Competition heats up for next big cheese

The wheel deal: Anthony Femia of Spring Street Grocery will compete in the Loire Valley.
The wheel deal: Anthony Femia of Spring Street Grocery will compete in the Loire Valley. Photo: Penny Stephens

Blessed are the cheesemakers, but what about the cheesemongers? Spring Street Grocery's Anthony Femia, 28, is in France on a quest to snatch first prize at the World Contest of the Best Cheesemonger 2013.

The competition is part of the three-day International Cheese Tours trade fair in the Loire Valley – an area renowned for its soft cheeses – and will be held on June 2. To win, Femia must beat nine of the best cheese-slingers from Belgium, France, America, Italy and Japan in a gruelling battery of tests including cheese plate arranging, blind tasting, precision cutting, cheese food matching and oral and written food science exams.

But it is the cheese sculpting that has Femia most worried. He says: "That's one thing we've never really done in Australia. I'm looking at doing either the Opera House or the [Sydney] Harbour Bridge . . . if it's the right cheese."

While Australian artisanal cheesemaking has been gathering steam in recent years, the art of cheesemongering – storing, ageing, caring for cheeses and educating the public – has been slow to catch up, says Carla Meurs of Holy Goat Cheese and president of the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers' Association. "Richmond Hill Larder has a really long record of good care of cheeses in Melbourne, but in general we haven't developed this whole idea of [an] expert. We have sommeliers with wine but we're nowhere near that with cheese."

There are some notable exceptions. Chef Shannon Bennett, for example, has seven staff on his Vue de Monde roster dedicated to cheese.

"Ninety per cent of our clientele who come through the restaurant will have the cheese trolley," he says. And in retail there's Femia, Kirsty Laird at La Latteria in Carlton and, in St Kilda, sisters Sabrina and Katia Cappodocio at Il Fornaio, and British ex-pat Laura Lown at Milk the Cow.

"Since we opened up [last year], I feel like there's been this cheese boom," says Lown, 25, who used to work at high-end London fromagerie Paxton & Whitfield, where she regularly delivered cheese to Buckingham Palace. "A lot of people now are starting to think about this whole raw and pasteurised [milk] debate and are starting to really appreciate the cheeses from around the world."

Regulations regarding the importation of raw-milk cheeses are still strict in Australia, and Nick Haddow of the Bruny Island Cheese Company makes the only raw-milk cheese in Australia (a cooked curd cheese aged six to 12 months).

Cheesemongers like Femia hope to one day work with a much larger range, including raw-milk soft cheeses. First, though, he has to beat the Americans, to whom he lost at the 2011 International Cheesemonger Invitational in New York (dubbed the "Cheese Olympics", heavily tattooed hipster cheesemongers are revered there like coffee baristas). There, 600 people watched him stumble at the final hurdle (the "perfect pairing") botching a cognac foam blue cheese "Oreo" biscuit and slipping from fifth to 10th. "There's unfinished business there," he says. "That's part of the motivation for this French competition as well. To be the best I can and to get Australia on the map, I guess, in terms of cheesemongers."