MASTERS OF THEIR CRAFT: How one man on an island changed Australian cheese

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Nick Haddow of Tasmania’s Bruny Island Cheese.

Over the past 15 years, Nick Haddow has turned the Bruny Island Cheese Co. into one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed cheesemakers. Its produce has been featured in some of the nation’s finest restaurants, from Sydney’s Bennelong to David Chang’s Momofuku Seiobo.

Like all apparently sudden success stories, it’s really crafted from more than two decades of obsession, curiosity and drive, with a sprinkling of accident and luck that meant it almost didn’t happen, despite the time Haddow spent preparing for the moment.

The Adelaide-born and raised chef turned cheesemaker and his partner, fashion designer LJ Struthers, were ready to move back to Japan to live when they thought they’d better have a look around Tasmania. They found themselves south of Hobart on Bruny Island.

“We were blown away by how incredibly beautiful it was and fell in love in Southern Tasmania and changed our decision within minutes of being on Bruny Island,” Haddow recalls.

There wasn’t really a plan, although he knew he wanted to make cheese for himself, having moved from Japan to northeast Tasmania in 2001 to make the cheese at the acclaimed Pyengana Dairy Company.

Before that, Haddow spent more than a decade learning his craft in the world’s greatest cheese regions in France, Spain, Italy and UK, including a stint at London’s famed Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese shop. Back in Australia, he was mentored by local legends and pioneers Will Studd and Richard Thomas, working at Milawa Cheese Co. and Meredith Dairy in Victoria.

The Bruny Island House Haddow and Struthers fell in love with, soon to open as a guesthouse at the cheesery.

The birth of an idea

Bruny Island Cheese Co. was an idea that began a doll-like two-story timber house on the island near a bay that looks back to the Huon Valley on the Tasmanian mainland. You can only get to the island by ferry, which closes before sunset. Missing the boat has seen Haddow spend more than a few cold nights sleeping in the back of his van.

“I don’t think you’d move to somewhere that doesn’t have dairy farms or customers if it’s a clearly thought out plan,” Haddow laughs, looking back 13 years later.

“But we just made it work. There was a lot of luck and a lot of work.”

The Bruny Island Cheese Co. is now a central part of Tasmania’s food and wine tourism trail. It was named the 2013 Telstra Australian business of the year, and now boasts the spin-off Bruny Island Beer Co, plus a shop in Hobart’s historic Salamanca precinct.

Haddow recently bought a 40 hectare farm beside the Huon River and plans to run small heritage breed dairy herd on it, also building Australia’s first raw milk cheesery there. He spent years fighting authorities for the right to make a raw milk cheese in Australia, a battle he eventually won, resulting in a cheese called C2. Others have followed in his footsteps.

Nick Haddow on the floodplain land of the 40 hectare farm he’s just bought.

His wish is to bring regionalism back into cheese. He want’s people to taste Tasmania in every bite.

It’s a long way from his first attempt to make cheese from goats in the South Australian wine region of Eden Valley, which he confesses was “a bit of a disaster”.

One of the secrets to great cheese is time, he believes. Haddow likes to joke that he can pass on everything he knows about making cheese in under 60 minutes, but the art of maturing cheese is a lifelong masterclass.

“Making cheese is formulaic. The bit that happens in the vat is like making a cake. You’re following a process. The lost art of what we do happens in the maturation room because so much of it is avoided now. Most cheeses are vacuum packed or matured at very cold temperatures and don’t rely on natural conditions,” he says.

The thing that drew Haddow to cheesemaking in the first place was “the alchemy”.

“That magic of being able to turn milk into cheese. The process was what hooked me,” he says.

Sharing the knowledge

Haddow’s recently distilled that knowledge into a new book, Milk. Made., a rallying cry for artisan cheese in an industrial era, which also includes 70 delicious cheese-based recipes. It’s not his first book, having previously collaborated a books with his friend and fellow Tasmanian Matthew Evans on Gourmet Farmer fame. Haddow is one of the former restaurant critic’s trusty sidekicks in the SBS TV series.

The Bruny Island Cheese shop in Hobart’s historic Salamanca markets area.

Haddow says Milk.Made. taught him a lot about what attracted him to some cheeses and helped him define what makes a great one.

“Wherever I go, it doesn’t matter whether Somserset (the home of cheddar) or anywhere. The cheese that absolutely knocks me over all has these same things in common. They don’t come from big dairy farms. They come from small ones, breeds that are native to that area, they’re raw milk. The start culture is made from the whey of yesterday’s milk production. It’s a beautiful thing when it’s all allowed to happen,” he says

Writing the book “opened the door for what I want to do next”, making him realise he had to walk some of the talk.

“I want to make cheese that tastes of where it comes from,” he said.

“More and more I’m convinced that great cheese is equally made in the paddock. Truly great cheese, which is cheese that reflects regional character, that all comes from out in the paddock or field or mountain and certainly not what happens in the vat or maturation room,” Haddow says.

The result is his new dairy farm, because “I’m less and less impressed by the way the dairy industry is heading around the world”.

“Regardless of whether I’m a cheesemaker in Ireland, Europe, the US or New Zealand, 75% of the dairy cows in the world come from one breed, Holstein. … They’re eating the same grass from the same companies. Then we make cheese using the same starter culture from the two big starter culture companies in the world. The opportunity for truly regional characteristics to come into cheese is really hard these days,” he argues.

Making light and lessons

His passionate outbursts against what he sees as the loss of craft in his profession are tempered by the humour that permeates the Bruny Island Cheese Co.

He released a cheese he called “Barney” because “it’s a bit of a blue”. Another, called “Nanna”, is inspired by Corsica’s herb-covered cheese. Haddow uses lavender in his mix.

The company’s best seller, “Tom”, is made like French Tomme. The tasting notes say “Tom is a simple guy. He gets along famously with everyone. Tom likes being rubbed” – a reference to the fact that while maturing, the cheese is rubbed with a cloth every few days while the rind forms.

Haddow likes to raise a smile because “at the end of the day, cheese has be pleasurable”.

A cheese plate at the cheesery.

“It can be as serious as you want, but it has to be fun – both the production and consumption. It’s food, it’s meant to be pleasure. The role of humour of my business is part of that equation”.

So what advice would he offer anyone who also wants to be a master of their craft?

“Don’t move to a small island off the south coast of Tasmania.”

Jokes aside, Haddow believes that “for people who become excellent, there’s a slightly obsessive-compulsive streak in them to begin with. … there’s no satisfying them in terms of knowledge or understanding or exposure. I guess in terms of cheese, I’m a bit like that”.

The formula is simple, and an infinite loop: “The more I learn, the less I understand and the less I understand, the more I want to learn.”

His next big challenge is the new dairy, stocked with a small herd of 55 cows, predominantly Brown Swiss cows, with some Australian dairy shorthorn – now listed as a vulnerable species by the Slow Food movement.

“It’s got me really excited,” Haddow says.

It’s also his turn to give back, as a member of the Tasmanian Leadership Program and board member for Brand Tasmania.

But looking back, Haddow’s analysis of the last 13 years says something about what it means to be a master of your craft.

“It was certainly hard,” he says. “But would I do it all the same way again? Probably.”

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