Wheels of change (changing scenario of the raw milk cheese culture in Australia)

The Smelly Cheese Shop's Valerie Henbest with affineur Sam Silby. Picture: James Elsby Source: The Australian


IN a small room at the back of an Adelaide warehouse, rustic farmhouse cheeses are stacked floor to ceiling, set to bring centuries of European tradition to the mouths of New World enthusiasts.

Giant wheels of French comte, Swiss emmental and Spanish manchego rest on American oak shelves at a constant 10C with about 90 per cent humidity in this cave-like maturing room. When they are ready to be sold, their rinds will be cracked open to reveal a complexity that, like wine, is born only of precise maturing over time.

The cheeses have been air-freighted from Europe by The Smelly Cheese Shop’s Valerie Henbest, a South Australia-based francophone horrified by the condition of many European cheeses arriving in Australia after lengthy boat journeys.

“Cheese is a lively creature and [its] No 1 killer is dryness,” says Henbest, who grew up in France and knew the imported cheese she was selling at the time at Adelaide’s Central Market was not of the same quality as that served in France.

“When shipped here by sea, cheeses cannot cope with the lack of air and the cold temperatures in the shipping containers, and are on their last legs by the time they arrive.

“Australians were turning up their noses at strong, complex cheeses, and it was because they were eating [them] when they were not at their best. It was at that point I realised it was an absolute necessity to freight it by air, and [this] also gave me an opportunity to return home every year to source cheese direct from the producers.”

Once the cheeses arrive in Australia, affineurs such as Henbest’s colleague Sam Sibly play a vital role in developing them beyond their simple elements of milk and rennet, nurturing them in temperature-controlled rooms so they can ripen, grow the necessary bacteria and develop their complexities of flavour. Every week, Sibly washes the rinds of The Smelly Cheese Shop’s imported specimens with vinegar or a brine solution, pats down the mould that flourishes in the humidity and rotates the heavy wheels so they age evenly. It can take anything from two months to more than a year to produce a cheese, depending on the size of the wheel.

This cheese maturing room is part of the new frontier for an industry that has a growing community of cheesemakers and professionals dedicated to challenging Australian palates and the orthodoxy of supermarket sandwich cheese. They are producing convincing European-style cheeses, inventing their own styles, and preaching their obsessions to Australians one masterclass at a time.

Since taking over cheesemaking at Woodside Cheese Wrights in the Adelaide Hills in 1999, Kris Lloyd has seen her award-winning products become popular right across Australia. “People are so interested in where their food comes from now, and are willing to challenge their palate in a way I’ve never seen before,” Lloyd says. “There is a demand for locally produced, interesting cheeses and, like the wineries around us, we have a cellar door where cheesemakers can engage with people and understand what their tastes are and where demand is heading.

“The quality of cheese has improved in Australia so much over the past couple of decades and we are really a young industry compared to the hundreds of years of experience overseas. There is still so much room for improvement.”

Richard Thomas is a pioneer of our artisan cheesemaking industry. In his 40-year career he has established some of Australia’s best-known dairies, developing cheeses including, in 1983, Gippsland Blue, the first blue made in the country, and the world’s first Persian feta at Yarra Valley Dairy in 1988.

But Thomas says bureaucracy is stifling the development of Australia’s dairy industry, particularly laws prohibiting the use of unpasteurised milk.

“At the moment, the thing that’s holding the industry back, to some extent at least, is the reluctance . . . to allow small cheesemakers to use raw milk, which is stupid,” he says. “Raw milk cheese has been made for thousands of years [overseas] and all the predicted disasters . . . are fabrication, superstition and ignorance.”

Cheese importer Will Studd held a public funeral in 2003 when he was forced by Food Standards Australia New Zealand to destroy 30kg of raw-milk roquefort. After a 2009 inquiry into whether raw-milk products could be produced in Australia, FSANZ in August released a draft report recommending the relaxation of laws banning the manufacture of raw-milk products, and is now looking at proposals for the local production of softer raw-milk cheeses. Through a technical loophole, Bruny Island Cheese Company’s Nick Haddow is already producing the country’s first raw-milk cheese, C2. A

traditionalist at heart, Haddow makes some of the country’s best artisan cheeses, including Oen, a pungent, fudgey cow-milk cheese wrapped in vine leaves and washed in Tasmanian pinot noir. He was heartened by the recent FSANZ recommendation, but not confident things would change in the near future.

“For me, raw-milk cheese is the ultimate end goal to give cheesemakers freedom of choice to make cheeses in the manner in which they’d like to,” he says.

“It’s vital — we don’t compete on an international stage for real cheese because we can’t make unpasteurised cheeses. There is an expectation by FSANZ that the drive for change has to come from the industry, but the vast majority of producers don’t want raw-milk cheese because their production is not set up to be able to do that. The real drive has to come from Australian consumers who realise we are out of step with the rest of the world.”

Haddow, like many of the cheesemaking fraternity, has a background in the food and wine industry, having worked in some of Adelaide’s best restaurants.

Sydney’s Claudia Bowman, meanwhile, was studying to be a sommelier before she was sidetracked by the “cheese revolution”. She now runs masterclasses and corporate cheese education sessions at Fort Denison on Sydney Harbour under the McIntosh & Bowman Cheesemongers banner. “We often take America’s lead, and boutique farmhouse cheese is so hot there right now . . . In three to five years we will be seeing that same craze,” Bowman says.

“More people are travelling, the general food craze here is taking off and people are really engaging with where their food is coming from.”

Henbest hosts masterclasses at The Smelly Cheese Shop warehouse in Adelaide, sharing stories of the origins of individual cheeses and encouraging an understanding of flavours and complexities, often over a glass of wine or cider.

She says business has never been better, with interest in her masterclasses increasing markedly in the past few years, in tandem with the nation’s growing enthusiasm for all things gastronomic.

And we’re putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to retail, too.

Cheese consumption per capita has risen in the past five years, shifting from cheddar to non-cheddar varieties as tastes have developed and diversified. Cheese forms a major part of the Australian dairy industry, with sales of about 215,000 tonnes, valued at $1.6 billion, and export sales of 168,000 tonnes, worth $715 million in 2009-10. But imports form a big part of cheese sales in Australia, at about 73,000 tonnes. And supermarkets still play a vital role in delivering cheese from paddock to plate, accounting for 55 per cent of sales.

Sydney chef Steve Manfredi, who has played an important role as a patron of specialty cheesemakers, cautions against overestimating the development of the local cheese industry, pointing out that the country still has a long way to go before it can seriously compete against Europe.

“It’s a tough business, but I’m in two minds as to whether it is actually progressing much, because over the past 30 years I haven’t seen a huge amount of progress,” Manfredi says. “What we seem to do in Australia quite well is the simpler cheeses, like goat’s curd, that you make, mature quickly and then sell.

“There are a few exceptions, such as Holy Goat cheese and Bruny Island cheeses, but to get to that point they’ve had to spend a huge amount of money.

“If you import similar cheeses from Europe you can get fantastic raw-milk cheeses, so there is little incentive for artisan producers in Australia to make the more complex cheeses.”

Manfredi also cautions against making broader assertions about the change in Australian tastes and traditions. “The people who eat in my restaurant and want to eat the more interesting foods aren’t your typical Australians,” he says.

“When we talk about a two-speed economy, there’s probably at least a two-speed gastronomic culture in Australia . . . The culture is changing, but it is changing very slowly.”

Read it all on The Australian

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