Australia produced 344,000 tonnes of cheese in 2015/16, virtually unchanged from the year before. And while production volumes aren’t shifting drastically, it seems the types of cheeses being produced are. According to the Australian Dairy Industry in Focus Report (2016) by Dairy Australia, the nation continues to see a long-term trend in production away from cheddar cheeses toward non-cheddar varieties. While the non-cheddar share of total production volumes was just 30 per cent in the late 80s, it now represents between 45 per cent and 50 per cent of all cheese production. Cheese educator and judge of the recent 2017 Australian Grand Dairy Awards (AGDA) Sonia Cousins says there is definitely a trend to push the boundaries in terms of varieties and flavours and in turn, producers are making cheese with more “assertive flavours”.
“There are still going to be cheeses that will be relatively plain and there’ll still be consumers that only want relatively plain cheeses,” she says. “But what I’m seeing is that there are now more consumers asking for stronger flavours and cheese makers are responding to that. “This could be adding extra components to a brie or camembert to give it more earthy or mushroomy flavours or with a washed rind cheese that’s already a bit more pungent, pushing that pungency beyond what might have been acceptable five years ago.” She says these types of cheeses were originally made for a niche market, but now even supermarket varieties are jumping on board. “When you see those bolder flavours filter through to supermarkets you know it’s because a lot more consumers are interested in trying them,” she says.
“I think that’s really positive, it demonstrates a maturity in the consumer’s desire and tastes.” As part of the judging panel at the 2017 AGDA, Cousins says the standard of products this year was as high as ever. To qualify for entry into the AGDA, the product has to have already won a gold medal at one of the qualifying, state level competitions. “That makes it not only one of the most enjoyable competitions to judge, it’s also one of the easiest in the sense that we’re already assessing cheeses that are of gold medal standard and really just going through and finding the best of the best,” says Cousins. “Each year the category that contains cheeses not made from cow’s milk always has great diversity and this is certainly an area where we’re seeing a lot of new trends.” Cousins explains while goat’s cheese was unfamiliar to many consumers 20 years ago, it’s now widely popular in Australia. Buffalo cheese is another variety that’s gaining popularity, as well as cheese made from sheep’s milk, which Cousins describes as “the next frontier”. “Sheep’s milk is probably where goat’s milk was 15 years ago; people that are unfamiliar with it don’t really know what it tastes like but we’re seeing a lot more of it being produced now across all the different styles,” she says. In Victoria, one of the producers leading the charge in non-cow’s milk cheese is Barry Charlton of Berrys Creek Gourmet Cheese. Using a variety of cow, buffalo and ewe (female sheep) milks, Berrys Creek Gourmet Cheese specialises largely in blue cheese, which Cousins says is quite unique.
“It was unheard of in Australia 10 years ago, apart from cheddar producers, for a cheese maker to make just one style of cheese,” she says. But she says Charlton led the charge with this movement and has done exceptionally well. After working for a cheese maker producing white mould, triple cream, brie and camembert varieties, Charlton decided to branch out with his partner Cheryl Hulls and try something new. “I wanted a new challenge and so I thought well why not try blue cheese,” says Charlton. “So we made up our own recipes, trialled different cultures, and the very first blue cheese we made was the Tarwin Blue, which is our signature blue now.” They then went on to produce a range of cow’s milk blue cheeses, before producing a ewe’s milk blue cheese, Charlton’s Choice, and finally a buffalo milk blue cheese, Riverine Blue. “When we first started producing it which was a couple of years ago now, we were the first cheesemakers here in Australia to produce a blue cheese made out of buffalo milk,” says Charlton.
He says there are a multitude of reasons why Australian producers hadn’t tried making it before. “One is you’ve got to be able to purchase the buffalo milk to start with, which is not that easy to get hold of and it is a premium priced milk,” he says. But Charlton says it’s worth every cent. “It’s a very solid and creamy cheese, very white in appearance and the buffalo milk as a flavour of its own – it’s a very easy cheese to eat and a very easy milk to drink.” Berrys Creek Gourmet Cheese is a regular winner at competitions around Australia and the world, including the International Cheese Awards, the World Cheese Awards, the Royal Queensland Food and Wine Show, and the Royal Sydney Cheese and Dairy Produce Show. The secret to their success? Charlton says it all starts with the milk. “It goes right back to the very first stage where you pick up the milk and down to the farmer themselves and the pride they put into it,” he says. “And it’s the way you look after the milk, then when you process it and of course your recipe and using the right cultures to suit that type of milk to produce the flavours that you want.”
And finally, he says having a solid team makes all the difference. “There’s eight of us all together and everyone has a hand in on it, so it’s a great team effort. It all comes down to being a really good team and focussing on what we do.” While consumers are becoming more adventurous with their cheese choices, accredited practicing dietician at Dairy Australia Blake Robinson says there are still barriers surrounding the nutritional side of cheese. “Cheese is a really nutrient dense food. We’re talking about things like essential vitamins, essential minerals and also protein that’s really hard to get from any other food in the quantities you get in cheese,” says Robinson. “Unfortunately, there’s a few misconceptions about cheese and its role in health and a lot of that stems from the 70s and 80s.” Robinson says in those years a lot of focus was put on the fat and salt content in cheese, rather than the individual nutrients it also holds. “When you eat cheese, even though it has fat and salt, all those other nutrients, what we call the nutrient matrix, all interact together to have protective effects against heart disease, type two diabetes, stroke and some cancers, as well as osteoporosis.”
Despite the health benefits of cheese, Australians still aren’t eating enough.
“What we know is that because people love the taste of cheese and the way it makes them feel and the sense of sociability that comes with it, people are really not prepared to give it up,” says Robinson. “But in the back of their mind there’s always this feeling of I should moderate my intake because of all those barriers to consumption. “So people are happy to buy and consume it but we’re actually not having as much as the dietary guidelines recommend because of that moderation mindset. “So our job is to educate on that health angle, make sure we remove that guilt so that people can enjoy it without feeling that they need to moderate it.” As for the next big trend in the industry, Charlton has his sights set on something a little different. “I’ve got another product in mind that I want to make, as far as a blue cheese goes. I haven’t tried it yet, but I want to try a mixed milk, of buffalo and sheep, and just see what happens,” he says. Until then, he’s focussing on doing what he does best. “We’re basically just going to focus on what we’re doing now and keep doing it well.”