Catholic Apologist, writer of detective stories and cheese-lover G.K. Chesterton summed up the origin and mystery of cheese when he wrote. “Man took milk. robbed it of a little of its sweetness, and gave it immortality.”
Cheese is indeed one of the great culinary pleasures. It can be as sophisticated as any of the world’s food products, yet it is also among the simplest. So simple, in fact, that if raw. unpasteurised milk is left long enough at room temperature, it will begin to turn into cheese by itself.
In all milk there are naturally occurring bacteria which begin to feed upon the milk sugar, lactose, and create lactic acid. The acid, in turn, causes the milk protein. casein, to separate into solid lumps of curd, leaving the watery whey.
The result is the soured, clotted milk we pour down the kitchen sink in disgust. But were you to drain off the whey and compress the curds which remain, you would end up with a coarse, sharp cheese similar to that eaten by our earliest ancestors. (See box: ‘Panir — quick and easy.’)
The simplicity of the cheesemaking process explains why nobody can say with any certainty who made the first cheese. We may quote the earliest physical evidence — the residues found in an Egyptian pot dating from 2300 BC — but it is likely that many peoples discovered the cheesemaking process at the same time. So widespread was the making of cheese in the ancient world that the peoples of China, America and the Pacific are notable for their failure to discover it.
To the earliest herdsmen, cheese provided a way of preserving milk for use all year round. With a guaranteed food source, hunter-gatherer tribes could give up their nomadic wanderings, settle into villages and eventually build the great civilisations of Europe, the Middle East and India.
The most important advance in cheesemaking was the discovery that if milk was left in a bag made from the stomach of a suckling calf (the fourth stomach, to be exact) the curdling process was speeded up dramatically. Calf stomachs contain a powerful curdling enzyme known as rennin, and without rennin cheese-making would never have progressed much beyond the rough curd stage. Though rennet-like substances have been extracted from various fungi and plants, suckling calves still provide the main source of rennet for the world’s cheese industries.
As empires flourished and waned, so did the manufacture and consumption of cheese. The Romans, with their abiding interest in things culinary, encouraged the development of new cheese varieties both at home and in the lands they conquered. When the city of Pompeii was excavated, many dwellings were found to have separate cheese kitchens, or caseale, as well as curing rooms for cheeses.
In the Bernese Oberland and Valais regions of Switzerland, the dead were buried with bread and cheese to sustain them on their journey beyond the veil. The Swiss also used cheese as currency: in the Middle Ages artisans, labourers and priests were paid their wages partly in cash and partly in cheese. This suited them, as, unlike coinage, cheese could not be devalued.
Cheese is equally ingrained in English tradition: Cheshire cheese, Britain’s oldest variety, is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but stories surrounding it go back much further. It is said that a Cheshireman was hanged by the Romans at Chester Cross for refusing to divulge the recipe.
Until last century, the staple diet of the British labourer and his family was bread and cheese — known then as “white meat”. Red meat was the preserve of the rich; labourers saw it only on very special occasions, for to kill the only milking cow you owned was to also cut off your supply of protein.
When settlers arrived in this country late last century they found a land flowing with beef and mutton. It is little wonder that they ate it to excess — sometimes three times a day. Equally, it is understandable that cheese, because of its association with grinding poverty, was pushed into the background of the traditional New Zealand diet; we ate little of the Cheddar we exported in such huge quantities.
We still eat less than half as much cheese as the French do (8kg per person per annum, compared with 20kg for the French), and we continue to export Cheddar, but, sadly, the old image of the block of “New Zealand’s best” taking pride of place on British cheeseboards has faded completely.
For the past decade, the vast majority of our export cheese (at least 70 per cent) has ended up in the melting vats of Japanese, American or European processed cheese factories, eventually reappearing as the topping for pizzas in an American restaurant chain, or as the cheese stuffing injected into baby squid on sale in a Tokyo supermarket.
This is a situation which has been forced upon us by the protectionist policies of our client countries: in Europe we cannot sell table cheese of any kind, just Cheddar for processing, while in the United States rigid limits on the types and quantities of what we can export leave no room for diversification.
Unlike milk powder and butter, which have a ready market in the Third World, cheese seems to demand a cultural heritage of consumption. Apart from the Persian Gulf states, with their strong tradition of white cheeses such as fetta and domiati, the only customers for our hard cheeses are in Europe, or in countries where Europeans settled, such as America and Australia.
Fortunately for us, however, there is one huge exception: Japan. With an annual purchase of 27,000 tonnes (35 per cent of our export volume) Japan now represents our biggest single customer, with the New Zealand domestic market, the United States and Europe trailing behind in that order.
Social historians are at a loss to explain what great cultural shift caused the Japanese to suddenly begin eating cheese and other dairy products after World War II. Folklore has it that General Douglas MacArthur brought American ideas to Japan, one of which was milk in school lunches. Perhaps the calcium content of cheese also took the fancy of the Japanese, but whatever the reason, last year they imported 120,000 tonnes of cheese and produced another 40,000 tonnes themselves.
