Urban Excursion column, culture: the word on cheese, SUMMER 16 issue
From fine dining to farmers' markets, Oz's curds capital has something for cheese lovers of all stripes.
Melbourne was recently named the world’s most livable city by The Economist for the fifth year running. It’s certainly among the cheesiest, too. Capital of the state of Victoria, Melbourne is home to more cheese shops, cheese bars, and cheese festivals than any other metro area in Australia; renowned for its arts and sporting events, it now has a thriving food scene to match.
Central Melbourne is laid out like a grid, making it easy to navigate. Trams to outlying neighborhoods run frequently in all directions, and each major street has a corresponding little street, or lane, running parallel to it. Far from being backstreets or alleys, these laneways are vibrant places with cafés, wine bars, and restaurants that contribute to the city’s culinary climate.
“The cheese scene in Melbourne is really exciting because everyone is doing things a little bit differently,” says Celia Hinault, cheesemonger at the Richmond Hill Café & Larder. “There’s not just one way to sell cheese.” So whether you crave a cheddar or fancy a fondue, you’ll find some of Australia’s best moldy morsels in Melbourne.
Spring Street Cheese Cellar
Opposite the State Parliament building is this 1940s Italian-style alimentari, which sells high-quality pantry staples, take-home meals, upmarket sandwiches, and artisanal gelato. But the real attraction is underground. Follow your nose down the spiral staircase to find not one but two cheese cellars—one where cheeses are displayed and cut for sale and another for aging cheeses (off-limits to customers). French-born manager Victor Persinette oversees the imports, and Rhys Burley, formerly a professional cheesemaker, focuses on local products and affinage. Look out for wedges from Victorian producers Holy Goat or Prom Country, or the rare Fromage d’Ossau—a French raw sheep’s milk cheese from the Vallée d’Ossau, similar to Ossau-Iraty. Also: Ask about their cheese classes, held twice a month on Saturdays.
Harper & Blohm Cheese Shop
After working for some of the city’s finest cheese wholesalers for a decade, Olivia Sutton opened Harper & Blohm in 2014. Knowing that many of the best cheeses were only available in high-end restaurants, she decided to offer a carefully curated collection of these gems to the masses. “I keep the range purposefully small to ensure every cheese is sold in the best possible condition,” Sutton says. It also means the ever-changing selection can showcase seasonal cheeses from area producers—look out for Riverine Blue, an award-winning buffalo’s milk blue from Berrys Creek, or the Down Under classic, Pyengana Cheddar. You’ll also find benchmark cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy in London, including Tunworth and Montgomery's Cheddar. The cute little boutique is worth the jaunt to the suburbs, especially since it’s conveniently located within the Prince Wine Store—grab a bottle of domestic wine or craft beer to go with your haul.
The Cheese Room at Richmond Hill Café & Larder
Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder is a Melbourne institution. Opened more than 20 years ago by Australian culinary doyenne Stephanie Alexander and cheese importer Will Studd, it combines a smart neighborhood eatery with a produce store and walk-in fromagerie—in other words, customers enter the temperature-controlled room where curds from Australia and beyond are on offer. Cheesemonger Celia Hinault says many customers come especially for the semi-hard cheeses of the Pyrenees, such as Chabrin, Caprinelle, and Ossau-Iraty, matured on the shop’s wooden shelves before sale. There is also a strong following for local producer Locheilan Farmhouse; their Triple Cream Ring is delightfully decadent. Naturally, cheese features heavily on the café menu, too.
If you think cheesemaking only happens in the country, think again. At La Latteria mozzarella laboratory in the inner-north suburb of Carlton, Giorgio Linguanti and his team craft fresh Italian-style cheeses such as bocconcini, burrata, and braided mozzarella daily. You’ll also find Linguanti’s That's Amore! line, which he makes at his farm and factory in Donnybrook, on Melbourne’s northern fringes. Try the devilishly good Diavoletti——mini smoked provolone bulbs, stuffed with chile-spiked olives—or the light-as-a-cloud ricotta, available in cow’s and buffalo’s milk versions. And stock up on milk and yogurt, artisan salumi, and beautiful ripe tomatoes for a veritable feast. To proclaim your dairy devotion to the world, spring for an “I ♥ MOZZARELLA” T-shirt.
Melbourne Farmers' Markets
With more than seven locations across the city, the Melbourne Farmers Markets (MFM) connect urban communities with Victorian farmers, including many artisan cheesemakers. The centrally located University of Melbourne market, for one, runs each Wednesday while school’s in session. “The great thing is that we are changing the minds of young people, particularly their food shopping habits and where their food dollar goes,” says Miranda Sharp, MFM founder and director. She’s a fan of the cheese toasties (Aussie for grilled cheese sandwiches) from Milawa Cheese Company, made with artisan curds, of course. Check the website for the locations and details on the other markets, which all run on Saturdays.
Queen Victoria Market
The Vic Market, as it is affectionately known, has been operating for more than one hundred years and has an entire Dairy Produce Hall. It’s overwhelming at first blush, but if you look past the piles of imported Gorgonzola, Maasdam, and Fromage de Meaux, you’ll spot some Australian treasures. “Our focus is to support local producers, then fill the gaps with others,” says Curds & Whey owner Anna Burley—a mission that sets them apart from most other on-site vendors. Bill's Farm is another standout stall. Owner Bill Tzimas is a qualified cheese grader and judge who’s been supplying wheels and wedges to Melbourne’s restaurants and dairy devotees for more than 20 years. He stocks an ever-changing, Victorian-made roster; ask him to recommend something luscious and local.
