Nick Haddow, cheesemaker, Bruny Island Cheese Co.
There are some very exciting Australian producers who could put their products on a platter alongside some of the best artisan cheeses from around the world and be proud to be in that company.
Cheese addicts across Australia should stop what they are doing and pay homage to Nick Haddow. As an acclaimed cheesemaker and cheese judge, Nick has helped raise the standard of gourmet artisan cheese across Australia and its standing on the world stage. Bruny Island Cheese Co is Nick’s pride and joy, a serene dairy farm in southern Tasmania from which makes and matures some of the finest cheese around using traditional techniques. Nick has also dabbled in media over the years as a co-presenter of Gourmet Farmer, and has even penned a few books of his own. Nick will be heading to Brisbane to take part in a few highly anticipated masterclasses at the Good Food & Wine Show, so we thought it would be a great opportunity to ask Nick how he broke into the business and what makes a really good cheese.
What was it that kicked off you love of good food, particularly cheese?
Well my mum was very thrifty, I didn’t come for a hardcore foodie family but my mum was really inventive so we made everything ourselves. We made our own tomato sauce, I never bought cordial or anything like that – I think that rubbed off on me a lot, what really good home cooking is. I also fell in love with hospitality as a career and I think one of the things that drove me back then – and still drives me now – is the love of making people happy through food.
Most people love cheese, but few of them would know how to turn that in a career. How did you break into the cheesemaking industry?
Well, I fell into hospitality and started managing and working in some really good restaurants in Adelaide in the 80s and early 90s, which was a heyday for Adelaide. There were some really big name chefs working there. Then I was asked to cook at a restaurant in the Eden Valley, just south of the Barossa, and it was one of those restaurants where we made everything from scratch. I loved that notion – it was hard work but the results were fantastic. One of the few things we were buying in was cheese so it was there and then that I started dabbling with making some cheese for the restaurant. I sort of taught myself, back then there wasn’t a whole lot of information on the process so I just fell in love with it an fascinated with the tradition of the process and the fact that you could take this a beautiful and simple substance such as milk and capture it in time by converting it into cheese. That took me overseas to Europe for the first time where I worked with cheesemakers in a cheese shop called Neal’s Yard Dairy in London and that really kicked things off for me. I had this wonderful job at Neal’s Yard Dairy, which allowed me to travel a lot to different cheesemakers around the UK and spend some time with them and learn from them.
What exactly did you learn during your time in Europe and when it comes to their industry, what do they do differently to Australian cheesemakers?
It’s a very different context in a way, it’s an old world context in Europe. They are fairly closely tethered to tradition a lot of the time. This means that if you are born in a certain region of France, the kind of cheese you can make there is more or less pre-determined by virtue of geography. In Australia we have the great benefit of being free from tradition and being able to innovate as much as we want. That said, there is a lot to be said from tradition – to be able to learn about a cheese that has been made the same way for four or five hundred years is a powerful thing.
When it came time to return to Australia, did you have anything in mind regarding what you could do that no one else was doing at the time?
When I first got back it was because a friend and mentor said he was about to open the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder in Melbourne and back then it was a ground-breaking walk-in cheese maturation room and retail shop. That had never been done before in Australia and having worked at a few shops in the UK and around Europe I had a bit of experience in the area. When I came back that was where I put my energies. Being able to work in retail is a great way of educating consumers – you have access to a great cross-section of people who are all keen to learn and know a bit more about cheese. Raw milk has always been a theme in my career, we used to sell as much raw milk cheese as we could and I am making it now.
What instigated your move to Tasmania?
I moved to Tasmania and spent the first year working at Pyengana Dairy Company and that was an awesome experience. There is a great heritage of cheesemaking in that valley. It’s a pretty isolated part of Tassie so that was challenging, especially since I moved from Japan where I was living before that to an isolated deli in the northeast corner of Tasmania. Cheese has been made in that part of Tasmania for more than 100 years, sort of the same sort of cheese – there aren’t many regions you can say that about in Australia so having the opportunity to be the guardian of that tradition, even for just a short time, was a real honour.
It wasn’t long after your time there that you decided to truly strike out on your own with Bruny Island Cheese Co., correct?