It seems that in new markets such as Japan, processed cheese leads the way to greater sophistication; eventually consumers acquire a taste for more traditional cheeses, or perhaps new cheeses especially tailored to their tastes.
“Flavour profiles differ for the Japanese, Australian and UK markets,” says Phil Lough of the New Zealand Dairy Board. “While the cheeses sent to these markets may be called Cheddar or Colby, they all have different qualities. Today all our export cheese is tailor-made to the taste of the consumer.”
A case in point is Egmont, a mild, Gouda-style cheese developed by the Dairy Research Institute in the early 1960s to meet the demands of the emerging Japanese market. It resembles Colby, except for an ever-soslightly sweet, nutty Swiss edge to the flavour. Only about five per cent of Egmont’s total production is sold on the domestic market, but it has become big business overseas, with a turnover of $45 million a year and still growing.
In Australia, a major success has been tasty Colby, developed in 198182 especially for that market.
The United States also has very specific requirements. Since they permit us to export a limited amount of Cheddar as table cheese, we produce a high quality product aimed squarely at their delicatessen trade. But first it must be dyed orange with anatto (a harmless tropical seed), for that is how an American consumer recognises a cheese as Cheddar. We also meet a peculiarly American demand for sharp-tasting Cheddar with a highly plastic body. Even after 12-18 months aging, Cheddar sent to the United States must still slice cleanly without showing any signs of crumbling. This means producing a mature, high moisture cheese which in reality is closer to a Colby than anything a New Zealander would recognise as Cheddar.
In all, there are 17 major specifications of New Zealand export Cheddar. Depending on the end product requirement, an overseas customer may choose a Cheddar with more fat or protein, or one packed in specially shaped crates to maintain block shape integrity through the distribution channel, thus minimising wastage. Then there is frozen Cheddar, refrigerated within 24 hours of manufacture. Such cheese is intended to have very little flavour, the idea being that overseas food manufacturers will add flavours of their choice during their processing of the raw cheese.
Ask most adult New Zealanders and they will probably tell you they grew up on processed cheese (such as Chesdale) and Cheddar. It is only in the last decade or so that the Kiwi palate has become more adventurous, and a proliferation of cheese varieties has sprung up to meet that demand. In 1980 15 varieties were made here; in 1990 this figure has quadrupled to over 60.
A new breed of craft cheesemaker has appeared. Employing ancient European techniques of surface smearing, aging, rinding and waxing, these folk have revitalised the industry, producing wonderful, flavour-packed cheeses which do not in the least resemble the “great New Zealand 1kg”.
Riding the crest of this new wave is Ross McCallum, who operates under the Kapiti Cheeses brand at his small factory just north of Paraparaumu.
The son of a Taranaki dairy farmer, taciturn and down-to-earth, McCallum could hardly be described as artistic in temperament. And with a solid background in the science of large-scale Cheddar manufacturing, he would no doubt laugh at the description of cheesemaking as an art. Yet there is no denying the creativity of this man, who, in the space of five years, has produced a dozen new varieties of cheese.
Ross McCallum’s day begins at 7.00am with the setting up of the cheesemaking equipment while the milk is being pasteurised. When the vats are full, cheesemaking begins with the addition of starter culture to what will eventually be Kirima (literally “white skin”), a log-shaped Camembert. Being Friesian milk, it does not set as well as Jersey milk, so pure calcium powder is added to the vats after the starter.
The next addition is a minute amount of freeze-dried spore culture, imported from France. These little brown granules are so potent that only a teaspoonful is needed to form the distinctive white mould coating on a whole vat’s worth of cheese.
Once the starter culture has acidified the milk (a process known as priming), the vats are heated up to setting temperature and rennet is added.
At 9.50am everything begins happening at once, as both vats of cheese have set into a solid creamy mass, and now need to be cut. Ross moves his cheese-cutting knives up and down the vats, first vertically and then horizontally, to cut the curd into small particles.
The whey is now drained (and discarded) and the curds scooped out by the bucketful and funnelled into cylindrical hoops. Once filled, the hoops have to be turned upside down periodically to ensure an even distribution of moisture and mould.
The cheese logs are then sliced into rounds, and throughout the next four weeks, as they mature, each one has to be turned daily — a backbreaking task, but vital for even growth of the surface mould.
Turning is best done first thing in the morning, says Ross, when the workers’ white overalls are at their freshest and cleanest, minimising the chance of workers bringing dreaded black mould spores into the curing room on their clothes. Once introduced, the black specks would mar the pristine white surface of the cheeses. In the spring of 1988, strong, dust-laden westerly winds pushed up the concentration of the moulds in the atmosphere — and in the curing room where an entire batch of cheese had to be discarded.
