Australasia section, culture: the word on cheese, Best Cheese of the Year 2017 issue
Read the online version of the article here or download the pdf here.
When you think of Australia, do you imagine golden sandy beaches, outback desert landscapes, or lush tropical rainforests? Sure, those are all present, but in between those extremes are verdant dairy pastures with cows, sheep, goats, and water buffalo grazing on green grass year-round. Across the ditch in New Zealand, similarly lush pastures fringe the South Island’s glacial peaks and fiordlands, and are spread around the active geothermal zones of the North Island.
Until about 1980, most Aussies and Kiwis had a universal love of just one cheese: mass-produced cheddar, which was commonly enjoyed on sandwiches made with sliced white bread. But then something interesting happened. A wave of Dutch migrants landed in New Zealand, bringing cheesemaking traditions from their homeland, and some young, well-traveled Australians decided to recreate the traditional cheeses of Europe at home. There are now more than 100 varieties of specialty cheese being produced Down Under—by family-run artisanal and farmstead cheese business and large, global manufacturers alike. So no matter where you go, sumptuous wedges and wheels await.
Smoked Goat Gouda
Meyer Gouda Cheese
Hamilton, New Zealand
Brothers and second-generation cheesemakers Miel and Geert Meyer added two trophies to their (heavily laden) awards shelf this year for their Smoked Goat Gouda. It’s a step away from the more traditional Dutch-style cheeses the company is known for, but it still managed to nab the Champion of Champions in the Commercial division as well as Champion New Cheese at the New Zealand Champions of Cheese awards. The wheel offers a smooth texture and subtle smoky flavor that plays well with the underlying caramel notes from the goat’s milk.
Mercer, New Zealand
If you’re heading south of Auckland, be sure to take a detour off State Highway One to stop at the quaint yellow tasting room and shop at Mercer Cheese. Fifty fifty—an aged gouda style—has crowd-pleasing clusters of crunchy tyrosine crystals and complex sweet-and-savory flavors, but if you see it, act fast: it’s only made when the late-season milks are deemed just right for this type of cheese.
Just Ewe Winsam Farmhouse
Kerikeri, New Zealand
Cheesemaker and sheep farmer Catherine Oakley was named Champion Cheesemaker at the 2017 NZ Champions of Cheese awards after her debut entry, Just Ewe Winsam Farmhouse, achieved a rare perfect score. The semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese—which also won the Champion Sheep’s Cheese trophy—is inspired by Welsh Caerphilly and has a delightfully toothsome texture, with beautifully balanced savory flavors and a mildly piquant finish.
Grinning Gecko Brie
Grinning Gecko Cheese Co.
Whangarei, New Zealand
While the Northland region may be better known as the cultural and spiritual birthplace of New Zealand, Grinning Gecko Cheese Co. is putting the area firmly on the country’s cheese map too. Handmade from certified organic cow’s milk, their voluptuously smooth brie won Champion Soft White Rind Cheese for the third year in a row, and head cheesemaker Zev Kaka-Holtz won the Aspiring Cheesemaker Award. The brie’s earthy aroma and mushroomy flavor are hard to beat.
Prom Country Cheese
Burke and Bronwen Brandon are unique. Not only are they among a small handful of Australian farmstead cheesemakers who specialize in seasonal ewe’s milk cheeses, they’re also the only Aussie makers using indigenous cultures sourced from their own milk. The resulting Venus Blue is a stunning example of balancing subtlety with complexity. The striking veining contributes piquant and meaty notes to the underlying sheep’s milk sweetness, while a bread-like finish lingers on the palate.
That’s Amore! Cheese
Meaning “little devils” in Italian, these cheeses are a reflection of the fun and good-humor of their creator, Sicilian-born Giorgio Linguante. Sold in pairs that are tied with string like miniature cacciocavalo, these supple, stretchy handfuls are flavored with liquid smoke and stuffed with a chile-spiked olive. You’ll banish any ideas of bland provolone-style cheese as you bite into one of these smoky, fiery mouthfuls—especially if you slice ‘em in half and grill until browned and bubbling.
