As you may have noticed we’ve been focussed on local harvests recently and there has been no greater promoter of local produce and producers around Canberra than chef Janet Jeffs over at Old Parliament House.
Her latest Kitchen Cabinet lunch was focussed on local cheese producers. All three types of cheese, cow, goat and sheep, were represented at the lunch by three local producers – Small Cow Farm (cow, from Robertson in the Southern Highlands), Hobbit Farm (goat, from Jindabyne) and Thistledown Creamery (sheep, from Goulburn). It was clear from the outset that no matter how they came to cheese making that all the producers were passionate about what they were doing. As is the usual format at Kitchen Cabinet events there was a presentation by the producers as part of the proceedings, before we got down to the business of eating.
One thing that all the makers stressed was that like other foods milk is a seasonal product. Sure, large scale dairy farms rely on methods of staggering their production to get year round milk, but artisan cheese producers are relying on female animals having a a calf, kid or lamb at foot to produce the milk for their products. So don’t be surprised if your favourite artisanal cheese is in limited supply sometime during the year.
Lunch started off with a tasting plate of cheeses from all the producers and a piece of truly delicious paste made by Janet (the dark rectangle on the plate). I particularly liked being able to compare the salted and un-salted fresh goats cheese (one of which is on the RHS of the plate) with the mature goats cheese. We also spent a bit of time debating the content of the accompanying fruit paste, plum possibly or maybe a wine paste. Having asked, it turned out to be a combination of crab apple and apple which Janet and her staff had cooked up in the kitchen over several days.
Between entree and main, we had the chance to ask questions of the producers. There was quite a bit of debate about raw milk cheese production, a debate which clearly isn’t likely to be resolved in the near future. I think the most useful point that came from the discussion was that we shouldn’t be equating pasteurisation with ‘boiling the guts out’ of the milk. For artisanal cheese producers the process tends to be one of heating the milk to the lowest acceptable temperature over an extended period of time to achieve the result (sorry you’ll need to look up some cheese making recipes for the specific details) as opposed to the larger manufacturers which achieve pasteurisation by exposing the milk to a much higher temperature for a very quick time. The reason the small producers use the ‘low and slow’ approach is that it helps maintain the taste of the product.
We fell on our main course of twice-baked souffle, goat cheese roasted tomato and thyme and fetta, beetroot, walnut and blue cheese salad, tatziki and spiced labneh, so quickly that I forgot to take a photo (sorry). It was absolutely wonderful.
I did manage to get a shot of dessert which was Quark cheese cake with berrie compote.
For the uninitiated, like me, Quark is a type of German fresh curd cheese. It didn’t last long either!
While I certainly enjoyed the the cheese we ate on the day I came away from the event with a lot of questions about artisanal cheese production in Australia. Firstly it’s hard to get a handle on the scale of the Australian small/artisanal cheesemaking industry. Clearly there are quite a number of small scale producers setting up all across the country (as we found travelling in Tasmania), but confusion reigns, statistically that is, because many of the larger commercial maufacturers also consider themselves to be ‘small’ producers (which they probably are compared to cheese producers overseas). Putting to one side the raw milk debate, the high level of regulation of the dairy industry adds a significant level of challenge to anyone thinking of producing cheese commercially. Even to get your dairy up and running is a major challenge, let alone being able to produce high-quality products.
Clearly increasing the public’s demand for quality artisanal cheese is a complex process that is not without its hazards for the producers themselves. Greater demand puts higher stresses on the makers. Small Cow Farm, for example, has moved from producing cheese from its own herd to buying in milk from nearby herds, as the time demands of milking and producing cheese became too great for their operation. Meeting safety regulations, including rigourous testing regimes, requires a significant amount of any cheesemakers time.
One of the more interesting articles I’ve turned up since attending the lunch is a report produced by Nick Haddow of the Bruny Island Cheese Company (arguably one of our highest profile artisan cheesemakers), on assessing the viability of Australian artisan cheeses being exported overseas. Now don’t get too fussed about the export angle because Haddow’s assessment touches on a range of issues for small-scale producers, including education and training for cheesemakers, issues of quality and presentation of cheese at the retail level. I found the following comment of particular interest:
“Having seen the quality of both locally made cheeses and the imported European cheeses in the USA market, it is difficult to see how the current product range from Australia could make inroads in the immediate future. More needs to be done to encourage our cheesemakers to be making the highest quality cheeses possible – artisan, but high quality.”
If you’d like to read Nick’s report in full you can find it here.
All I can say having just quickly looked at some of the complexities of producing good artisanal cheese it hat’s off to them all, they must be mad!
PS Thanks to R for providing the photo of the entree.