Black mould is actually perfectly harmless — one of a number which can grow on a Camembert cheese. “Look at the surfaces of traditional French Camemberts and you will see all sorts of weird and wonderful bacteria,” says Ross with a chuckle. “But New Zealanders object very strongly to anything but a pure white surface flora.”
When Kapiti Cheeses began trading in 1985, Ross McCallum made mostly traditional cheeses such as Cheddar and Gouda, but when the company began supplying the hospitality industry — tourist lodges hotels and better restaurants— he began experimenting with new varieties.
“Chefs are always looking for something new, and this is a very customer-driven activity,” he says.
The first of these new cheeses was Kapiti, a spreadable cheese with a creamy, slightly lactic flavour. A more brittle, acidic version was dubbed Kapimana, while a smoked version, developed in 1987, is Aukai (from the Maori “to eat smoke”).
Some varieties are “accidents” the result of trying to make some‑ thing else. A batch of Brie did not turn out as intended, “but the customer liked it, so who is to argue?” So we have Aorangi, a great white wedding cake of a cheese which oozes luxuriously when ripe. Slightly more acid than conventional Brie, Aorangi has a delicious mushroom-like edge to the flavour, derived from the white surface mould.
Ross McCallum’s current passion is sheep’s milk cheeses. In the past, Kapiti have made some excellent goats’ milk cheeses (notably St Maure — a goats’ milk Camembert log) but these always had limited “cult appeal” because of their strong flavour. Sheep’s milk has greater potential, he believes, because it is less pungent. It also has a higher yield and a higher percentage of milk solids 18 per cent as against 10 per cent for goats.
A steady supply of ewes’ milk is available from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Levin, who are assessing the commercial feasibility of milking sheep in New Zealand.
At the moment, Poll Dorsets are being milked, with the best ewes giving three litres per day, but only for a short three-month lactation period. The world’s top breeds, the Awassi from Israel and the Friesland from Europe, yield up to five litres per day, and can be milked for more than six months of the year. There is now talk of importing these breeds into New Zealand.
Ross’s newly developed blue sheep’s milk cheese, Hipikaha (“strong sheep”), is superbly rich and sweet, and probably the nearest thing to a classic Roquefort we have yet seen in this country. Ross envisages a bright future for it in Australia, now that the Australian government has banned the import of unpasteurised French Roquefort following several cases of contamination.
Kapiti’s sheep’s milk fetta is also a great success. Excessive saltiness is a common criticism of New Zealand fettas, but not of this one. It’s also more pliable than most (it slices without crumbling) and has a subtly pungent flavour reminiscent of goat’s milk fetta, but with none of that pongy billy-goat reek.
The development and naming of new cheese varieties is Ross’s response to what he sees as the futile exercise of trying to reproduce traditional European cheeses in New Zealand.
“European cheeses can’t be easily copied here, because the cows there are fed on grain throughout the winter, and that changes the protein component of the milk. The cost of grain-feeding in New Zealand is simply too high.
“Besides, New Zealand cheese-makers have enough competition as it is, with the Europeans selling their subsidised cheeses at much cheaper rates than ours.”
He cites an example: Australian chefs being offered EC-subsidised Raclette at four dollars a kilo wholesale — a price that would hardly cover the cost of the milk in New Zealand, let alone the cheesemaking, exporting and promotion.
Yet the cheese business, like any other, is quirky. Not all of the varieties developed by the new wave of cheesemakers have been successful. Some, including a cheese which was flavoured with lavender, were frankly bizarre, and tempted few palates. Conversely, some of our “European” cheeses have received high acclaim.
A case in point is Ferndale Dairies in Eltham. At the 1989 European Cheese Championships in Holland — effectively the world championships for specialty cheeses — a Ferndale Raclette gained second place in the open class, where 41 cheeses of all types were competing.
Ferndale Raclette outscored all other Raclettes and failed by only one point to win the top award, receiving a total of 91 points out of a possible 100. Of the three other European Raclettes entered, none scored higher than 80 points. If these results are any indication, then the best Raclette in the world is made not in the Swiss Alps, but right here in New Zealand.
In the class for white moulded cheeses, Ferndale Brie and Burguignon were awarded bronze medals against stiff competition from top French Camemberts and Bries.
This is an impressive result for a company established only five years ago as a specialist subsidiary of the New Zealand Co-Operative Rennet Co.
The initiative came from French cheesemaker Jean Garsuault, whose son Christopher had visited New Zealand following his military service in the Pacific. He had been amazed at the quality of the milk, and even more astounded that all we made with it was Cheddar.
Accordingly, Garsuault pere came out and convinced the Dairy Board that they should choose a local cheesemaker to sign a technology transfer agreement with his company. the Compagnie Francaise des Fromages, of Paris.
