Why chefs should make cheese

02 October, 2018 by
Madeline Woolway

Artisan ingredients have become the norm in kitchens around the country. From ‘ma and pa’ diners to high-end restaurants, there’s a renewed commitment to age-old traditions that went out of fashion with the rise of modern food manufacturing.

It’s common for contemporary chefs to pledge resources to labour-intensive pursuits in order to make the most of bounties unexpectedly offered by local farmers and producers. Tight-knit relationships with purveyors mean kitchen teams are exposed to processes which were once completed before delivery — think whole animal butchery and ageing, preserving and pickling, and baking bread.

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While it might seem like an obvious addition to the list, cheese-making has yet to experience the same explosion. There is, however, a dedicated few who are forging forward. Among them is Jo Barrett, co-head chef at Yarra Valley’s Oakridge Winery. The team is known for their quest to create a menu inspired by ingredients found around the region. Taking the farm-to-fork ethos seriously means doing whatever they can to utilise whatever goods are thrown their way.

And that’s exactly how they got started on the restaurant’s cheese program. “We’ve been making cheese at Oakridge for probably about two years,” says Barrett. “We got an allocation of amazing milk we didn’t want to turn down. Colin Wood was working here at the time, and he was really interested in making cheese, so he started the program for us.”

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Fast forward to 2018 and Oakridge is now making two soft cheeses — a washed rind and a brie — as well as a semi-hard Swiss variety and burrata curds. The cheese program at Oakridge is very much about honouring the venue’s relationship with their dairy supplier.

“We use the same milk for all varieties during the year, but how the cows are going depends on the season,” says Barrett. “In winter, it drops down a bit and there can be a bit of a lull if it’s dry in summer because the pastures dry up and the cows just don’t produce as much milk. In spring, we get quite a glut. The dairy we work with supplies a lot of families who are the first people to get the milk, so if there’s not much to go around, we’re kind of at the end of the list, which I love.”

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Over in Western Australia, Shadow Wine Bar’s head chef Sue Hutchins tells Hospitality a similar story. Before opening the venue, situated within the Alex Hotel in Perth, Hutchins found herself with a little spare time, which led to her participation in workshops. “I met Tanya Barretto who runs The Cheese Maker in the Swan Valley,” she says. “At her workshops, we learnt how to make fresh cheeses.”

It was these workshops that inspired Hutchins to add house-made cheeses to the menu, and the restaurant now offers a range of fresh varieties including ricotta, mozzarella, stracciatella, haloumi, crème fraîche and mascarpone.

“The list is endless and we keep experimenting and adding to our program,” says Hutchins. Like Barrett, however, Hutchins says the availability of ingredients can alter the program.

“Sometimes the market dictates which cheeses we buy and make,” she says. “We can’t buy any buffalo milk in Western Australia at the moment, so we buy that from Shaw River in Victoria.”

KEEPING IT FRESH

Just like a good cheese board, any restaurant’s in-house cheese program requires careful curation. Although the availability of different milks can have an effect on which cheeses are on offer, the varieties that are included largely depend on three things: time, space and experience.

Fresh cheeses, including the ones produced at Shadow Wine Bar, tend to be the best fit for most restaurants — they require less time and space than aged varieties and are often more approachable for beginners.

“We tend to make more fresh cheeses than aged due to time and space,” says Hutchins, adding the team is looking into more options. “We try to allow for only two or three fresh cheeses on the menu at one time to ensure consistency as there can be many variables.”

Oakridge started out making burrata curds before moving on to bries and semi-hard cheeses as their confidence grew. For Barrett, the biggest hurdle has been time. “The hard cheeses are the most difficult because you have to let them mature for so long,” she tells Hospitality. “You don’t know if you’ve stuffed it up. You could be making one per week and then you find when you crack into the first one two or three months later, you’ve stuffed it and they’re all wrong.

“There’s quite a lot of trial and error. It probably took us about a year until we got really good results, and this year we’ve started turning out the best cheeses we’ve done.”

On top of trial and error, there’s the question of how much to invest in resources and equipment. “As you become more experienced, you can do a few things at once,” says Barrett. “Because it is quite detailed with temperature, you do have to focus.”

When it comes to equipment, kitchens looking to build a large program of cheeses might find it worthwhile to invest in some hoops, and if semi-hard and hard cheeses are on the cards, proper maturing conditions are a must. “We’re lucky because we’re a winery with a museum room with back vintages and it sits at a constant temp of 13–15 degrees Celsius, which is ideal for maturing cheeses,” says Barrett. “It’s something you need to put time and effort into. From 10 litres of milk, we yield about 15 cheeses.”

One must-have is a sterilising pot and enough space to keep bacteria from spreading. Process is everything, from keeping hands clean to flipping the cheeses every day.

BETTER WITH AGE

With the current roster under control, Barrett is looking to the next challenge — blue cheese. “We’ve tried a couple of styles,” she says. “It’s hard though because once you get the blue cheese bacteria, it’s really hard to get rid of, so you really need to keep everything separate. I’m a massive fan though, so I’d love to do more of that, but we need to make sure we’re completely in control.”

Ultimately all varieties offer plenty of room for experimenting. Both Barrett and Hutchins extol the virtues of giving staff a challenge. “There are so many benefits to making fresh cheeses – [it’s] very rewarding,” says Hutchins. “[It] can seem basic but also creative as you can adjust the recipe to suit your own tastes.”

Regardless of what varieties make the cut and how they’re incorporated into the menu, successfully producing house-made cheese is a matter of consistently reassessing and testing reliable recipes — which is all part of the upskilling process.

“At Shadow, we rely on recipes that have been tried and tested,” says Hutchins. “It’s important for our team to document any variances between the recipes, as there can be challenges with using different types of milk.

“Our training is ongoing as we are always adjusting recipes and ingredients.” Barrett agrees that it’s best to follow a recipe when starting out and attributes her team’s success to the guidance of local Yarra Valley Dairy cheesemaker Jack Holman. “We’re lucky to be really close with Jack,” she says. “If I have any doubts I’ll ask him and send photos.”

BEYOND THE BOARD

At Oakridge, Barrett encourages the team to try out different coatings. “We’ve got a few with flavours on the outside, which is really fun because you can draw out the different characteristics.”

An added virtue has been the opportunity to play with unusual uses. At Oakridge, the team was inspired by a visit from renowned Japanese chef Shinobu Namae, creating a dessert that takes the washed rind cheese and combines it with lees from the Pinot tank. “Shinobu does a version with sake lees, so ours is a play on that,” says Barrett. “Together, the washed rind cheese and the lees taste like cheesecake.”

Another dish encapsulates that famous farm-to-fork Oakridge ethos. “We’ve got a really cool dish that uses polenta made from corn we grew and milled with a cheese we made grated into it,” says Barrett. “That’s our ultimate goal — to be making everything. We’re pretty close.”

While a select few are currently tackling the challenge of cheese-making in-house head on, the process is something both chefs would encourage others to give a go.

“I get asked about it by other chefs all the time,” says Barrett. “Everyone should have a go, it’s really rewarding.”