Yeah, we started Bruny Island Cheese Company in 2003. Back then it was my partner Leonie and myself and that’s all – it’s gotten a lot bigger since then, though! We set out to make cheese that we wanted to eat – to make cheese that we thought was different to what was being made in Australia, to raise the bar a bit and ultimately to make unpasteurised cheese, which we’ve achieved.
Through all of your knowledge that you’d have accrued until this point, what different techniques did you employ that helped set Bruny Island products apart from its competitors?
I don’t really know the answer to that because ultimately we make the cheese that we want to eat, and we are in a lovely situation where we have a very busy cellar door and a big part of our business is in our Cheese Club, which allows us to experiment and differentiate our products throughout the year. We work very closely with our two milk suppliers and our milk changes quite dramatically throughout the year and our cheesemaking responds to those changes as well. I don’t know what we’ve done to set out to differentiate ourselves other than wanting to make cheese, which reflected a strong sense of place. The cheeses that we make are very strongly Tasmanian or Bruny Island cheeses. I’m not at all interested in replicating or imitation cheeses that are made elsewhere, whether its Australian or from overseas. That’s reflected in what we call our cheeses – we don’t make brie or cheddar but we make a cow’s milk white mould cheese. A lot of people ask if it is brie or if it’s camembert and we say that it’s neither, it’s called Saint and it’s unique to this place. Sure, it has some things in common with cheeses that you might be familiar with, but we are on an island off the south coast of Tasmania – we can’t make brie or camembert any more than the French can make Saint. I think that level of education and understanding is a lot better now than it was 18 years ago.
What is it about Bruny Island and Tasmania that made it such a good spot in the end? Set the scene for us.
Well, moving to Tassie was a conscious decision. Both Leonie and myself come from South Australia and both of us had lived for a while in some pretty big cities around the world and we wanted to have a slightly quieter existence. We fell in love with Tasmania and were utterly smitten by southern Tasmania in particular. Hobart as a city is incredible – it’s a beautiful, small city that has a terrific community. The channel separating mainland Tasmania from Bruny Island is mind-blowingly beautiful. Within ten minutes of us driving onto Bruny Island for the first time, it became pretty clear that this was where we wanted to be. Like I say, it’s not a clever place to start a business, especially 15 years ago, let alone one that specialises in highly perishable artisan produce with a market that’s elsewhere and a complete lack of dairy on the island. That said, would I do it again? Absolutely, it’s clearly worked and it’s a great place to live and bring up kids.
You’ve been named one of Australia’s best cheesemakers and you are also an accomplished cheese judge, what in your opinion makes a good cheese?
It’s a bit of a wanky answer but integrity is really important. Having a cheese that is not trying to be something else is really important to me. It has to have great flavour; it has to have length of flavour and really rich character. There is a lot of cheese that looks fantastic and is very hard to fault when judging but if you don’t want to take it home at the end of the day then it’s lacking in character and personality.
In terms of Australian cheeses, is there any outside of Bruny Island that you think is really worth checking out?
It’s a really exciting time for the cheese industry in Australia. There are small producers that are popping up all the time that I haven’t even heard of and am surprised by. Some of the bigger names are well known for a reason, brands like Pyengana Dairy Company is always consistently excellent. Holy Goat Dairy in Victoria and Pecora Dairy in New South Wales are making some amazing cheeses – these are some very exciting producers who could put their products on a platter alongside some of the best artisan cheeses from around the world and be proud to be in that company.
You’ll be coming to Brisbane for the Good Food & Wine Show to host a few Masterclass sessions, what will attendees learn from these classes?
There are three separate Masterclasses which I do in conjunction with a fellow called Peter Nixon from Dan Murphy’s, he’s their head wine guy and a great bloke with a massive wine brain. We’ve done session called ‘Not Another Cheese and Wine Matching’ – over the course of my career I’ve had to do a lot of wine and cheese matching, whenever I get given the opportunity to do a matching with something other than wine it’s always pretty exciting. There are some tremendous matches that can be made outside of the world of wine in terms of cider or beer, sake or whiskey. In another class we also look at what happens when wine and cheese age – so we look at the same wine at different ages and the same cheeses at two different ages. It’s a fascinating class looking at how stuff matures. The classes go for about an hour and they are loads of fun. And the other shows are a great opportunity to catch up with people that I don’t get to see very often. Each state for the Good Food & Wine Show brings a lot of producers, so it’s great to catch up with the local Queensland exhibitors and see what they are doing, which makes it a really interesting show from my point of view.