Since the Rennet Company were already making the Galaxy range of specialty cheeses at that time, they were the obvious candidate, and the agreement was signed in October 1985, in Paris. A French cheese-maker was duly sent to Eltham, and production of the first six cheeses of the now famous Ferndale Dairies range began in November 1986.
The Ferndale factory is a curious mixture of handcrafting and high tech: most of the French cheeses are made there by hand, for instance, as are the blue cheeses, but Gouda, Edam and Emmentaler production is almost totally automated, using computer-operated machinery.
Well, why not just automate the lot and be done with it. I asked.
“That would only be possible if we were making large runs of just a few cheeses,” explained cheese factory manager Brian Gadsby, “but as it happens, we are making only small amounts of a large number of cheeses.”
We pass the whirring machinery and proceed down a long corridor flanked with 40 coolrooms, each set at a specific temperature, and each with its own particular smell. Some, such as the fetta, curing in tanks of brine, have virtually none apart from the disinfectant on the well-scrubbed walls and floors, while in others, such as the Raclette, you are hit by a sweet, yeasty blast as soon as the door is opened.
For surface-ripened cheeses such as Raclette, Elsberg and Gruyere, every individual cheese must be rubbed by hand two or three times a week using a cloth infused with a yeasty brew. This treatment develops the surface flora of moulds and bacteria that is responsible for maturing the cheese and creating its characteristic flavour.
In true French tradition, the latest additions to the Ferndale range, Camembert and the Brie, have been given a new name — La Tour Eiffel — to distinguish them from other local brands on the market.
Brie and Camembert were being made on an experimental basis in New Zealand as long ago as 1911, but it was not until the late 1970s that successful Camembert production began. One of the first companies off the mark was the Puhoi Valley Cheese Company, which now makes three types of Camembert: their original Bouton d’Or brand, mild, creamy, and ready-ripened; Classique, a sharper, more flavoursome variety — best kept to mature for two weeks before eating; and the very much tastier Aakronia, which would appeal to the more sophisticated consumer.
What sets Puhoi Valley cheese apart from other brands is the use of the ultrafiltration process. Developed in Denmark about 10 years ago. ultrafiltration concentrates milk to one fifth of its original volume, and retains all of the milk fats and proteins. (In normal cheesemaking a percentage of these solids is lost in whey.) The end result is a smoother, creamier cheese, which is why the process is ideal for Brie and Camembert. It is also suitable for fetta and other high moisture cheeses such as quark or quarg. (The name of this soft, acid curd cheese is derived from a word which in Britain, Central Europe and right through to Turkey means bog or mud, as in “quagmire”; cheese-maker’s bog, in other words!)
With assistance from a French cheesemaker, Puhoi began mixing goats’ milk Camemberts and fettas in 1983. The goat fetta won first prize in the 1986 New Zealand Easter Show for the best exotic cheese, but the Camembert never enjoyed the same success. “The problem,” says chief executive Lloyd Darroch, “is that the market for goat Camembert, while enthusiastic, is small.”
Another difficulty with goats’ milk is that it is very seasonal. Accordingly, Puhoi has moved away from goats’ milk products in favour of the cow, and now makes cheese all year round.
Puhoi’s is one of only two ultrafiltration plants in the country. The acquisition reflects Lloyd Darroch’s belief that the way ahead for New Zealand cheesemakers is technology. not craft.
“Nowadays, the so-called art of the cheesemaker is not nearly as important as the science,” he says. “If you relied on artists to make cheese, you would have severe quality control problems. The process is simply too well understood now. I’d love to be able to tell you that we have a 65-year-old cheesemaker who has made Camembert all his life and is the only one who knows how to make it, but the fact is, we haven’t.”
If all cheesemaking could be reduced to pure science, however, there would be no room for innovators like Colin and Les Dennison.
Despite having had no formal training — they are teachers by profession — the Dennisons managed to set up as cheesemakers, and then come up with an original cheese variety which proved to be so popular that a second factory had to be established to cope with the demand.
They first hit upon the idea of cheesemaking only as a way of using up the excess milk they were getting from the cows on their four-hectare block at Waikouaiti, near Dunedin.
After “a tremendous amount of reading” and learning about pasteurisation techniques, Colin Dennison set up his small Evansdale Cheese Factory in 1981.
“It was built entirely of secondhand material, leftovers and hand-me-downs from old cheese factories,” recalls Colin. Vats came from an old railway catering unit, the milk tank from an olcl cheese factory, and the pressing trays from a freezing works. “In fact,” says Dennison, “the original size of the factory was determined by the size of a sink unit from Wain’s Hotel in Dunedin.” It was a Steptoe and Son operation, he cheerfully admits. “It still is.”
Colin’s famed Farmhouse cheese came into being soon after he began operation. Basically, it is a Gouda-style white curd cheese subjected to high humidity curing, with a Camembert mould on the outside.
