Travel feature, culture: the word on cheese, AUTUMN 2018 issue
A Taste of Tassie
This remote island is a hidden hub of Australian cheese
Tasmania may be Australia’s smallest state, but it punches well above its weight. Traverse the treacherous Bass Strait off the country’s southeastern coast, and you’ll find it: an island of pristine landscapes, fantastical plants and animals, and a delicious bounty—from wild abalone to wasabi, whisky and washed rind cheeses.
Here, the sense of isolation is so intense that anywhere beyond the shores of “Tassie” is dubbed “the mainland.” A mainlander myself, I’ve long been drawn to the cheeses of this rugged island, eager to explore the buzz they’ve been creating on the Australian and world scene—so I flew across the strait to find out what makes Tassie’s cheesemakers tick.
Steeped in Tradition
The story of cheese in Tasmania, as with everywhere in Australia, begins with cheddar. And so I follow it, driving through towering temperate rainforests of the North East Highlands, then winding down to the fertile Pyengana valley, covered in lush grass and dotted with black-and-white cows. Long before factories in Tasmania began churning out mass-produced cheeses in the 20th century, dairy farming families here—some of the original British settlers—were quietly crafting clothbound wheels.
Bovines gaze quizzically as I maneuver around potholes filled with water from recent downpours to pull up at Pyengana Dairy. There, I meet Donna Coulson, who lives in the nearby town of St. Helens. She has fond memories of Pyengana cheese from her childhood. “For as long as I can remember, Dad would drive up to Pyengana every Friday afternoon for a wheel of clothbound cheese,” she says. “When my brothers got home from football training, we’d have it melted on toast for dinner. It was a family ritual.”
Around that time, an enterprising eight-year-old local named Jon Healey was making his own experimental truckles of cheddar, maturing them in a bathtub—much to his mother’s disgust. In 1992, Healey turned his childhood pastime into a profession when he opened Pyengana Dairy Company and began making farmstead cheddar using an original 1885 recipe passed down from his grandfather.
I peer through the viewing window into the make room—I’m keen to see this age-old method in action. After transforming milk into curds and draining whey from the vat, cheesemakers mill and stir the dry curds by hand before mixing them with salt and scooping them into cloth-lined hoops. After an overnight pressing, the wheels are rubbed with lard and placed on pine shelves in a cool underground maturation room.
While some wheels are graded and released at three months, the best ones are reserved for at least a year, developing an open, slightly crumbly texture and a rounded, savory flavor with hints of fresh grass. Sitting in the Farm Gate Café next door, I snack on Coulson’s old-school childhood dish of melted cheese on toast; today, she’s the café manager.
Looking out over the farm, I notice cows wandering up from the pasture to the milking shed. Here, the bovines decide for themselves when and how often they are milked, enticed by a small ration of grain and an automated back-scratch on the way out. While the farm carries on many traditions, some things have changed since 1885: Today, the cows are milked by robots.
The Big Cheese
Elsewhere on the island, robots play a more significant role in making cheese. High on a hill above the northwest seaside town of Burnie, surrounded by some of Tasmania’s greenest farmland, stands the Heritage, the largest specialty cheese factory in the Southern Hemisphere.
Built in 1955, the factory was eventually bought by Melbourne-based industry giant Lion; in 2015, the company expanded the facility, merging it with several other Tasmanian cheese plants. The span of nearly 100 cheese products, overseen by head cheesemaker and Swiss native Ueli Berger, includes specialty styles such as brie, gruyère, and parmesan—many of which are destined for supermarkets in Australia and Asia. The massive dairy now processes over 21 million gallons of Tasmanian milk every year, creating a whopping 18,500 tons of cheese.
It’s facilities like this that are responsible for much of Tasmania’s staggering dairy output; the Heritage produces almost half of the state’s cheese, while much of the remainder—mainly bulk cheddar and mozzarella—comes from a Fonterra-owned factory in Wynyard. Despite being home to only 2 percent of Australia’s population (and being geographically the smallest state by far), Tasmania churns out around a tenth of the country’s cheese, ranking third among other states. While national dairy production has decreased in the past decade, Tasmanian dairy output has grown by leaps and bounds. Much of that is thanks to a climate that encourages fresh grasses and fertile land; on some parts of the island, it rains almost every day.
