Despite fierce competition from imported product, Australia’s specialty cheesemakers are thriving. By Miles Clarke
I had the good fortune to dine in a two-star Michelin-rated restaurant in France late last year, where the cheeses were handled with a deep reverence. The look of affront when one member of our party asked for a cracker to enjoy with ‘Le selection de fromages affinés’ was worth bottling.
Cheese is a product that just about everyone has an opinion on, and Australian palates have been educated largely by the restaurant industry over the past quarter century, with an ever-evolving range of specialty cheeses.
Cheese is capable of seemingly infinite variety in terms of taste, texture and colour. Widely used by the Romans and Greeks some 4,000 years ago, cheese takes many forms and has massive consumption in Europe, where the cheesemaker’s alchemy is still much appreciated.
It’s not an industry where people are afraid to speak their minds, and there are bitter squabbles about the level of imported cheeses and perceived over-regulation of the industry. In addition, the president of the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association, David Brown, accuses importers of spreading disinformation about Australian cheeses and cultivating influential people to promote the foreign product.
“It’s a battle, but happily not one we’re losing. We’ve seen demand surge by about 10 per cent a year for the past 20 years, driven mostly by supermarket sales. Our restaurant sales are holding. We certainly don’t see any need for raw, unpasteurised milk to be used, as the reality is that 95 per cent of French cheeses are made with pasteurised milk,” Brown says.
Specialty cheeses are all types other than cheddar-type cheese, and include blue vein, cottage, cream cheese, camembert, brie, edam, feta, gouda, halloumi, mozzarella, parmesan, pecorino, pepato, pizza, provolone, ricotta, romano and swiss. Specialty cheese production in Australia has grown from around 15,000 tonnes a year to just over 31,000 tonnes over the last decade.
In Perth, the R&CA award-winning Friends Restaurant, adjacent to the Hyatt Hotel, has a keen devotee of cheese in its owner, Clyde Bevan. Friends is a fine dining restaurant that frequently runs a degustation menu, and Bevan invariably includes some top quality cheeses. “I enjoy cheese to the extent that I once had a six-course meal at the Androuet Cheese Restaurant in Paris where cheese features in every dish. It was spectacular!”
Bevan says the dining scene in Perth is steadily becoming more sophisticated, and his patrons are increasingly receptive to new and interesting flavours on the cheese board. His concern is that often-imported soft cheeses will arrive from the distributor virtually on their ‘best before’ date. “I have to be very vigilant on this issue, as it can be a very expensive exercise having exotic cheeses with which our customers are unfamiliar. I have a mix of local and imported cheeses, but tend to go for the harder imported cheeses, which have a longer shelf life.”
He says a measure of salesmanship is needed when introducing new cheeses to customers. “There are beautiful goat and sheep’s milk cheeses being produced, but these do take some recommending, perhaps with a suggestion of a quality wine that might be appropriate. It’s a matter of taking your customers along for the ride, rather than dictating what they should try. We also use a lot of cheese in our cooking, and some of our cheese sauces are immensely popular.”
Bevan says his cheese board is always offered before the desserts—in the continental way—when the degustation menu is taken.
Victorian master cheesemaker Neil Willman draws on some 35 years’ experience in the industry when he says regulation is essential in what is such a young industry. “In France, we have the situation of centuries of cheese-making. There is rigorous accreditation required and constant testing of the products throughout the manufacturing process. People can get into the business of cheese-making here with no formal qualifications. We cannot afford the risk of a situation like the Adelaide meat company in 1995, when two children died from food poisoning. It would take years for the industry to recover.”
Willman says in most instances, the better cheeses from a country tend to be the ones that are exported. “Sadly, we have a situation where there are some inferior cheeses being imported. I go to an area like Margaret River in WA, where some great cheeses are being produced, but I can’t find them on menus. The restaurateurs are asking the locals to support them, but are often failing to support local producers. Increasing the volume of production is essential for the smaller producers, and they should be encouraged.”
Willman says speciality cheeses are not being affected by the drought, as it’s the microbes, bacteria and enzymes that create and nurture flavour. “Australian palates are becoming more sophisticated, and we’re seeing some great local cheeses making it onto cheese boards around the country. I’m thinking of the raclette, tilsit and gruyeres coming out of Tasmania, in particular.”
One of the Australian superstars in the specialty cheese market has been Jindi Brie from Victoria’s Gippsland, which was anointed the world’s best brie in 2002 at Wisconsin’s biennial World Championship Cheese Contest. More than 1,100 cheeses and butters from 19 countries were entered. On the final day, all the gold medal winners were pitted against each other, and Jindi Brie emerged as the best of the best.
Willman comments that Jindi Brie was a fine cheese when it won its accolade, but one of the prices of its success was that it became a more mass-produced product—“It’s lost some of the character that made it great.”
He also says flavour comes with aging for cheeses, and restaurateurs would do well to keep the white mould cheeses until they achieved peak flavour.
At Jolleys Boathouse in Adelaide, functions manager Ainslie Brown says a full 30 per cent of dessert orders are for the cheese board, which routinely has a 50/50 mix of Australian and imported cheeses. “The taste of Jolleys Boathouse customers is tending toward white mould and wash rind cheeses at this time,” she says.
In Sydney, provedore Simon Johnson has an array of more than 100 cheeses, mainly from France, Spain, England and Italy, but also a significant quantity of Australian product. A feature of his online store is a number of recipes from top Australian chefs using Australian cheeses in innovative ways (www.simonjohnson.com.au).
At Sydney’s Aria Restaurant, maitre ď and co-owner Peter Sullivan says trust in the supplier is essential when it comes to cheese. “Our suppliers will ripen the cheeses to a point where flavour is optimal. We use a lot of triple-cream bries and a wide range of hard imported and local cheeses,” he says. “We always have a number of Australian cheeses on offer, and at the start of each service our waiters are given all the information they need to explain the characteristics of the day’s cheese board. For our functions business, we frequently find cheese being chosen over dessert.”
Sullivan says the interest in goat cheese is growing, with the award-winning Kervella Goat Cheese from Western Australia being particularly popular. “Some of our cheeses are world-class, but it’s still a young industry here, and overall the French and English cheeses are still superior, but ours are improving all the time.”