“I remember cutting one open in the early days and thinking, ‘This is marvellous— let’s continue with this idea!”‘
He did, and now Farmhouse is made daily by Whitestone Cheese, a factory he built in Oamaru in 1987. Meanwhile, back in Waikouaiti, Colin is still experimenting.
“We get old-time cheesemakers through here now and again, and one of them described a process in the old days of aging Cheddar by putting it over malt vinegar — the fumes causing changes in flavour. So, we are trying the same thing with Wensleydale cheese.”
Colin has also taken up a tip from another old cheesemaker, who was making cheeses in 1940, and is experimenting with cheeses soaked in a solution of salt and boiled juniper leaves.
If that sounds adventurous, then how about another current project: a fermented fizzy whey drink, flavoured with herbs?
In direct contrast to these Kiwi innovators are the Dutch cheesemakers in this country, who concentrate on the strictly traditional cheeses of Holland: Gouda, Edam, Amsterdam,Leidse.
Indeed, so concerned are these people to retain the character of the original Dutch cheeses, that some have come into conflict with the health authorities.
At issue is the pasteurisation of milk, which is compulsory in New Zealand, yet in Holland has never been carried out by the small farmhouse cheesemakers in all the 2400 years of their existence. Raw milk cheeses are also perfectly legal in the great cheesemaking countries of Switzerland, France, Italy and England.
The Dutch cheesemakers say that not only does raw milk produce a cheese with more complexity of flavour, but that this cheese is better for you. The pasteurisation process, they say, kills off valuable lipase enzymes, which aid digestion of the cheese and may also have a role in controlling cardiovascular disease caused by accumulation of excessive fats and cholesterol.
The Health Department says raw milk cheeses pose a health risk. Inparticular, they point to the contamination of soft cheeses in Europe by the Listeria bacteria, which can cause miscarriages in pregnant women. The latest of these outbreaks occurred only last year.
The raw milk cheese advocates reply that Listeria is only found in soft, fresh cheeses such as cottage cheese and Camembert. and has never yet been discovered in hard cheese. They say the natural acidity of cheese kills Listeria bacteria within the 60 day maturation period for cheeses such as Gouda.
Heading the struggle to change the regulation is Albert Alferink of Mercer. Last year he was fined $200 for obstruction of an officer of health and for selling seized cheese.
A year previously, in 1988, he had been visited by Health Department inspectors and asked if he had been pasteurising his milk. He admitted he had not been, so they seized his stock of Gouda and Edam cheeses. However, since they did not have the storage facilities, they left them in his shop. In defiance, Alferink continued to sell the cheese, until the remaining cheeses were seized by the health department inspectors when they returned six weeks later.
Like other Dutch cheesemakers whose businesses were closed down, Alferink now pasteurises his milk, but he would still like to see New Zealand follow the lead of the US Food and Drug Administration, which allows raw milk in the manufacture of hard cheeses such as Gouda, provided the cheese is cured for at least 60 days.
Such reform does not look likely. The Dairy Board, fearful of the horrendous consequences for our export industry were an outbreak of Listeria to be traced to our cheese, remains adamantly opposed to unpasteurised cheese.
Recently, a minor compromise was reached, with new regulations, whereby milk can be heated to only 60°C (instead of 72°C, the normal pasteurisation temperature) and the resulting cheese withheld from sale for three months. However, tests must be done by MAF prior to sale, and the craft cheesemakers say the costs of these are prohibitive.
If anything, it seems the operation of small cheese factories may be tightened up. New health regulations are imminent. whereby microbiological testing for phosphatase and Listeria will become mandatory on a batchby-batch basis. Such costs are likely to have a significant impact on the small operators.
The regulations make things hard as it is. Recently, Dutch cheesemakers Karin and Rients Rypma of Rangiora began buying their milk direct from a dairy farm, meaning they have had to invest in a pasteuriser. At $12,000 for a second-hand machine from a dairy factory, the Rypmas considered they got off lightly. They estimate it would cost a craft cheesemaker about $36,000 to install a new pasteurises.
The Rypmas emigrated six years ago. Karin says they did it for “the usual reasons” — pollution, overcrowding, aggression, and also, at that time, the level of unemployment in Holland. They were looking for a better environment in which to raise their two boys.
Before emigrating, however, they both took a year off work to learn how to make Dutch cheeses. Rients, who had begun his career as a stock-feed agent, visited the bigger factories, while Karin went to the smaller farms where the herds might be only 40 cows, and the wives make the cheese.
“I learned a lot of little tricks from them,” she says.
The Rypma’s cheeses are all Dutch, among them Gouda, Friesian Cloves (flavoured with cumin and cloves, and left to mature for a year or more), low fat/low salt Edam — a great favourite with dieters—a garlic cheese. a herb cheese, a black pepper cheese and Leiden.
