Australian artisan cheeses
Shaw River buffalo mozzarella. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Australia remains an industrial cheddar cheese-loving nation. The evidence is plain to see on the supermarket shelves, where cheddar reigns supreme in block, sliced and grated forms.
But in a country historically reared on cheddar, thanks to a grassroots movement which is seeing people give up their day jobs to become cheesemakers, there is more locally produced cheese on offer than ever before, says Lynne Tietzel, who started the NSW cheese distributor Australia on a Plate in 1994 and now works as an industry consultant.
A new wave of farmhouse and handmade cheese producers can be seen at farmers' markets, peddling fresh white curd, squidgy pats with yellow-rinds that cut open to reveal creamy interiors and big wheels that are dark and hard on the outside, and the colour of sun within.
These artisans make small batches of cheese by hand using minimal automation. They may use milk produced on farm by their own livestock, in which case it's called farmhouse cheese, or purchased direct from a nearby farmer or milk co-op. Transforming milk to cheese requires wrangling two seemingly opposing forces, technical competency and creativity, something that every cheesemaker views differently.
In broad terms, large-scale commercial cheese production strives to replicate a consistent tasting product, while artisan cheesemakers aim to reflect what's present in the milk, which varies day to day.
The Old World has long understood that quality of pasture and animal wellbeing is central to cheesemaking. Before the process was sanitised, taking it away from the farmhouse kitchen or dairy into a sterile, purpose-built space, the airborne microbes, as well as those already present in the milk, were valued for the role they played in creating site-specific flavours.
A word of caution: artisan-made does not necessarily guarantee good cheese, cheese judge and fromager Sonia Cousins says. She suggests shopping from a cheese shop where you can try the cheese. ''You may not know if it is as it should be, but can tell if you like it or not,'' Cousins says.
The future looks bright, according to Australian Specialist Cheesemakers' Association secretary Alison Lansley. ''We're capable of making really fantastic cheese,'' she says. ''We have a natural agricultural advantage and, as proven in the wine industry, can apply a New World approach to an Old World craft and product.''
Here are some of the best artisan cheese makers in Australia.
Cow's milk cheese
Bangalow Cheese Co., NSW
Cheesemaker Justin Telfer
What Cow's milk from a mixed single herd.
Try The Nashua Washed Rind
It was a giant step forward when Justin Telfer accepted delivery of a new 900-litre stainless steel vat at his Nashua cheesery in 2010. Until then he'd been using a 150-litre vat to make very small volumes of the highly sought-after cow's milk triple cream and washed rind cheeses that he was making in this small hamlet in the Northern Rivers of NSW.
Even so, his weekly milk order, supplied by a local farmer's single herd, is small, infinitesimally so, when compared with mass-production cheddar factories that process 1.2 million litres of milk a day. ''It's tiny; there's only me and one other guy,'' he says. One of the downsides of small production is price, Justin explains. ''As small producers our cost per unit is high and we don't get the economy of scale.''
The best thing about handmade cheese, he says, is its complexity. ''I like that the smell can suggest one thing but the taste can go in a complete other direction.''
Pyengana Dairy Tas
Cheesemaker Jon Healey
What Farmhouse cloth-bound cheddar using milk from their own herd of Freisan cows.
Try They only make cheddar - try it
Cheesemaking is a physical business and at Pyengana Dairy in the beautiful north-east of Tasmania, it's even more so. ''We do everything by hand, even the traditional cheddaring,'' general manager of the family-run business, Lyndell Healey, says.
Cheddaring is a process in which the curd is stirred after cutting to break it down into smaller pieces to produce the trademark dense, textured layering. Healey often fears for her cheesemakers because they lean so far into the vat they look like they could disappear.
There is a proud and uninterrupted tradition of cheddar making in the Pyengana Valley that goes back to 1898. Where there were once 10 dairies, now there is only one - and one remaining cheesemaker.
Jon Healey's grandfather, a cheesemaker, always dreamed that Jon would carry on the tradition, but it wasn't until after his grandfather's death that Jon even thought of making cheese for a living. He took up an opportunity to study in Switzerland and on his return to the Valley looked to the old cheesemakers for tuition in the Pyengana way.
The cloth-bound cheese is made in 18 kilogram wheels and aged for between six weeks and a year. Locals like to drop by the dairy to buy one-day-old cheese. ''It almost squeaks when you bite it,'' Healey says.
Also try Barossa Valley Cheese Company, SA (washed rind); Small Cow Farm, NSW (brie); Bruny Island, Tas (variety); Marrook Farm (tilsit and gruyere-style cow's milk cheese); L'Artisan, Vic; Berrys Creek Cheese, Vic (blue).
