Once upon a time, across little young New Zealand, a proud regional cheesemaking tradition thrived. Remember Saxelby Stilton, a cheese produced in Woodlands Invercargill from 1890 – 1935. It was exported all around the world and praised for its superior flavour. New Zealand’s most famous and most unknown cheese in its native land. These days, little young New Zealand is world famous overseas for its milk powders, infant formulas, block cheddars & assorted commodity industrial dairy products. The good NZ farm cheese, the cheese with a long characterful flavour and complexity, continues to be off the radar to many foreign folks and locals alike. This festival is a chance to explore and connect with a farm cheesemaking tradition kiwis once celebrated across New Zealand.
Like Saxelby Stilton, NZ has a modest history of new world farm cheese production relative to the old world cheesemaking traditions overseas. Good NZ cheese is one of the few locally produced foodstuffs where the best cheese is only available in NZ, not exported like most of everything else is. The regulatory requirements to export unfairly work against small NZ cheesemakers, particularly so for NZ cheesemakers producing raw milk cheese. No one stumbles into cheesemaking in New Zealand, you have to go way out of your whey to do it. MPI make it so much harder. If left unchallenged, food police will regulate cheese into a hermetically sealed and tasteless existence. The irony is, NZ is in this deliciously good cheese bubble and many folks don’t know it.
This is a small cheese fest in a small part of provincial NZ that has made a big impact on the state of veritable raw farmhouse NZ cheese. Cheese folks are gathering to celebrate and high five the unsung heroes of NZ small scale cheesemaking that persist in producing and preserving traditional cheese in NZ. While it might not be considered in the national interest, we think it is important that there is a vibrant cheesemaking movement in NZ.
- Calum Hodgson, Cheesemonger, Sabato.
Cheese has been part of the human experience for so long that it would be hard to know exactly how, when or where it evolved, although an archeological dig in the Middle East recently has unearthed a cheese that is over 3,000 years old. It looked, when it was cut in half, as if it was made in the last 6 months but no-one was game enough to taste it. Historically, seasonal changes in large areas of the world of human habitation meant that in order to provide for lean times in the winter, food needed to be harvested in the spring and summer when crops and animal feed were plentiful so it could be stored for later when it was short. Milk was one such commodity, and turning milk into a solid substance that safely preserved its food value for winter rations when nourishment was hard to find and have a food that travelled well, was a huge step forward in human survival.
It is generally accepted that early humans were nomadic and it has been suggested that perhaps cheese developed by happenstance. You can imagine a practical woman, eons ago, looking around for something to carry milk in, as the family group prepared to go on a yet another walkabout and deciding that the 4th stomach of a recently slaughtered young animal, would make a good bag - and, let's face it, many a woman has had a thing about bags ever since. But by storing milk in this container, she made the remarkably discovery that by days end, after a hard day walking, the milk had curdled into a solid substance and in this form, the liquid whey was tasty and good to drink and the remaining curd was easier to carry, kept well and was even better to eat, and what's more, it got better day after day.....
Cheese making has taken hundreds of different directions all over the world, but the basic principle is the same. Milk is fermented, rennet (to solidify the milk) is added, the resultant firm curd is cut, the liquid whey drained and remaining milk solids are compressed, either by being suspended in a cloth, or pressed in a hoop, preserved with salt, and hey presto, you have cheese. This can either be eaten as a fresh cheese, within a day or so, or stored away in a cave and enjoyed months or years later. The quality of the milk, how it is harvested, the type of animal it came from, what the animal ate before being milked and how the subsequent cheese was treated during its maturation and storage, what sort of different micro-floral endemic to that particular area and how it landed on the developing cheese, all make superb variations on a theme.
Cheese can be hard, very hard, soft, semi soft, runny, stinky, mottled with mold, have a wrinkled, smooth or rind, be covered with a bloomy white rind which tastes divine, or develop a smelly orange one that worries elderly maiden aunts and fastidious housewives. However one must always be aware that milk is such a wonderful medium for growing bacteria, beneficial or pathogenic, that hygienic care must always be taken when it is harvested, transported, stored or subsequently made into cheese. Sadly modern digestive tracts don't seem to be as resilient as those of our early ancestors!