Say cheese: smiles as Tilba reopens

Geff Southam and Troy Charnock with Havarti Cheese in its final stages of production at the ABC Cheese factory in Tilba.
Geff Southam and Troy Charnock with Havarti Cheese in its final stages of production at the ABC Cheese factory in Tilba. Photo: Rohan Thompson

After decades of dormancy the vats of the old Tilba cheese factory once again hum with the sound of churning curd.

The factory stopped producing cheese back in the 1970s when the Bega Company began buying up milk production in the far south coast.

But locals Erica and Nic Dibden have breathed new life into Tilba's ABC Cheese Factory.

In December the factory, which first opened its doors in 1891, began producing cheese again.

And their enterprise is a real paddock-to-plate deal, with the milk produced 500 metres away by Jersey cows on the Dibdens' farm.

''We always wanted to bring back cheesemaking to Tilba,'' Ms Dibden said.

''There's such a history of cheesemaking here.''

Fourth-generation cheesemaker Geff Southam personifies that history.

Mr Southam started his career on the Tilba factory floor at 18, and later worked for Bega.


Now, aged 64, he has returned to where it all began.

''It's certainly changed in that time,'' he reflected.

''The whole process back then was all done by hand, now we've got a lot more mechanisation,'' he added.

Said Ms Dibden: ''It's just amazing that Geff started here as a kid and now he's back here as a man in his sixties, it's a bit of a circle.

''He's happy to come and knock around and make cheese, and we're happy to learn some fantastic skills from him, because you can't buy that sort of knowledge.''

They are currently set up to make a range of cheeses including havarti, cheddar, pecorino and parmesan. The Dibdens have expansion plans, too. Yoghurt and cheese courses are on the agenda, and they have branched out into milk production.

Ms Dibden said the equipment, plus the purchase of the building itself in April this year, was around a $2 million investment.

The family bought their dairy farm in 2000, and have been planning this move for the past five or six years.

Ms Dibden won a cheesemaking scholarship in 2006, which took her to factories throughout Europe and Australia.

But the ''closed-door policy'' of many factories inspired the Dibdens to open their plant to the public, through a glass wall between the vats and the shop.

''It's not hidden behind closed doors, it's out there so people could get a good understanding of what's involved,'' she said.

''Rather than just come and buy a block of cheese, they can come and watch milk being bottled, or they can come and see cheese being made.''

Milk is a new area for the Dibdens and their fledgling factory.

They've begun pasteurising and bottling their own milk from the farm's Jersey cows, and selling it to south coast retailers.

Their equipment can pump out four litres in 30 seconds, up to 2000 litres a day.

''Milk is viewed by people as such a staple product too, so it's changing the idea, and not getting involved in that dollar milk war that the supermarkets are perpetrating at the moment,'' Ms Dibden said.

''[We're] introducing new ideas about milk production and dairy farming, and trying to make it a little bit more exciting too, taking control, I think.''