Victorian cheese lovers cop a raw deal

Husband and wife team Bronwyn and Burke Brandon of Prom Country Cheese.
Husband and wife team Bronwyn and Burke Brandon of Prom Country Cheese. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

A South Gippsland cheesemaking couple has produced the first legal, Victorian raw milk cheese since the practice was banned almost 80 years ago. 

Based on a farm in green rolling hills just north of Korumburra, Burke and Bronwyn Brandon of Prom Country Cheese have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to develop their raw milk Moyarra Reserve. 

The semi-hard sheep's milk cheese is made with milk that has not been pasteurised. Raw milk cheese is produced successfully and safely in Europe, Britain, and the US, but until last week, not in Victoria. 

Burke Brandon in Prom Country's cheesemaking room.
Burke Brandon in Prom Country's cheesemaking room.  Photo: CHRISTOPHER HOPKINS

According to Mould Cheese Festival director, Dan Sims, the taste is amazing. "It's so subtle, complex, and multi-layered," he says. "Generous without being overwhelming."

The Brandons worked under stringent protocols developed by Dairy Food Safety Victoria. Raw milk can contain pathogens harmful to human health, and cheese made with it, especially soft cheeses such as brie, can harbour dangerous bacteria. 

Burke Brandon says he can make his raw milk cheese safely because the process of making cheese creates a product in which harmful bacteria cannot survive. 

Will Studd burries raw milk cheese from a hearse while a quarantine officer checks everything is in order in the early 2000s.
Will Studd burries raw milk cheese from a hearse while a quarantine officer checks everything is in order in the early 2000s.  Photo: Jason South

"Pasteurisation kills all the bacteria in the milk, good or bad," explains Brandon. "Bacteria are deactivated by lactic acid naturally produced during cheesemaking. The amount of salt, around two per cent, also makes the cheese inhospitable to bacteria." 

Along with the drying of cheese during aging, this stops bad bacteria from growing. "There are also 'good' bacteria in raw milk," says Brandon. "They contribute to the freshness and vibrancy, and a lingering aftertaste in the cheese that would not occur if we had pasteurised the milk."

Cheese expert Will Studd says Prom Country's breakthrough is fantastic news. 

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The Cheese Slices host famously carried 80 kilograms of imported raw milk Roquefort cheese in the back of a hearse to its burial site in 2000. This was after Australian health authorities ordered Studd to destroy the cheese he had imported, and he was labelled a "food terrorist" by a prominent member of the Australian dairy industry. 

"If we want the real taste of Australia, if we want to taste the regionality that our cheeses are capable of producing, we need a vibrant Australian raw milk industry like they have in Europe," he says. 

Dan Sims concurs. "We are seeing the gradual but unstoppable renaissance of raw milk cheeses in Australia." He refers to cheesemakers such as Section 28 in the Adelaide Hills producing a raw milk fontina, Pecora Dairy in the NSW Southern Highlands, and Bruny Island Cheese in Tasmania, who battled its dairy safety body to make a raw milk cheddar.

Prom Country's raw milk Moyarra Reserve.
Prom Country's raw milk Moyarra Reserve.  Photo: CHRISTOPHER HOPKINS

Prom Country's Moyarra Reserve production was just 300 kilograms and will be joined by a batch of raw milk cheddar next month and raw milk barrel-aged feta early next year. 

"It has cost us $15,000 in extra testing, so this really is a labour of love," says Brandon, who now expects to make 4000 kilograms of raw milk cheese next year.

Where to buy

Many cheesemakers and mongers are making the most of strong demand and improved packaging technology that keeps cheese cool for days, even when handled by the logistically challenged Australia Post.

Cheesemonger Olivia Sutton say she is doing a roaring trade selling cheese despite closing the doors to her Essendon store Harper & Blohm in March due to COVID-19. "I already had an online store, but now it's handling all our retail."

Prom Country Cheese's Moyarra Reserve can be purchased for home delivery through the Prom Coast Food Collective website. Next month, Dan Sims delivers four Australian raw milk cheeses through his virtual cheese store Mould Collective, while Bruny Island Cheese can be ordered through its website too. Section 28 cheese is sold through Harper & Blohm.