find a result that’s different, and no one is shy of challenging that. After a while, we stopped trying to emulate, and started producing our own cheeses,” says Megard.
Also in Victoria, Yarra Valley Dairy became the first company to make marinated fresh cheeses in Australia. Head cheesemaker Jack Holman believes our unique landscape and disposition are our advantage.
“Our milk gives us an edge over the Northern Hemisphere because we can produce it all year round with less variation, and more consistency.”
Shaw River Buffalo Cheese in Yambuk, Victoria, is Australia’s largest farmhouse buffalo cheese producer with its own herd of buffalo, and it has led by example for 22 years.
“We started making fresh buffalo mozzarella, but we wanted to be inventive,” says co-owner Thea Royal. “We were told by experts that you can’t make hard cheese from buffalo milk.”
In typical Aussie fashion, they gave it a crack anyway and Buffolino, a hard buffalo cheese, aged for six months, was born. “It has great melting properties, with a smooth texture and fruity flavour when it is aged,” says Royal.
So how should we enjoy these innovative Aussie cheeses? “We’ll put out a hard cheese at three different ages to taste how maturation has influenced each cheese,” Holman suggests.
Studd believes there are no rules, but you’re best to keep it simple: “One great tasting cheese in perfect condition is always better than three innocuous cheeses,” he says, “and you can’t beat bread and wine for the holy trinity.”
Cressida Mcnamara agrees. “Raw milk cheeses are best eaten just as is. You are what you eat, but also what you eat eats, and this is the opportunity to taste the land in its purest form.” Meet the makers at ‘Victoria & the World Tasting Room’, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. March 24, $55 including cheese and wine tastings, melbournefoodandwine.com.au
BIG CHEESES Clockwise from top right: ‘La Luna’, Holy Goat; ‘Fermier, L’artisan; ‘Yarrawa’, Pecora Dairy; ‘Le Rouge’, L’artisan; ‘Bloomy’, Pecora Dairy; ‘Black Savourine’, Yarra Valley Dairy; ‘King River Gold’, Milawa Cheese; ‘Eclypse’, Holy Goat; ‘Mountain Man’, L’artisan. Available from Simon Johnson.