The short history of cheese making in Australia has been shaped by the huge geographic size of the country , its distance from markets and the extremes of climate which vary from the red desert center to the temperate south and tropical north. With more than 50% of all dairy products made in the country destined for export, most of the dairy industry is focused on commodity products and various forms of industrial cheddar.
For millennia, this ancient land was home to a nomadic aboriginal people and domestic farming was introduced only after colonization in the late 1700s. Over the next 50 years, European settlers, primarily from Britain and Ireland, introduced cows, goats and particularly sheep, but a lack of transport and the hot climate limited the production of dairy products to small farms close to the cities in coastal regions. Cheesemaking did not become significant until the end of the gold rush, which occurred a little more than a century later. In the 1880s, unemployed miners were encouraged by local government to look for new agricultural opportunities. What followed was a significant clearing of the native bush and the thick rain forests that grew naturally along the coast in the south-east of the continent. This clearing occurred at the same time as better transport and roads were being built and commercial refrigeration became a practical reality. Important industrial changes were also taking place, particularly in a better understanding of dairy technology, new milking machines, cream separators and, of course, pasteurization. Unlike many benchmark European cheeses, the foundation of the cheese industry in Australia was almost entirely due to the economic benefits offered by export, rather than from traditional regional farm cheeses. The domestic population was far too small to absorb the production, and the success of this new industry depended entirely on producing low-cost and dependable commodity cheese that would compete in the new city markets created by the industrial revolution thousands of miles away. Cheese- and butter-making depended on a cooperative system owned by the farmers. Milk was collected over a wide regional area from dozens of farms and mass production was encouraged to take advantage of economies of scale.
Natural cheddar, also known as ‘Tasty’, and processed industrial cheese known as ‘cheddar‘ were ideal for export, and these were the only cheeses most Australians enjoyed until the 1950s. The arrival of postwar immigrants from Italy, Greece and southern Europe slowly changed domestic cheese production and local specialist cheeses gradually appeared on the market. However, unable to obtain the non-bovine milk from which many of these cheeses were traditionally made, the new migrant cheese makers were forced to adapt techniques and use cows’ milk.
The most significant change in specialist cheese-making did not occur until the early 1980s when a new generation of young cheese-makers, influenced by similar movements in the UK and USA, began to make their own unique cheeses on the farm or in small artisan dairies. Introducing goat’s milk new breeds of sheep for ewe’s milk cheeses and later Italian dairy buffalo, they adapted some of the classic European techniques to Australian conditions, whilst also inventing new methods unfettered by the restrictions of tradition. Their objective has been to create new names and styles of cheese with distinctive flavor and unique proudly ‘Aussie‘ character that would satisfy a growing number of curious consumers interested in more sophisticated cheeses. Their success is reflected in the fact that many of these new cheeses have now become well known and are closely associated with regional names such as Gippsland, Milawa, Meredith, Shaw River, Cradle Mountain, Gidgegannup, Woodside and King Island.
It is thanks to their efforts and determination that the perception of Australian cheese has changed dramatically. There are now more than 30 small producers, most of them small cheese-makers making a number of different types of cheese, rather than specializing in just one type. The range produced is diverse and covers all types of cheese, although these still represent a small proportion of the total market. Regrettably, the production and sale of all cheese made from unpasteurized milk is banned by laws shared with New Zealand in a common trade agreement. Further development of more interesting cheese types true to their regional origins is limited by these rules .
Australian specialist cheeses are nevertheless unique and clearly defined by the significant influence that natural seasonal changes have on quality .Dairy farming is primarily based on pasture grazing and, unlike their counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, dairy animals here remain outside in open paddocks throughout the year and are grass fed (although there is some supplementary feeding). This is the case not just for cows but also applies to most goats, ewes and buffalo. With the exception of a few inland irrigated areas, it is the natural rainfall and the natural seasonal conditions that determine cheese quality and the volume of milk produced. The peak period of milk production runs from spring in October to the end of November, which coincides with the natural lactation cycle.
In the past this cost efficient method of natural farming has had only limited implications on cheese making, and most industrial cheddar is still made in volume during the seasonal flush . However, the extreme changes in milk quality that such a system creates has presented a challenge for small producers trying to make good specialist cheese types all year. As a result, many of the new cheeses vary quite markedly in quality from day to day and season to season , which makes them very interesting but difficult to handle.
Will Studd, an international authority on cheese, was born in England and emigrated to Australia in 1981. His Chalk and Cheese was named ‘best cheese book in the world’ in 1999.