Blessed are the cheesemakers

by Amanda Cropp / 21 May, 2011
Making your own cheese is the next big thing among do-it-yourself types.

Supermarket shoppers spotting the 20 litres of milk in Paul Broughton’s trolley may assume he owns a cafe or has a very large family, but the bulk buying is simply evidence of his cheesemaking obsession. For a day job Broughton oversees the management of 160,000 square metres of Wellington office space. Come weekends he regularly churns out about 3kg of cheese in his Karori kitchen, filling four wine chillers bought off Trade Me with his slowly maturing goods.

Photos of his efforts are regularly posted on a Facebook site for home cheesemakers and he fields up to 20 emails a week from other DIY-ers seeking advice on how to improve their artisan dairy products. “The camembert I make at home tastes a hell of a lot better than most of the stuff you buy in the supermarket,” he says. Broughton, who also makes his own bread, sausages, beer and wine, reckons there’s something particularly satisfying about turning milk into cheese and he’s not alone in that.

Home cheesemaking is booming, with classes popping up all over the country to cater for those eager to learn the finer points of starter culture, curd cutting, hooping (moulding) and brining. When Sue Arthur opened the New Zealand Cheese School in 2008 as part of her Over the Moon Dairy Company in Putaruru, her focus was on training small-scale commercial cheesemakers. In response to strong demand she began catering for home cheesemakers, and this year about 600 people will pay $199 a head to attend the school’s one-day DIY cheese classes.

Arthur says students are “gobsmacked” at how easy and cost-effective it is to make higher-end gourmet cheeses, with a 120g round of camembert requiring just a litre of milk.
“We can show you how to make haloumi in eight minutes and how to do mozzarella in the microwave in two minutes. It’s not as high quality as the one that takes a few extra hours to make but you can stick it on a pizza or chuck it on the barbecue.

“Mozzarella is meant to be eaten on the day it’s made and it’s so different if you do that – it’s milky and soft and the texture is just lovely. The stuff you get in the supermarket is way older than a day. If you’ve ever made your own and eaten it fresh on the spot, it’s not on the same planet.” Companies selling cheesemaking equipment and ingredients are doing very nicely out of the latest foodie craze by selling everything from cheese wax to a special breathable wrapping foil.

IMake, formerly Brewcraft, expanded on its beer- and wine-making gear with the launch of Mad Millie cheese kits last September. Company founder Peter Eastwood says demand was far higher than anticipated. “We could have sold twice what we had available before Christmas and now we’re ordering in the tens of thousands.”

IMake marketing manager Saskia Thornton, who fronts the company’s cheesemaking videos on YouTube, says market research showed 10% of people surveyed wanted to make their own beer and wine, but 30% were keen to give cheese a go. “Home brewing has a little bit of a connotation that if you make your own alcohol you must be an alcoholic. Cheesemaking is probably a lot more fashionable.”

Such is its popularity that the annual Cuisine Champion of Cheese Awards includes a hobbyist section sponsored by Katherine Mowbray, who began cheesemaking demonstrations here in the early 1990s.

Her book, Cutting the Curd: Cheese Making at Home (Bateman, 2008), has sold more than 6000 copies and she is one of several “freelance” cheese tutors who travel the country taking classes.

Mowbray learnt how to make haloumi cheese at age 11 from a Cypriot friend of her father’s when her family lived in ­Zimbabwe, and she honed her skills working for small artisan cheese factories in the UK before settling permanently in New Zealand.

She says the standard of amateur entries (usually about 20) in the cheese awards is generally high and the hobby is definitely a hit with the dinner party set. “There’s one guy who, when people ask him to dinner, takes along his pots, two litres of milk, rennet and culture and makes mozzarella at the party.”

The recent push for self-sufficiency has seen attitudes change markedly. “People used to say to me, ‘Why do you want to learn to make cheese when you can buy it from the supermarket?’”

Now home cheesemakers run the gamut from bored retirees and curious dairy farmers to health-conscious foodies concerned about the use of additives. “When we buy food from the super­market, it has a long list of things that are in it, but when you make your own cheese all it’s got in it is milk, rennet, ­culture and some salt,” she says.

Although regulations were recently relaxed a little, most locally manufactured and imported cheeses sold in New Zealand are still made with pasteurised milk.

However, there are no such restrictions on home cheesemakers, who are free to use raw milk bought from the farm gate, provided they do not sell or barter the resulting products.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority warns that soft cheeses made with raw milk have a higher risk of harbouring harmful bacteria causing illnesses such as listeria, campylobacter and salmonella, which pose a danger to pregnant women, young children, frail elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Arthur says the importance of good hygiene is stressed in classes and she has never heard of anyone getting sick from homemade cheese.

“We use sanitising solution to soak equipment in and hand sanitiser. We wear aprons and those sexy factory hats and encourage people to do that at home. If you’re not clean, you’re going to have bugs in your cheese and it’s not going to turn out the way you want. People have the sense that if it doesn’t look right, they bin it.”

Middlemore Hospital nurse Lyn Haycock lives on a Waiuku lifestyle block and began making cheese about four years ago using excess milk from a friend’s cow. Not surprisingly, given her profession, she pasteurises raw milk to reduce the health risk and insists on seeing test results for a dairy farm’s somatic cell count, an indicator of bacteria levels and milk quality. “It just gives you a handle on bacteria and what’s going on,” she says.

Haycock tackles anything from parmesan and feta to gouda and ricotta and says the experience has expanded her tastes considerably. “You’re talking to a girl who would leave the room if there was a blue cheese out, but now I make it and I love it. Some of my distaste was because I had an uncle who used to eat it on toast for breakfast and it’s not something I could look at at that hour of the day.”

Despite the red tape and compliance costs involved in going commercial, Haycock is seriously considering turning her hobby into a small artisan cheese business by setting up a fully registered relocatable kitchen that can be shifted should she and her husband move properties.

However, most home cheesemakers, like Paul Broughton, are happy producing enough to stock the fridge or give away to friends and family. Broughton says quite apart from ensuring there is always plenty of cheese to eat and cook with, his hobby has one other completely unforeseen advantage. “My partner says at least it’s taken my mind off buying a certain brand of sports car.”
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