Between floods, fires and now the plague, Aussie cheesemakers are up against it. And yet, despite the unfolding apocalypse, small-scale dairies continue to make cheeses that are comparable in many cases to those traditionally imported from Europe, New Zealand and the United States.
We now have NSW buffalo mozzarella that's as fresh, creamy and yielding as anything you'd find air-freighted from Campania with a terroir that's all its own. South Australian fontina vecchio that's full-flavoured with just the right amount of funk. Goat's curd so light it disappears off the tongue but lingers on the palate. Soft, blooming washed rinds.
Sure, there's a sense of romance in imported cheeses. They conjure nostalgia for trips gone by, images of artisan cheesemakers turning wheels of parmigiano in Modena, melting raclette in the Swiss Alps, or nestling creamy Brillat-Savarin in little straw containers in Burgundy. But cultural cringe has no place in 2020. Our support for local makers of all kinds is more crucial than ever.
"I think it's a really good opportunity to get in the forefront of people's minds," says Jo Barrett, joint head chef at Oakridge restaurant in the Yarra Valley, who has been delving into cheesemaking herself. "With COVID-19 restrictions, we're not going to get a lot of international cheeses in and people are looking at what's around, at what's local."
Kristen Allan, cheesemaker and teacher, agrees. "What I saw very early on [in lockdown] was people just wanted to support small businesses. Allan has had to pause her cheesemaking classes for now, but she is making and selling small batches of her creamy ricotta from the Flour and Stone kitchen in Sydney's Woolloomooloo. There's very little on the market that compares with the richness and silkiness of that fresh milk cheese.
People are actually looking at what's around and what's local.Jo Barrett
Melbourne-based cheesemonger Olivia Sutton says that since March, she's seen a large-scale movement towards people ordering locally made cheeses from the Harper and Blohm website (the physical store is currently closed, though you can buy their cheese toasties through the door). "Orders would come through and literally it was all Australian cheese. So there's a shift in the mindset of people towards supporting local."
Pre-COVID, Dairy Australia reported the cheese import business had grown by 60 per cent over the past decade. But since the pandemic, the cost of freight has almost quadrupled. It's an incredible opportunity for Australian cheesemakers to win our hearts.
Cheesemonger Penny Lawson, who has stocked more than 60 per cent Australian cheeses since she opened Penny's Cheese Shop in Potts Point in 2018, believes we're in an interesting position right now.
"COVID-19 has had an impact on air freighting cheeses from Europe into Australia so our local cheesemakers are at a key point where they can take more of a market share of any of the surface-ripened or soft, fresh cheeses that were coming from the EU. And there are some cheesemakers who are ready to just pick up that baton and run."
Such is the enthusiasm for the local stuff that some cheesemongers are finding it difficult to get their hands on enough product to sell at the moment.
"There are some really good smaller dairies who are finding they're selling all of their stock," says Lawson. "I'm a big supporter of the Australian cheese industry. Always have been, always will be. And right now I'm struggling to get some of my standard Australian cheeses because there's so much competition out there for their product."
Cressida Cains, from artisan sheep milk cheesery Pecora Dairy in the NSW Southern Highlands, lost about 40 per cent of her business when restaurants closed during the pandemic.
"Fortunately, we're finding a really amazing shift towards local produce within the community. We're deeply grateful for Australians supporting local. We still import a lot of cheese into this country, so for people to be considering the provenance of their food is just a saviour for Australian cheesemakers."
As Lawson says, now is the time to embrace Australian cheese. "I think we're discovering there are a whole lot of Australian products we didn't know were available. This can only be a good thing."
Australian cheese names you should get to know
Cheese is proving to be the ultimate little luxury right now. A reward for a hard day at the home office. Here are eight of the best local cheese products to put on your platter.
Barry Charlton has had 44 years in the cheesemaking business and his dairy, in Victoria's Fish Creek, is a reflection of that. His Riverine Blue, made from buffalo milk, is the one to beat. Indeed, his collection of blues, when you can get your hands on them, are widely considered some of the best in Australia. berryscreekcheese.com
Burraduc FarmBuffalo Dairy
If you're seeking the flavour of air-freighted mozzarella without the insane carbon footprint, check out the buffalo mozzarella, curd and yoghurt from this tiny farm just north of Bulahdelah, NSW. So special and made in such small, hand-stretched batches. facebook.com/burraducbuffalo
A family-run cheesemaking business just south of Hobart with quite the side hustle. In true closed-loop style, the whey discarded from their sheep's milk cheese is turned into sheep's whey vodka and gin. The sheep have a diet of native plants and weeds, producing cheese like the French-style Brebichon. grandvewe.com.au
Holy Goat Cheese
East of Castlemaine, farmers and cheesemakers Carla Meurs and Ann-Marie Monda are true slaves to their flock of 120 goats, who graze on wild herbs. It's an idyllic life for a goat, really, whose only job is to produce luscious milk for those cheeses. La Luna is the one to look for, and if you like a particularly "goaty" goat's cheese, seek out the La Luna Barrel. holygoatcheese.com.au
'Yarrawa' raw milk cheese from Pecora Dairy. Photo: James Brickwood
Michael and Cressida Cains were pioneers of the raw milk cheese movement, producing Australia's first back in 2018. Yarrawa, as the raw milk cheese is called, has since become emblematic of Pecora, though their soft cheeses such as the mould-ripened Bloomy have real life and character. Ultimately, they say, they want their cheese to be a true representation of the sheep that produced it. pecoradairy.com.au
Milawa Cheese Company
Established by Anne and David Brown in 1988, this north-east Victorian cheese company paved the way for European-style cheeses that are also uniquely Australian. Try the aged blue, which is matured for up to six months. milawacheese.com.au
Section 28 Artisan Cheeses
Small-batch cheese made in the Adelaide Hills, it's famously hard to get hold of, but also famously delicious when you do. The pick here is their Section 28 Sunrise, a classic semi-hard alpine cheese. section28.com.au
Yarra Valley Dairy
Just an hour out of Melbourne, a world of French and Italian-inspired soft goat's and cow's cheeses are on show here. The Persian feta might be one of their best loved cheeses, but take their ashed goat's cheese for a spin. yvd.com.au