First up: It’s pronounced pran (just to avoid any embarrassment when asking for directions). This is another permanent produce market with a range of cheese offerings among fruit and vegetable vendors, butchers, bakers, and coffee roasters. The immaculate counter at Pete-n-Rosies Deli has the best selection of local cheeses. For an easy lunch, pair a jar of Irrewarra Sourdough loaf. Or check out the relatively new Maker & Monger, where Anthony Femia serves raclette and cheese toasties from a restored antique French food cart. The spicy pimento sandwich packs a punch and is delicious with a cup of warm apple cider—instant food coma.
St Kilda may be better known as Melbourne’s beachfront playground, but it also has a cosmopolitan café culture thanks to the influx of post-war migrants in the 1950s. Two of the most recent new arrivals—Italian-born third-generation cheesemakers, Sabrina and Katia Cappodocio—are making their mark at Il Fornaio bakery. Their La Formaggeria line is available exclusively at this self-described brunchery and panetteria. Order a panini with just-made buffalo mozzarella, caciotta, or stracchino, or sip an espresso and nibble on house-baked whole-wheat raisin toast with fig and chai labneh.
Milk the Cow
“Melbourne had a reputation for late-night bars, but there weren’t many specialized food offerings late at night,” says Daniel Verheyen, who opened Milk the Cow—Melbourne’s first after-hours cheese bar—in St Kilda in 2012. The eatery’s signature cheese flights, offering four cheese tastes paired with wine, beer, single malt whisky, cider, and sake, feature unique, unexpected pairings. Even the cocktails come with a wedge on the side. The menu also includes weekly Cheesemonger’s Choice Cheeseboards, individual fondue pots, and re-worked classics such as mac and cheese laced with Perigord truffle and Cognac. The venture’s success led Verheyen to open a northern outpost in Carlton in 2014; both feature quirky chandeliers fashioned from recycled milking cups and have cabinets full of cheeses-to-go.
Ten years ago two university mates planned to open a bar. But time passed, and Tom Petty grew up to become an architect and builder, while Alex Whyte became a designer. Then Petty met a French girl named Noemie Lacoste, and after the trio spent many good times with cheese around the kitchen table, their dream landed back on the front burner—and Shifty Chèvre was born. “We believe cheese doesn’t have to be fancy,” says Lacoste, who manages the venue and keeps things laid-back. Shifty Chèvre offers breakfast all day, but when the brunch crowd moves on, cheese platters, alcohol-cheese pairings, and curd-focused dishes—think raclette, tartiflette, and baked Camembert—take center stage. And don’t miss the Fromage Infusions cocktails: get Fashionably Toasted with smoky cheddar-infused bourbon and thyme, or try the Comté cheese–garnished Away With Your Sorrows, which marries vodka with sheep whey liqueur and apple juice.
Culinary pioneer Martin Pirc opened Punch Lane in 1995, helping pave the way for Melbourne’s emerging dining culture. The atmosphere is casual but the food and service standards are high, making it a popular destination for all types of eaters. (Martin calls the approach “democratic.”) “Some people come for lunch and just have a cheese platter with a salad,” he says, noting the blackboard menu lists a dozen cheeses that can be ordered by the pound to pair with house-made bread, seasonal fruit pastes, and local walnuts. Others pop in for a cheese supper after a show at one of the nearby theaters. Thirsty? The wine list features classics from the world’s great grape-growing regions, with an ever-changing selection available by the glass.
Named for the international calling code for Italy, this boîte is buzzy, boisterous, and always busy. The pizzas are very much in the Napoli style, with perfectly thin, chewy crust and simple, flavorful toppings, but the cheese choices go beyond buffalo mozzarella to include Gorgonzola, stracciatella, and scamorza. The menu travels to the Boot’s other regions, too. Try the polenta chips—crisp, golden batons with melted Gorgonzola for dipping—or the cheekily presented Lo Stendino, cured meats strung from a miniature clothesline, served with cheeses, taralli, pickles, truffle honey, and house-made onion jam. The drinks list is all-Italian, as are the waitstaff, and the service is as warm as the earthy aromas wafting from the restaurant’s giant pizza oven.
The European; City Wine Shop; and Melbourne Supper Club
This trio of adjacent restaurants and bars is part of restaurateur Con Christopoulos’s empire, which also includes the Spring Street Grocer next door. Choose your own adventure: The European offers all-day fine dining inspired by the regional cuisines of France, Italy, and Spain; nosh on corn-and-Manchego for breakfast or pan-fried gnocchi with torn mozzarella at lunch. Come dinner, spring for the Châteaubriand for two and a selection of cheeses to finish. For a less formal experience, pull up a stool at the City Wine Shop for excellent charcuterie, antipasti, and cheese; choose from buffalo mozzarella with grilled vegetables, English cheddar with piccalilli, or saganaki with poached wild figs. Night owls should head upstairs to the Supper Club, where the kitchen stays open well into the wee hours. You’ll find A-plus service, an encyclopedic wine list, and well-crafted fare ranging from croque monsieurs to porterhouse steak with Roquefort butter.
Rob and Bronwyn Kabboord, the owners of this warm neighborhood-bistro, are true cheese champions. To wit: The menu always features a composed cheese course, with one cheese as the star. Depending on the season, the kitchen might team Holy Goat La Luna with biscuits, almond milk, and strawberry sorbet (pictured, above), or whipped
Berrys Creek Moss Vale Blue with Dutch spiced bread, celery, yarrow, and prune. Sommelier Bronwyn serves up wheels and wedges—as well as the stories behind them—tableside from the cheese trolley; she’ll also fetch you a glass or bottle from the restaurant’s award-winning and highly regarded wine list.