Though you may not know his name yet, scratch the surface and it’s clear that Anthony Femia is not just some random cheese guy. After being snapped up by The European’s Con Christopoulos and Josh Brisbane last year, Femia has taken on the role of head cheesemonger for the group and is at the helm of their impressive new cheese cellar (which opened in March) and high-end deli at Spring St. Grocer.
Not yet 30, he’s already internationally recognised as a leader in his field and has spent time getting hands-on with producers, won a swag of awards and, with his passion for the art of affinage (cheese maturing), is set on changing the face of cheese retail – not just in Melbourne but across the country.
“The thing about being an affineur is it’s not just about maturing a cheese but also about having a connection with the producer and a knowledge of the milk, the grass, the soil – all of it,” he says.
Femia’s Italian heritage probably marks the most obvious signpost of the genesis of his cheese journey. Like any good Mediterranean-blooded Aussie boy, he recalls toting plenty of pungent and unconventional delights in his school lunch box, thanks to his Calabrian-born mother Maria, who worked in a local delicatessen. In 2003, while studying finance at Macquarie University, he too took a job in a deli and it was here, immersed in a world of cheddar and Comté, that his passion for cheese – not just as a foodstuff, but as a career path – was ignited and soon enough the accolades began to flow.
Perhaps Femia’s most notable achievement thus far was being awarded a Jack Green Churchill Fellowship in 2012 for study in the dairy industry – a sponsored study trip with which he’s chosen to devote himself to furthering his knowledge of the ancient craft of affinage.
The fellowship will see him first head to the UK in June to spend time at Neal’s Yard Dairy, then onto Lyon and the Loire Valley in France to work alongside leading cheese-makers and affineurs Herve Mons and Rodolphe Le Meunier.
Femia believes that the European traditions of aging or ‘ripening’ cheeses are some that Australian cheese consumers – and indeed cheese-makers – are yet to fully explore. “I realised that the art of affinage was something that was lacking in our local industry,” he says. “For most cheese-makers, the majority of their time is tied up in making the cheese and running a farm, so they just don’t have the time to tend to their cheese once it has been made. And very few retailers have the facilities to age their cheeses,” he explains.
So with the installation of two temperature-controlled (and ludicrously expensive) cheese aging rooms at the new Spring St. Grocer, Femia will have not only time, but the ideal conditions (cool, humid, subterranean) in which to mature his seasonally curated range of more than 50 different artisan and farmhouse cheeses from around the world.
“Too often, cheese is retailed far too long before its optimal age,” he says. And by taking the time to ripen a cheese, its “personality, complexity and unique character are gradually revealed”.
Some of the cheeses to spend time maturing will be those from local producers Femia will be working with, sharing his knowledge of affinage, enhancing their product and in turn exposing customers to an experience outside of the commercial norm. He explains that, much like the terroir of wine, the end product’s personality is heavily dictated by the vagaries of rainfall, weather, the seasons and, of course, aging.
For customers, the spiral descent down into Spring St. Grocer’s underground cheese emporium is all about the senses. With well trained staff on hand, there is plenty to see, plenty to smell and definitely plenty to taste – and according to Femia, this is where the real revolution in cheese education will occur.
“The key with any great food retail is being able to taste a product before you take it home,” he says. “And with cheese, you have to taste,” he emphasises. “If you were to judge a cheese on smell alone, no-one would buy a washed rind, no-one would buy a blue…the smell would just be too intimidating for people.” Indeed, any notion of pretention or intimidation is thankfully well off the agenda and with Femia’s humble nature and guiding influence, customers will be in good hands in order to gradually expand their knowledge and pleasure of cheese.
He’s been working closely with The European’s chef Ian Curley and the group’s sommeliers to create wine pairings and serve accompaniments to complement the unique cheeses on offer and is looking forward to getting back to what he knows best – “talking to customers about cheese, opening them up to new things and sending them home with something really special”.
Anthony Femia’s current top four cheeses:
Red Hill Cheese Mountain Goat Blue
The 2012 Grand Champion Victorian product at the Royal Melbourne Show and rightly so. An amazingly balanced goat’s milk blue that exhibits fantastic sweet and lactic milk flavours with a mild earthy and spicy blue mould.
Bruny Island Whiskey Washed Rind
A cheese that reflects season and terroir. Nick Haddow makes this washed rind only during the autumn months and washes the cheese with a Tasmanian whiskey to develop rich meaty flavours with a funky aroma.
Uplands Cheese Pleasant Ridge Reserve
A farmhouse cheese using seasonal raw milk that is made in a similar way to the alpine cheeses of the Jura region of France and Switzerland. This is a benchmark American cheese. It has a huge array of character in its flavour – from pineapple through to toasted cashews.
Rolf Beeler Vacherin Fribourgeois AOC
Raw milk cheese made high up in the Fribourg Mountains during the seasons of spring and summer and matured by Switzerland's master affineur Rolf Beeler. This cheese screams umami with its array of flavours that ignite every part of your sensory palate with a lingering flavour that stays long after your last taste.
Spring St. Grocer
157 Spring Street, Melbourne
(03) 9654 0811