The latter is a cumin-flavoured cheese named after the Dutch city of the same name. In the making of traditional Leiden, the Dutch farmer used to clean his feet in whey, then tread the cumin seed into the curd a practice which has died out in modern Holland as it is considered unhygienic. As the cheese ripened, its surface was rubbed with beestings — the first milk produced by a mothering cow — which had to be stored in a pot since it was not always available. After several weeks, the pot would begin to stink badly, and a common punishment for misbehaved farmers’ children was to be ordered to sit next to it.
In spring, the Rypmas make a fresh mild cheese. which in Holland is called May cheese, from the wonderfully flavoured new season’s milk. The recipe is similar to Gouda, except the cheese is not matured at all and is eaten within a week.
Karin and Rients collect all their milk from a single farm; this way they know they are getting only one type of milk, and can count on maintaining a unique flavour to their cheese. More importantly, the farmer uses no chemical sprays and, unlike the lands further south in Canterbury, there are no residues of DDT.
Pesticide-free cheese is also a major concern of Bob and Anna Rosevear, who make Dutch-style cheese under the Mahoe Farm Cheese brand. All their cheese is manufactured from organically-produced milk. That is, the fertilisers are all natural — cow manure, cheese whey, rock phosphate and liquefied fish and the pastures on their Kerikeri farm are totally free from pesticides and herbicides.
“Insects are not really a problem up here,” says Anna, but weeds certainly are: thistles have to be individually grubbed, and gorse slashed — by hand.
The Rosevears make mainly traditional Dutch farmhouse cheeses Gouda, Edam, Leidse, Friesian Clove — as well as a chive-flavoured Gouda and, occasionally, Amsterdam.
Unlike the Gouda of the large factories, which is vacuum-sealed in plastic, the Mahoe Goudas have only a very thin plastic coating.
“This allows the cheese to breathe,” explains Anna, “which makes for a firmer, less sticky texture than the large commercial brands. It is also aged longer, giving it much more flavour.”
They also make an original soft cheese they have named Belrose. Faced with the problem of what to do with all the cream left over from making Edam (a skim-milk cheese), they adapted the recipe for Amsterdam cheese, but using cream instead of milk. The result is a very soft, almost spreadable cheese which is usually sold when only a month old. As a young cheese it has a mild flavour, but it very soon acquires a tang, and in 1988, when they had a huge surplus, they decided to try aging them. The result a year later was a semi-hard, dark yellow cheese reminiscent of aged Cheddar, but without the associated sharpness.
If New Zealand follows trends of the past few years in Europe, the market for such organic products can only grow, and with the increasing culinary sophistication of New Zealanders, the future for gourmet cheese looks bright.
Gone forever are the days when Charles de Gaulle could sniff that he would never visit a country which made two varieties of cheese, hard and soft.
Throughout all the great dairying regions of this country there is one recurring, if not especially, attractive, landmark: the decaying hulk of a small cheese factory, its yard knee-deep in coltsfoot, windows smashed, doors banging in the wind, its rooms now used only for storing farm machinery.
Such factories may be only 40 years old, but in a sense they are all monuments to the Victorian era, for right up until the rush to automation that took place in the 1960s, New Zealanders were still making Cheddar in essentially the same archaic, backbreaking way as their nineteenth century forbears.
Nothing could provide a greater contrast to the computer-guided conveyor belt systems of today’s cheese factory than the crude rakes, buckets, and hand-cranked cheese presses of yesteryear. Yet for the older generation of cheesemakers, the use of such implements is well within living memory.
Dave Hawkes recalls that when he began his cheesemaking career at the Hokonui Cheese Factory in 1922, “all our milk was brought in by the farmers on carts — just two horses and the brake—anti it was not until 1924 that I saw my first motorised truck.”
Horses and carts remained the norm until the late 1940s, when a number of Ferguson tractors began to appear and were used, among other things. to transport the milk to the factory.
Such inefficiencies of transport. combined with the labour-intensive nature of the early cheese industry, explain why regions like Taranaki were dotted with tiny dairy factories. built within several miles of each other. In the 1920s there were 45 factories around New Plymouth, and about the same number around Patea. Today, just three cheese factories service the whole of Taranaki.
In front of every cheese factory was a concrete platform, the “stage”, where the farmers wheeled in the cumbersome 20-gallon cans from their carts. And a stage it certainly was, too, for the exchange of local gossip and frequent stand-up fights between farmer and factory manager over the quality of the milk. The manager had the power not only to downgrade dirty milk. but to reject it altogether, and, being well aware that the farmer might try to slip through the same can of milk the following morning, he might add some rennet to curdle the milk, or have it dyed blue.
The milk was tipped into vast open scales (which in one remote district were put to such novel uses as weighing a new-born baby!) and sent down a chute into a receiving vat.
It might then be pasteurised, but only after a fashion, for while pasteurisers became common after about 1918, they only heated the milk sufficiently to level out the bacteria, rather than eradicate them completely. It was only in the early 1960s, when government regulations specified exact temperatures and times, that true pasteurisation began.
