Anthony Femia is Australia’s best cheesemonger. He would have been the world’s best, if it weren’t for a fatal mistake made during the final stage of the Cheesemonger World Championships in France in 2013.
“I didn’t cut the cheese correctly,” says Femia. “You’ve got to cut 250 grams by sight. But no one in Australia ever buys that much, and I wasn’t used to it. So I cut 200 grams all across the board. That one error cost me first place. I’ve had nightmares ever since.”
Femia’s mistake caused him to slip to a respectable fourth. Despite his credentials, there’s no pretence to the immensely likeable cheesemonger. He is as enthusiastic about a cheese toastie as he is a 36-month-old Comte.
But this isn’t why we love Femia. We love Femia for his cheese.
His business, Maker & Monger, operates from a wooden cart inside the Prahran Market in Melbourne. It sells a small range of cheese at the moment, although it will grow. People come for the famous “grillz”, flaming Reubens (made with Wagyu brisket pastrami from Gary’s Organic Meats and cheese melted with a blowtorch), and the raclette. Especially the raclette.
A thick hunk of washed-rind raclette cheese is placed under a hot grill or purpose-built raclette machine. The surface of the cheese warms, blisters, then bubbles. The air grows thick with the smell. When around a centimetre of cheese has melted through, it’s scraped over soft potatoes, meats – anything you like. It’d be delicious scraped over a piece of plywood.
Raclette – which refers to both the cheese and the process – is native to Valais in Switzerland, and dates back to the 11th century. In winter, cheese that had gone a little dry or stale would be melted over the fire and scraped over the day’s rations. Its popularity spread through the alpine regions of France, Italy, Austria and Germany, partly because those were cheese-making regions, and partly because, well, it’s cold in the Alps, and what’s not to like about hot melted cheese?
Raclette is still relatively unknown in Australia – very few places offer it. Perhaps this is why it draws crowds at Maker & Monger.
“We turn the raclette machine on and a minute later there’s 10 people watching it and another 10 taking photos,” says Femia. “The smell of melting cheese lingers and carries through the market. It draws people in.”
A recent study by the University of Michigan found that the protein casein, found in cheese, can be as addictive as heroin. Melted over potatoes, cheese only gets better. But we love Femia’s raclette because of the cheesemaker’s love for the form, and his intense attention to detail.
Rather than boiled potatoes, which can turn powdery, Femia uses kipfler potatoes that have been cooked confit (in fat – in this case, vegetable oil); a technique that “keeps the potatoes silky soft”. Raw, sliced shitake mushrooms are added for a hit of umami, and the dish is finished with a couple of cornichons. It’s rich, but balanced. “The steam from the potatoes and the heat of the cheese releases the huge flavour of the shitake,” says Femia. “It’s just out of this world.”
Mongering is a sensory job, and Femia is largely self-taught. His love affair with dairy began when he was studying applied finance at Macquarie University in Sydney. He landed a weekend job at the deli where his Calabrian-born mother, Maria worked. Perhaps prophetically, he was put in charge of the cheese counter. He became fascinated with cheese, and read everything on it he could find.
After graduating he travelled and worked on farms and at cheese producers overseas (he still spends a month each year learning how to make cheese with different producers around the world). He taught himself dairy science. He landed the job of head cheesemonger at Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder. He then took up the same position at Spring Street Grocer, and set up Australia’s first cheese-maturation cellar in the basement. Femia loves cheese as much as we love what he does with it.
In 2012 he was awarded a Jack Green Churchill Fellowship. This allowed him to travel to study the art of affinage, or cheese maturation. He spent three months last year in the UK, France and America, at places such as Neal’s Yard Dairy, Jasper Hill, and with Ivan Larcher. He understands the microbiology of cheese, and the maturation process in a way that no cheesemonger in Australia – and few in the world – truly do.
Armed with this knowledge, Femia has plans. When Maker & Monger moves into a proper shop, Femia wants to install a cheese-making room where he can make fresh cheeses – the “maker” part of Maker & Monger. He also wants to turn a shipping container into a cheese-maturation room, and teach Australian producers how to properly mature their own cheese.
But ultimately, Femia wants Maker & Monger to be more than just a retail experience, he wants it to be a destination – another reason we love his approach. “We have our home, we have our work, and we have our third place that we like to go to,” says Femia. “We want Maker & Monger to be that third place for people.
“Cheese evokes memory,” he continues. “It has the comfort factor and the feel-good factor. When it’s in the form of raclette … watching that cheese waterfall get scraped over whatever you’re having with it, be it potato, charcuterie or boiled meats, the smell, and the visual, watching that oozing cheese just rush down …” Femia’s eyes light up. “It’s like that TLC song. You want to chase this waterfall.”