Changing the Rules
It’s not just big dairy that is drawn to the Tasmanian landscape, however; aside from those two massive factories, the remaining fraction of cheese is crafted by a solid roster of small artisanal producers. When artisan cheesemaker Nick Haddow founded Bruny Island Cheese Company in 2003, it didn’t faze him that visitors—and milk—would need to traverse the D’Entrecasteaux Channel to get to his dairy on Bruny Island, off Tasmania’s southeastern coast. Thankfully, a ferry makes about 10 trips a day over the calm waters of the channel; the top deck is a great vantage point for spotting dolphins and other marine life.
Haddow’s cheeses have a cult-like following, and he’s known as a bit of a rebel. But he’s not so much a rule-breaker as a rule-changer: In 2008, after years of patient negotiation and experimentation, Haddow released Australia’s first legally produced raw milk cheese, named C2 (a nod to its cooked curd method of production). Another signature wheel, a washed rind called 1792, is matured on tiny slabs of aromatic Huon pine—an ancient timber indigenous to Tasmania. Referencing the year French explorers first landed in Tassie, it pays homage to what might have been if the French had colonized the island instead of the British.
After 15 years of buying milk, Haddow recently took the leap from cheesemaker to dairy farmer, purchasing a farm across the channel in Huonville, an idyllic region dotted with apple orchards. “I spent the first part of my career thinking a lot about what happens in the vat, but now my focus has broadened,” he says. Haddow’s herd is a carefully chosen mix of Normande, Australian Dairy Shorthorn, and Brown Swiss breeds.
“I wanted to make a statement that we weren’t using commercial dairy breeds like black-and-white Friesian-Holsteins, but also that these are all dual-purpose breeds,” says Haddow, meaning they can be utilized for both meat and milk. “One of the important aspects of our farm is that we raise all our calves and we don’t treat the males like a waste product,” he says. Instead, male calves are sold as beef later in life.
Turning Waste into Worth
Back on the other side of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel near Birchs Bay, I find a maker with a steadfast commitment to reducing waste. While peeking into the make room at Grandvewe Cheeses, I’m struck by something unusual: There is no whey draining onto the floor. Since opening the farmstead sheep’s milk dairy—known for its pungent Reblochon-style Brebichon and award-winning Sapphire Blue—in 2002, founder Diane Rae and her two children, Nicole Gilliver and Ryan Hartshorn, have collected whey for other uses: ewe feed, and fuel for a composting heating system in the animals’ shed.
But the most impressive waste-saving innovation results from Hartshorn’s drive to craft something unique: a distillery. He spent the better part of a year picking local distillers’ brains and perusing YouTube videos before he and Gilliver came up with a method to convert the whey’s complex sugars into basic sugars (the latter can be fermented into alcohol and distilled). And so Hartshorn Distillery—the world’s first distillery to produce vodka and gin from sheep’s whey—was born. In 2018, their Sheep Whey Vodka was named world champion in the World Vodka Awards.
The cycle of “waste not, want not” is complete when Hartshorn hands back some of the spent Australian botanicals used to infuse the gin, which Rae and Gilliver rub on the outside of a Fleur du Maquis–style cheese called the Gin Herbalist.
Back to the Basics
Since my first visit to Tassie 10 years ago, I can see how the cheese scene has matured. Tasmanian artisan cheeses now grace local restaurant menus, and retailers are giving serious fridge space to state-made wedges and wheels. I sense a synergy between tradition and innovation, and a deep respect for the broad cycle of cheesemaking, from paddock to plate.
My journey has come full circle, too. I drive alongside the white sandy beaches and calm blue waters of the stunning Bay of Fires on the east coast, then turn inland toward St. Helens, not far from Pyengana, to spend a final afternoon in Tassie with Ian Fowler of Bay of Fires Cheese, whose cheddar is so hard to find on the Australian mainland that I’ve tasted it only three times.
The Tassie transplant hails from the family behind Fowlers Cheese, one of the oldest cheesemaking farms in England. But he yearned for his own patch of land—“somewhere with rainfall and sunshine where the grass would grow,” he says—to continue the tradition of farmstead cheesemaking. He and his wife, Tracey, found it here, and moved from England with their children in 2009.
After acquiring 40 cows and some repurposed shipping containers, Fowler began crafting Australia’s only properly cheddared, hand-milled, cloth-bound, lard-rubbed vintage cheddar, made with the milk of his grass-fed cows. While it’s true that most Australian dairy cows graze on fresh grass year-round, many farmers supplement their animals’ feed with a small ration of grain during milking—but not Fowler.