Goat's milk cheese
Holy Goat Cheese, Vic
Cheesemakers Carla Meurs and Ann-Marie Monda
What Organic farmhouse goat's milk cheese.
Try The La Luna, mature yeast-rind cheese
Carla Meurs and Ann-Marie Monda's life at Sutton Grange Organic Farm, near Bendigo in Victoria, may not be commonplace in Australia but it's a way of life in France.
''It's what 7000 French goat farmers and farmhouse cheesemakers do every day,'' Monda says. ''Like them, we run a small herd of goats and live on the farm.''
The daily rhythm of life on the land and respect for it is key to all that Meurs and Monda do - pasture management, animal husbandry, milking and the cheesemaking itself. ''You have to farm in a place you love because you dedicate yourself to it,'' she says.
As the largest employee within a 15-kilometre radius, Meurs and Monda have demonstrated this type of farming can revitalise regional areas.
''The [4040-hectare] sheep farm next door supports one family,'' Monda says. ''With interns and part-time staff, we've got the equivalent of six full-time staff.''
The pair milk and make cheese every day. ''You're always going to make a pretty good cheese when you use fresh milk,'' Monda says. ''It's in a better condition because it hasn't been sitting or transported or pumped.''
The drive to make good cheese is a constant. ''We have a lot of mediocre cheese in Australia,'' Monda says. ''We can do that - or you can make it exceptional.''
Also try Jannei Goat Dairy, NSW; Nimbin Valley Dairy, NSW; Tongola Goat Products, Tas.; Kangarilla Creamery, SA; BoatShed Cheese, Vic.
Sheep's milk cheese
Grandvewe Cheeses, Tas
Cheesemakers Diane Rae and Nicole Gilliver
What Organic farmhouse sheep's milk cheese.
Try Sapphire Blue
A holiday in Tasmania changed Diane Rae's life. ''I went home to Maleny in Queensland, sold up and moved down,'' she says. Her mission? To keep sheep and make cheese from their milk.
Rae recalls those early days with some horror. ''We knew nothing about looking after sheep or their nutritional needs,'' she says. Initially, problems arose with the mortality rates of the East Friesland herd that Rae started with.
''They don't suit the Australian environment,'' she says. ''They are great milkers, but very delicate.''
Rae initiated a breeding program, crossing the existing herd with the Middle Eastern Awassi for a hardier sheep.
Inspiration may come from the great sheeps' milk cheeses of Europe, from Roquefort and the tomme de brebis of Corsica to the unique thistle torta del Casar from central Spain, but Rae's creations are uniquely her own.
Sapphire Blue, her wonderful blue, which won Gold at the 2012 Royal Agricultural Society of NSW Cheese and Dairy Produce Show, as well as Champion Cheese of Show, turns heads. One of them was French affineur Herve Mons, who considered the cheese as good as any Roquefort.
Also try Pecora Dairy, NSW; Red Hill Prom Country, Vic; Towri Sheep Cheeses, Qld.
Buffalo milk cheese
Shaw River Buffalo Cheese, Vic
Cheesemakers Faye Watts, Naomi Hocking, Shaun Anderton
What Farmhouse buffalo milk cheese
Buffalo milk has about twice the fat of cow milk, which makes it creamy and rich in flavour. That trait goes some way towards explaining the attraction of mozzarella di bufala, the wonderful Italian stretched curd cheese.
It's rare, near impossible really, to replicate the cheese outside of its homeland of Italy, but Shaw River Buffalo Cheese in the Western District in Victoria, have come pretty close.
The Shaw River mozzarella is made from milk produced by the pure breed Bulgarian and Murrah buffalo on farm.
''We're milking about 200 buffalo, the most we've ever done,'' general manager of the family-run business, Thea Royal says.
The buffalo thrive in this region because of the similarity to the southern Italian climate.
The mozzarella may look like a boiled egg but is more similar to crayfish in texture, Royal says.
''The curd is filamented and you can see where it has been folded and stretched. It's a complimentary cheese and doesn't have a strong flavour,'' she says. ''It's as much as about texture as anything.''
My top five
SONIA COUSINS, CHEESE JUDGE AND FROMAGER, NSW
■ Small Cow Farm, PetitVache Brie.
■ Bangalow Cheese Co, Nashua washed rind.
■ Holy Goat, La Luna.
■ Grandvewe Cheese Company, Sapphire Blue.
■ Berry's Creek Gourmet Cheese, Tarwin Blue.
ANTHONY FEMIA, AFFINEUR, SPRING ST. GROCER, VIC
■ Holy Goat, La Luna.
■ Bruny Island, Tom.
■ Pecora Dairy, Bloomy White.
■ Red Hill Cheese, Mountain Goat Blue.
■ Woodside Cheese Wrights, Monet.