The pasteuriser ensured the milk hit the cheese vat at about 32°C the setting temperature. As soon as the vats were filled, agitators were turned on, rennet was added, and the vat stirred for no more than three minutes.
The young Dave Hawkes learned the critical importance of not over-stirring the hard way: “I was up a ladder one day cleaning a cooler when my boss, Mr Farquhar, told me to take out the blades from a vat of milk which was having its rennet stirred in. As I was still busy up the ladder I thought, ‘Oh. that’s okay, I’ll take the blades out when I’ve finished this job.’
“I left the machine going for another ten minutes, and then, before I knew it, there was Mr Farquhar down below saving. ‘Hello, hello, what’s going on here?’ The milk had coagulated and the blades had torn the junket into a terrible stringy mess!” This was the end of any good cheese from that vat.
Starters in the early days were much less reliable than they are now. Up until the 1950s, the culture would very likely be grown in flasks in the manager’s own kitchen, and pipetted every day on the kitchen table into another flask to start anew. Under such conditions, starters rapidly turned into chaotic cocktails of various bacterial strains, all with different characteristics. Getting cheese of a desired moisture content and acidity was a hit-and-miss affair.
To further complicate the cheesemaker’s life, there was the ever-present threat of virus attack wiping out the starter altogether.
“At Dalefield we had 43 different starters. 18 or 19 fast, and the rest slow.” says retired cheesemaker Russell Sayer. “These would be paired up and rotated, so that six to eight days would elapse before the same starters were used again.
“We had a lot of slow days and dead days too — where the phage (virus) caught up and killed the starters. If that happened we had to rush off and borrow some flasks of starter culture from our neighbours.”
On a “slow” day there might be nothing for the workers to do but sit around in the packing room playing cards and drinking beer, waiting for the acidity to build up to the required level in the cheese.
That may sound pleasant enough. but John McGaughey. now technical services manager at the Dairy Board, well remembers the other side of these slow days: “Often we had to cover the vats with canvas to keep the curd warm, and then come back in the early hours of the morning to make the cheese — and there was no such thing as overtime back then.”
Nor were overalls and aprons supplied. Workers would fashion their own aprons with salt bags tied at the waist. After being sacked from his job, one disgruntled worker buried his salt bag apron in a fresh export cheese. which no doubt caused a sensation for some unsuspecting English grocer.
Beside the factory was a smoke-stained boiler house. Usually it was coal fired, but Dave Hawkes recalls that in the 1920s the Hokonui cheese factory’s boiler was fired by wood; outside the factory were great stacks of rata and rimu brought in by dairy farmers who were still in the process of clearing their land.
Steam produced by the boiler house had many uses: it ran the pasteuriser, cooked the starter, heated the cheese and wax vats, and was used to steam clean the vats. At least, those were the official uses. Ray Tinsley tells of factory steam hoses being siphoned off into the world’s first automated hangi,while the warmth of the boiler room was also found very useful for drying freshly scrubbed underwear, or for making illegal home brew. Certain factory managers secretly burnt dead cheeses in the boiler combustion chamber, thus removing all evidence and escaping the wrath of the company directors.
After cooking, the curd was pushed up to the end of the vats in a big pile with wooden rakes, which were then propped up against the pile as the whey was drained off at the other end of the vat.
The vat had then to be “hand-walloped” to dry out the curd. The worker cupped his hands and drew them back through the curd, again and again.
The curd was then heaped up along both sides of the vat, with a drain in the middle, and left for 15 minutes to mat into a solid mass, or “cheddar”. Workers would then take special knives shaped like a slasher (very often they actually were slashers) and cut the curd into blocks.
These blocks were then turned every quarter hour to allow each side in turn to rest on the smooth bottom of the vat; this flattened the lump of curd under its own weight.
One and a half hours later, the blocks were fed into the mill. consisting of a grill of blades which shunted back and forth against a block of wood. The mill was bolted on to the side of the vat and driven by belts attached to the overhead drive shaft.
Working in pairs, one worker would feed the blocks through a hopper into the mill, while the other spread the finger-sized pieces evenly over the vat with a fork.
The worker then had to dig his hands into the curd, turn it over and rub it up and down the side of the vat like a washboard. The idea was that no two bits of curd could be allowed to mat together. The curd was then sprinkled with salt, driving out the remaining whey. and forked over again. It was left for 25 minutes, and then all the curd was thrown over to one side of the vat.
It was now time for “hooping up” and pressing the cheese. Since the workers knew they could go home once this job was done, it often turned into a mad race. especially as each worker was assigned his own hoop to be filled.
The hoops had to be lined with cloth, and curds were bucketed in from the vat. Each hoop took four buckets, and after the third bucket the cheesemaker had to punch the curd down with his fists to compress it. (This activity earned workers the nickname “cheese punchers”.) If you did not punch the curd down sufficiently, the hoop would not take the necessary four buckets, and the resulting cheese would be underweight.
