Within the iconic sails of the Opera House and the sparkling Sydney Harbour as a backdrop, award-winning chef Peter Gilmore tasted Australia’s first and only cheese made with raw milk and uncooked curds this week.
“It’s really, really good,” he told The Sun-Herald.
The cheese is named Yarrawa, a Wodi Wodi word for the cool climates and ferny rainforests of the Southern Highlands where it was made.
“Instead of generic names like cheddar, camembert, we’re starting to follow the same path that the wine industry went down and coming up with names to reflect where our produce is made,” cheesemaker Michael McNamara said.
Regulations around raw milk loosened in 2015 to allow cheese to be made from uncooked and unpasteurised milk, with harmful pathogens being eliminated by maturation rather than heating.
A number of homegrown cheesemakers have experimented with raw milk, but none with uncooked curds. Yarrawa's use of uncooked curds has given the cheese a unique flavour Gilmore described as creamy and nutty.
The executive chef said the cheese resembled a variety produced in Spain’s Basque area, but that it also uniquely reflected the Wingecarribee Shire farm on which it was made.
“You can absolutely taste the nuances of the rolling hills, the green grass, the spring water in the cheese,” Gilmore said. “The crust on the cheese is beautiful.”
He has ordered 15 kilograms of the cheese to feature on the exclusively Australian cheese menu of the fine-dining Bennelong restaurant.
The Australian artisan cheese industry is moving away from mimicking its European counterparts, forging an identity of its own and attracting praise from cheesemongers and leaders in the culinary world.
But growth in the industry has been “painfully slow” as federal regulations around raw milk differ from state to state and enforcement is bureaucratic, costly and time-consuming.
“It’s a rosier outlook, but is it happening fast enough? No, definitely not,” Alison Lansley, secretary of the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association, said.
Some of the world's great cheeses, including gruyere, parmigiano reggiano and comte, are made from raw milk.
Many local artisan cheesemakers believe it is the only way to create an authentic and representative flavour profile, essential for bolstering the unique identity of Australian cheese.
“I will smell a cheese of a particular Australian cheesemaker and it’s distinctive. You’ll never get the same smell or flavour profile anywhere else,” Lansley said.
Uncooked milk retains microbes - bacteria, mould and yeast - that are unique to the farm and create a flavour profile that tells the story of its animals, seasons and microflora. Cheesemakers say this is the only way the “taste of place” or “terroir” can be authentically reflected in the cheese.
But in Australia, raw milk cheese products are subjected to regular lab testing to ensure they are free from harmful pathogens such as salmonella, e. coli and golden staph. Testing costs $150 each time, and lengthy maturation processes can cause cash-flow issues for smaller producers.
McNamara first started the process of getting his Yarrawa cheese approved in early 2017 and estimates he has spent around $5000 on sending his cheese to a laboratory in Sydney, a four-hour round trip from his property, for testing.
But more costs arise from perfecting the product. Each batch takes 100 days to mature, and McNamara said he had to dump five batches in the research stage.
“It takes time and effort and a huge research and development phase,” he said.
Internationally acclaimed cheesemonger Anthony Femia said the team at Pecora Dairy is paving the way for Australian cheesemaking by sharing the trials and tribulations in making Yarrawa.
“They’re growing the industry through their knowledge and sacrifice. It’s what we need for this industry to go through to progress,” he said.
Demand for local cheese is on the rise but Peter Gilmore said Australia’s artisan cheese industry still has a fair way to go to reach quality parity with its European counterparts.
“They’ve got hundreds of years' experience. It’s pretty hard to beat those cheeses, to be honest.”