A black marble-topped trolley featuring exclusively Australian-made cheese weaves through excitable diners on the 55th floor of Melbourne’s iconic Rialto building.
“People really love the cheese we serve,” says Renato Pagliardi, supervisor at double-hatted restaurant Vue de Monde.
Eighteen months ago, half the cheeses on the trolley were from Europe but a boost in quality and choice, as well as a drive to showcase local produce, has prompted the restaurant to aim towards serving an all-Australian cheese plate.
Diners are offered 12 boutique varieties from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to Tasmania and Pagliardi says the unique flavours have become a drawcard for guests, both local and international.
“People who come to the restaurant have never tried the dairies we present so it’s a good talking point,” he says.
Pagliardi grew up in Iseo, a small town in northern Italy, the country some consider the epicentre of cheesemaking. He says European cheeses are undeniably beautiful but the warmer winters and native grasses of Australia give cheesemakers an advantage.
“In Italy and France, six months of the year the cows need to stay inside because otherwise they freeze to death,” he says.
“The quality of the milk here is very high, and the techniques still come from Europe.”
The Australian artisan cheese industry is forging an identity of its own by experimenting with styles and creating unique names that reflect their origins. Look out for Australian varieties with names such as Tarwin Blue and Sunrise Plains from South Gippsland’s Berry’s Creek Cheese, and Razorback from Bright’s Peaks Cheese, an ode to the Alpine National Park hiking track.
“The very best cheese producers, even if they’re making a soft blue rind cheese, would never call it camembert or brie. They’ll give it its own name so it can be appreciated for what it is,” says Alison Lansley, secretary of the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association.
Many have drawn parallels with the wine industry, where Australian bottles of the ’70s evoked a cultural cringe and were a token feature of the menu.
“People preferred to buy Burgundies or Chablis until the local industry established itself, got integrity and could show that you don’t have to buy an overseas option to get the real deal,” says cheesemaker Michael McNamara from Pecora Dairy, in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands.
Australia’s artisan cheese is attracting praise from cheesemongers and other heavyweights in Melbourne’s culinary scene, with restaurants such as Cutler and Co and Longsong also making efforts to serve local varieties.
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,” says Lansley.
Some of the world's great cheeses, including gruyere, parmigiano reggiano and comte, are made from raw milk. And many cheesemakers believe raw milk is the only way to create a uniquely Australian flavour profile.
Uncooked milk retains microbes – bacteria, mould and yeast – that are unique to the farm and produce flavours that tell the story of its animals, seasons and microflora.
Its use is mostly outlawed in Australia and, although regulations were loosened in 2015, Vue de Monde’s Pagliardi says the government needs to go one step further to promote experimentation in the industry.
“I’m sure that if given the same opportunities, the same regulation and tools to work, Australians can definitely close the gap [with European cheeses] very soon.”