Thirteen cheese hoops were laid flat. end to end, in a press consisting of a metal frame with a giant screw at one end. At the end of the screw, or “worm”, was a handle which had to be cranked by hand — often resulting in slips and grazed knuckles for its operator — until the press was tight and he could pull on the handle no more.
Scalding water was poured over the hoops to force the curd to expand out into the cheesecloth and form a rind. This protected the cheese against shrinkage.
After pressing, each cheese had to be removed from the press and trimmed with a knife to a standard size. If they were too small they were known as a “homer”, as the top lid had hit home against the rim of the hoop, rather than there being a slight overflow of curd to allow the cheese to be pressed properly.
The trimmed cheeses were resealed with cheesecaps and linen. placed hack in the press and left overnight. At about 11pm every night. a worker had to return to the factory and crank up every press again, to keep the pressure up until the morning.
The day and month of manufacture were written on each cheese with an indelible ink pencil, and then a “rocker brand” would be used to stamp the company’s name on the cheese in three places. The cheeses were then trolleyed off to the dark curing room, where they had to be turned every day for 13 days.
These early curing rooms relied only on their solid, insulated walls for cooling, and the only way to keep mould formation in check was to burn sulphur or formalin tablets on a tin lid at night.
For export, the cheese had to be coated with wax and then packed into special crates, shaped like long cylinders with battens on 12 sides. Each crate held two 801b cheeses end to end, separated by a centre board, or veneer. Sometimes, in idle moments. the workers would write love letters on the veneers, and once a reply was received by a Taranaki worker from an English woman, asking how it was that a New Zealander was packing Danish cheese, since that was how the cheese had been labelled when it arrived in her shop.
After World War II, a number of inventions took much of the hard physical labour out of cheesemaking. For instance. “creeper” presses running on compressed air replaced hand-operated models. They were not devoid of difficulties, though: the row of cheeses could arch up clear of the press like a monstrous caterpillar, and then, if the pressure was not released in a hurry, they would explode in a mass of curd and flying metal.
In 1960 the Dairy Research Institute, with assistance from the Dairy Board, embarked on a comprehensive programme of mechanisation. They were prompted to do this by labour shortages in rural areas, and also by radical improvements in the quality of starter cultures. With minimal risk of slow vats. and the resulting hiccups in production, full automation could proceed.
The result was the Vatmaster and the Cheddarmaster, which, with certain refinements, are still in use today.
Now that cutting, stirring, cooking, draining, cheddaring, milling, salting, drying and pressing are all done at the push of a button, old-timers like Dave Hawkes maintain that much of the pride and the craft has disappeared from cheesemaking. And so. perhaps, it has.
Yet life is full of delicious ironies. In the 1980s, just as Cheddar-making became about as automated as it could get, New Zealand saw the rise of the boutique cheesemakers, and with them, the return of open vats, cheese knives, rakes, buckets, and hand salting. The wheel has turned full circle.
Now that specialty cheeses such as Camembert, Bleu de Bresse, and Gruyere have proved to be so popular here, the obvious question is, why didn’t anybody think of diversifying away from Cheddar before?
The answer is that the New Zealand cheese industry has always been export-oriented, and most of the soft and semi-hard cheeses are too perishable to travel well. Cheddar, on the other hand, is one of the few cheeses which actually improve with the time it takes a cargo ship to reach the other side of the world, and until our cosy trading relationship was shattered by Britain’s entry into the EC, this was the type of cheese John Bull wanted to buy.
So, it seems, did the New Zealand public. Early attempts to diversify from Cheddar invariably failed: in 1885, for example, two Swiss brothers by the name of Fischer began producing Gruyere and Emmental in a converted farm outhouse at Pukerimu, near Cambridge, but they gave up after only one year.
Then, in 1912, the (then) Department of Agriculture appointed a Miss G. Nest-Davies as an instructor in the making of French regional cheese. From 1912 to 1921 she travelled the country, teaching the art of making small, fresh cheeses not only to factory cheesemakers, but also to a number of small-scale farmhouse makers, many of them women.
It was Davies who made New Zealand’s first Camembert, Coulommiers, Gervais and Pont l’Eveque. Despite an optimistic outlook at the time, an innate conservatism in the customer meant that the market for these “soft and fancy” cheeses proved to be limited, and only one or two small cheesemakers persisted with them. The one early success was Stilton. This is perhaps not surprising, given that it was an English cheese well known to English emigrants and their descendants.
In the 1940s the Dairy Research Institute began developing a blue cheese, and later its pilot plant efforts were taken over and developed commercially by the New Zealand Co-Operative Rennet Co at Eltham.
New Zealanders have cause to be grateful for the release of blue vein in 1951, for it was this pungent silver-wrapped wedge that first opened our eves to that fact that there is more to cheese than Cheddar.