Mil Lel Superior Parmesan
Warrnambool Cheese & Butter Factory
Unlike many Australian cheeses called “parmesan”, the Mil Lel Superior brand is made using traditional Italian methods and aged for 18 months, which lend it balanced fruity and umami notes plus a crystalline crunch. It’s also one of a few Australian cheeses available both pre-packaged and cut-to-order. So whether you need a quick block to grate over your favorite bowl of pasta, or a rustic-looking chunk to serve on a cheese board, this Champion Australian Hard Cheese is easy to find.
Emporium Selection Washed Rind
Unicorn Cheese Factory
This stinky, orange umami-bomb is made exclusively for Aldi supermarkets at the Unicorn Cheese factory south of Sydney. Frenchman Gilbert Presenti founded Unicorn Cheese in 1977, making it the longest continuously running producer of French-style specialty cheeses in Australia. When fully ripe, this washed rind has all the gooeyness of a mature Époisses. Imagine a spoonable version of maple-smoked bacon—this cheese is it.
Jaffles: A cheese and tomato toasted sandwich, or jaffle, is traditionally made in a jaffle iron, a square or round hinged cast-iron mold which crimps the edges of the sandwich while toasting the bread and melting its contents. Jaffles can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack, and transcend all notions of age, class or creed. Indeed, Australians’ love of the cheese and tomato toastie is so universal, you can even get one at McDonalds.
Cheese rolls: Take a slice of cheddar, place it on a piece of white bread, then fold it in thirds and toast it in a sandwich press. Cheese rolls are a popular after-school snack for children (who refer to them as “mousetraps”), and a morning-after staple for university students following a big night. Cheesemonger Calum Hodgson says they also get rolled out for school fundraisers and similar events—think of them as the Kiwi equivalent of corn dogs or Frito pies.
EAT / SEE / STAY
Vue de Monde: Take the express elevator to the 55th floor of Melbourne’s iconic Rialto building for a drink at the Lui Bar, which offers spectacular views over the city, particularly at dusk. The adjoining Vue de Monde restaurant injects a sense of humor into its fine dining degustation menu, which features native Australian ingredients (think emu egg salad and kangaroo with muntari berries), and a cheese course served tableside.
Giraffe by Simon Gault: This celebrity chef’s latest venture is a playful blend of contemporary New Zealand cuisine and culture, with some quirky twists. The smoked butter is spiked with turmeric and served on a volcanic stone, the availability of the fish course is “subject to appropriate fishing weather,” and the menu invites diners to shout the staff a round of beers, which is a very Kiwi way of saying “thank you.” The restaurant also features a marble-topped cheese trolley that should spin any cheese-lover’s wheel.
Great Ocean Road: One of the world’s most scenic coastal drives happens to wind its way through the prime dairy country of southwest Victoria. Stop at Cheese World to taste cheeses from Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, one of Australia’s largest dairy processors, and to explore the region’s dairy heritage at the Cheese World Museum. But the reason most people come here is to gaze upon the Twelve Apostles, a series of towering rock formations off the steep rocky coast, viewed from a network of walking trails and spectacular lookouts.
Hobbiton Movie Set Tours: If you’re a fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings you’ll know that hobbits love to eat, but did you know cheese is a staple in any self-respecting hobbit’s pantry? Explore the hobbit-holes of Middle Earth on a guided tour of the original Hobbiton movie set, complete with a beverage at the Green Dragon Inn. Evening banquet tours are also available for travelers with more substantial appetites.
Hotel DeBrett: Auckland-based food blogger Bri Dimattina recommends checking in to this contemporary boutique hotel, not least because it’s located above a cheese shop (The Kapiti Store). The Hotel showcases art and photography by New Zealand artists, and local wines and produce feature heavily on the menus and wine lists of its stylish bars and restaurants. It is also the ideal base for exploring the vibrant dining scene along the Auckland viaduct harbour.
Promhills Cabins: For a rustic Australian bush experience, book a cabin or eco-tent at Wilson’s Promontory, the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland. A bushwalk through Wilsons Prom National Park, with its spectacular granite boulders and windswept beaches, is the perfect way to work up an appetite for some regional artisanal cheeses. Visit the Prom Country Cheese farm and café for lunch, and to taste its award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses.