I wondered this heading back to Wellington from the Eketahuna cheese pop up event on Friday, 9 October.
Cheese makers and mongers, raw milkers and the cheese curious, an MP and a couple of bureaucrats, around 50 of us came together at the Eketahuna Community hall for a symposium dedicated to the love of cheese and in particular New Zealand’s burgeoning artisanal cheese scene. Pericsope, a web-streaming tool, meant we were joined virtually by people from Auckland and as far as the US.
The brainchild of Biddy Fraser-Davies, we were treated to a day of pure cheese geekery. Surely Biddy is the Queen of New Zealand’s homestead cheese, doyenne of raw and thermised cheese, internationally awarded and a darn good stick. Biddy shared her life story as she pioneered her way through her early careers until she found Colin, Eketahuna, Model trains and her beloved Jersey cows.
But this wasn’t just a day about the rural idyl, the legislation and regulation around the production and sale of cheese, especially raw milk means this was also a hot bed of new research and feisty debate.
Alice Van der Velden, a student at Massey University, presented her reseach on the development of cooling devices suitable for small scale dairy production. There was little literature or previous research around this topic, so Biddy had approached Massey after the new regulations were released.
Alice walked us through her process and I loved that cost and ease of cleaning were key factors. For as I was starting to learn the life of an artisanal cheese maker is fraught with legislation and regulation and its associated costs.
Sally Johnson, (above middle) from Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), the key regulator for cheese makers, explained MPI’s risk-based rationale. She reminded us MPI’s role is to ensure food safety, it’s other agencies’ job to support small businesses. And while I get that there is a balance to be struck between granularity and simplicity of regulation it does seem unfair that a cheesemaker like Biddy who has 4 cows is charged at the same rate as someone who produces hundreds of time more.
To Sally’s credit she acknowledged that maybe MPI hadn’t drawn the line in the right place, and suggested lobbying to get charging levels adjusted.
So after a joyful day of cheese geekery in one of my favourite county towns, the question remained – what is artisan and how much do we as consumers want it?
I heard tales small scale cheesemakers being forced out of business, and others who never started to sell commercially.
Farmhouse and small scale cheese makers somehow need to differentiate from larger dairies, possibly clubbing together to market their unique offerings, share the costs of testing and lobby for the changes needed to survive.
And as consumers, my cheesey friends, we need to look beyond the supermarkets, and seek out the mongers and makers to find these special artisanal and small cheeses.