“The grass really impacts on the day-to-day variation in the milk,” he says. As we sample wheels in the maturation room, I’m struck by the consistency of texture and flavor, albeit with subtle variations between batches. The layers are complex and lingering, with a deep savoriness balanced by a fresh acid tang. I’m surprised there is so much fresh milkiness in a cheese that’s been sitting on pine shelves for over a year.
As I turn to leave, Fowler slips a piece of cheddar into my bag; I’m taking home a taste of Tasmania.
Where to Eat in Tasmania
This elegant yet casual spot on the banks of Launceston’s Tamar River places Tasmania’s natural bounty and seasonal changes center stage. Try local dishes like wild Tasmanian wallaby with native pepper berry or whiskey-cured Huon salmon alongside a glass of Tamar Valley Pinot Noir and a wedge of Heidi Farms Gruyere.
Landscape Restaurant & Grill
Choose from a carefully curated collection of farmhouse cheeses, served tableside from a repurposed hotel carving station, while admiring John Glover’s iconic 19th-century landscape paintings depicting the colonial beauty of Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city. Menu offerings from the restaurant’s Asado grill, fueled by spent sherry, bourbon, or port casks from the Tasmanian Cask Company, are pretty tasty, too.
Hill Street Grocer
Tasmania’s leading independent fresh food retailer has multiple outlets around the state, with substantial cheese sections and dedicated cheesemongers in its Devonport and West Hobart stores. Euan Wiseman, chief of cheese in Devonport, gives pride of place to small producers such as Coal River Farm and Red Cow Dairies, alongside bigger-name Australian and international cheeses.
Where to Drink in Tasmania
Saint John Craft Beer Bar
Tasmania has not escaped the craft beer boom, and beer snobs here have a soft spot for local, small-batch gin and single malt whiskey, too. At lunch you can bring your own food to pair with an ever-changing roster of draft beers, and from 5 p.m. on the food truck out back serves beer-friendly street food like good ol’ beer-battered chips, an Aussie specialty.
Willing Bros. Wine Merchants
While many of Tasmania’s renowned wineries welcome visitors, some of its lesser-known producers are too small to operate cellar doors—so head to this watering hole for eclectic, local, and hard-to-find tipples. Pull up a stool at the marble-topped bar and ask for a flute of Bellebonne Vintage Rosé or, for an edgier taste of Tassie, a glass or three of Wellington & Wolfe Session Riesling.
The Glass House
Head to the bar at this floating restaurant on a pier for the Whey Martini: a mix of Hartshorn's award-winning vodka made from sheep's whey at Grandvewe Cheeses, fermented honey, and kunzea (a native Australian shrub). Or, sip on a Scotch-style Tasmanian whisky - the island's most buzz-worthy spirit.
What to See in Tasmania
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart
Hobart’s art museum has edgy, tongue-in-cheek, and provocative exhibitions. It’s a short drive north of the city, but you can also hop on the bespoke camouflaged catamaran from Hobart’s Brooke Street Pier. MONA’s myriad dining options, including the Source Restaurant, MONA Wine Bar, and newcomer Faro, all showcase local cheeses and should keep you sated while you digest the artwork.
60 Great Short Walks
If you’re seeking justification for indulging in Tassie’s bountiful food and drink, you might want to stretch your legs and take in a view or two. The Tasmania Parks & Wildlife service has compiled a handy list of the best short walks, ranging from gentle seaside strolls to more challenging mountain treks. Pick up a brochure from a visitor information center or download the app from their website.
Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, Huon Valley
You can’t visit the Apple Isle without tasting its namesake fruit, and here it’s available in brewed, distilled, and cooked forms. Take a self-guided tour of the Apple Museum or simply marvel at the 390 varieties on display. Then, order a tasting paddle of Willie Smith’s Organic Cider, or indulge in apple pie while sipping French-style apple brandy.
Where to Stay in Tasmania
Penny Royal Hotel and Apartments, Launceston
This former grain mill was relocated, stone by stone, from it is original location 33 miles away on Penny Royal Creek. Each of its spacious, affordable rooms is named after a local industry or sailing ship, including one called “The Dairy.” Located next to the Penny Royal Adventures Park, it’s a good option for families and thrill-seekers.
MACq 01, Hobart
This modern hotel redefines informal luxury, weaving the stories of colorful Tasmanian characters, both past and present, into each uniquely designed room. Guests have access to free storytelling tours of the hotel and surrounding Hobart waterfront, plus options such as gin master classes or an exclusive Chef’s Table experience in the Old Wharf Restaurant.