Australian artisan cheese. You can count the places that do it well on 10 fingers: Bruny Island (Tasmania), Fromart (Queensland), Red Hill (Victoria), Tarago River (Victoria)... But all the cheese makers will tell you one thing. When it comes to perfecting the artisan and farmhouse-style cheese, it’s the milk that counts.
“The quality of the milk has to be very high,” says Matthieu Megard, cheese maker at L’Artisan Cheese in Timboon, Victoria, which Megard developed out of the old Timboon Cheese Factory. Being a third generation French cheese maker, it’s safe to say that Megard knows what he’s talking about. Which is why he feels it’s important to use only 100 per cent organic milk for his range of L’Artisan cheeses.
According to Megard finding the right milk to make the perfect Australian-style artisan cheese is one of the things that will set Australian cheese apart. “So far, we have just been copying what cheese makers do everywhere else,” he says in his heavy French accent. But he’s encouraging us to recognise that in Australia our milk and its production is different to that of Europe and so we should celebrate the unique differences rather than ignore them. For Megard, it’s when organic milk – like that of Organic Dairy Farmers Australia (ODFA) – that these differences can really shine.
A co-op of farms that have eschewed the trappings of conventional dairy farming by converting to organics to produce a top quality milk, the ODFA has grown over its 10-year history to include 22 farms. Earlier this month there was a resounding round of applause as Michael and Nicci Hore received the award for Most Remarkable Milk at the ODFA AGM. It’s a chance for the co-op to good-naturedly pit their milks against one another to taste for subtle variations and ultimately acknowledge who has set the bar the highest. And it’s a starting point for recognising that, as with wine, milk has its own distinct characteristics that reflect the surrounding environment of each dairy farm. Milk, it seems, has its own terroir.
“Here, the animals are fed pasture all year round,” says Megard, “and it’s fairly consistent, unlike France, so there is no off season for the milk being produced.” As a result, there is no off-season for his artisan cheeses either, which sets Australia apart.
And he’s not the only one recognising it. Chef Matt Wilkinson of Melbourne’s Pope Joan has embraced the cheeses made with organic milk, recognising the subtle variations that come from the organic dairy practices of the farmers.
Wilkinson says he fell in love with the cheeses produced with organic milk from the first taste. So far, he’s used cheddar, ricotta, bocconcini and mousseron all made with ODFA milk, and it’s safe to say he’s a big fan. “Food should always be in harmony and balance,” says the chef. “I love young curd cheeses and this is where cheese should be at in my opinion.”
A road trip to the organic dairy farm of John Smith, located in Mepunga in Victoria’s southwest, reveals the obvious physical benefits of organic dairy farming in addition to the flavours. Here the cows line-up happily for their morning milking, gently vying for spots at the organic feed trough. The rolling green pasture is a careful mix of plants that (via biodiversity) benefit the health of the dairy overall. There is no frantic lowing and each and every cow looks to be in prime health, thanks to a general lack of disease and the occasional assistance of herbal remedies.
From Mepunga, this remarkable milk finds its way to Megard at L’Artisan where it is set, separated, pressed, washed and aged to make washed rind, triple cream, fermier or brie. It’s these artisan cheeses – in Megard's case, informed by his French heritage – that are so well suited to carrying and complimenting the unique and subtle variations found in the sweetness of the raw, organic product.
And sampling the milks that lined up for judging, one thing is for sure – not one of them taste the same.