Food News

The Australian cheesemakers adopting cheese ripening

In a quest for perfection, Australian cheesemakers are embracing the ageing process.
Shaw River Annie Baxter buffalo-milk cheese matured at Stone & Crow.

Shaw River Annie Baxter buffalo-milk cheese matured at Stone & Crow.

Scott Hawkins

There’s a world of difference between a young, immature cheese and a skilfully ripened cheese in perfect condition. Controlling this wonderful transformation is a crucial step in the cheesemaking process, and requires skill, patience, careful observation and a special empathy.

In Europe, the link between cheesemaker and customer is traditionally undertaken by an expert. Known as an affineur in France and stagionatura in Italy, the job involves selecting young cheese to mature in temperature and humidity-controlled cellars thriving with unique local moulds and bacteria until they reach their optimum potential. Many of the well-known benchmarks have strict regulations on how and where they’re matured to ensure their authentic regional character, their terroir, isn’t compromised.

In Italy the integrity of the country’s Parmigiano-Reggiano depends on all cheese bearing the famous name being matured on wooden shelves in Consortium-approved maturation centres in the region for at least 12 months. In France, Roquefort must be transported from local dairies to ripen in the famous caves beneath the Cambalou plateau for several weeks, and is then held in cool cellars for a minimum of 90 days in a strictly defined region before sale.

But in Australia there are no such constraints or traditions.

So much hard work goes into making artisan cheeses, it’s a shame when they’re not matured to their best. But all too often this is the case, particularly with harder local cheese types. A lack of time and financial resources results in their regional characteristics being compromised.

In recent years a growing number of inner-city cheese shops in Australian capital cities have replicated the conditions for ripening cheeses on site. But when Yarra Valley Dairy cheesemaker Jack Holman launched Stone & Crow at the end of 2015 to “move the Australian cheese scene forward”, he opened new opportunities for the local industry. After converting an old barrel room at Nolan Vineyard in the Yarra Valley, Holman has been working with a number of Victorian producers to demonstrate what a difference the ideal maturation conditions can make to texture, flavour and scent.

One of the most outstanding examples is the transformation of Annie Baxter, a semi-hard cheese from Shaw River Buffalo Cheese near Port Fairy, which takes its name from a colourful local identity who roamed the region on horseback in the 19th century. The farm is well known for its pure buffalo mozzarella and rich creamy buffalo yoghurt, but ripening the small production of harder cheese for just a few months has always proved challenging because of the limited facilities. When Holman offered to trial the maturation of a clothbound version at Stone & Crow, the results were a revelation. Two months in the cellars transformed a mild, predictable cheese into a textural delight with mossy green buffalo-milk flavours and a unique sweet, nutty aftertaste.

Holman has also been applying innovative ideas to his own range of cheeses. One is Moonshine, a semi-hard cow’s-milk variety. Matured for three to six months in the cellars, the cheese is washed with a variety of ingredients, Holman’s latest trial being the brown distillate left over from making local Four Pillars gin.

Stone & Crow is not just about maturating hard cheese. The sensational soft lactic curd cheese Galactic is ripened under a wrinkled Geotrichum mould and has a window of perfection of just a few days. Good cheese is a living thing, always changing, always offering more to the taster.

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