The fresh artisan label putting Mendooran on the map
Article I Rosie O’Keeffe Photography I Lisa Weber Photography
Artisan cheeses may not often be associated with country showgrounds, but at Mendooran every week, it’s a hive of activity as rural women come together to produce boutique award-winning varieties.
Deb Kiem who began the Blue Sky Cheese business with friend Pip Archer in late 2018, reveals the secret ingredient is “keeping it local” and using traditional handmade techniques.
“It was really about learning an old craft for both of us. Our grandmothers had made butter and cheese, everyone had a milking cow. We wanted to create something by hand and using no preservatives or chemicals.
“We always use milk sourced locally from The Little Big Dairy Company. We need milk with a high cream content and I believe that’s the big difference between us and other artisan cheeses… We can say that our varieties use milk from cows grazing in a paddock less than 70km away, so the varieties are created using low food miles and travel too. It makes a big difference having everything so fresh. We also notice just how lush the feed is when we add the milk, as that increases the cheese yield – certainly influencing the quality and quantity of what we are producing.”
What started as a handful of packages made for family for Christmas gifts, has now transformed into a venture that has varieties stocked throughout the Central West – Coolah, Coonabarabran, Dunedoo, Dubbo, Gilgandra and Walgett.
From the signature Castlereagh Camembert, Peppertree Feta which was awarded a silver medal at the Victorian Dairy Institute Awards, the Pippy Wippy Swiss variety which won silver at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney this year and was named after Pip’s farm vehicle, to the Beni Blue named after the Beni Crossing watering hole, Warrumbungle Wensleydale and Harvest Haloumi (also a silver medal winner in the 2021 Sydney Royal Cheese and Dairy Produce Competition).
“We started with double boilers with 30 litres of milk in each and it took us all day to create the cheese, but by late last year, the production had significantly increased over time and we are now using 180 litres of milk and making six batches of cheese each day,” Deb explains.
“We really hope to educate the locals on the different types of artisan cheeses and that cheese doesn’t have to just be a block of bright yellow. It’s certainly as much for us as the cheese makers to keep it interesting as we explore different techniques and flavours, as it is for the cheese consumers.”
Deb, who had previously had experience in cheese making while working at Hunterbelle Cheese at Muswellbrook, says that whilst Pip is no longer involved in the business, she has now been joined with Allison Martin, another farming woman excited to now learn about the processes.
“We are really proud of what we’ve been able to produce from such a small commercial kitchen without a cool room or controlled environment. In frosty months and extreme heat, we do need to think about how the cheeses will mature,” Deb explains.
To make the cheese varieties, pasteurised milk is purchased and it is warmed and starter cultures added. These have been freeze dried in France and it’s these cultures that determines whether the cheese will be a white or blue mould and will dictate its ultimate flavour.
The mix is stirred for a number of hours (the harder the cheese variety the more it is stirred) and the whey is taken off and a pig farmer often collects it for use in mash for the protein content. Once left with the solids, this is put into baskets to drain overnight. The cheese is then ready for other processes with the Camembert refrigerated at 14 degrees for a week to allow for the white mould to develop ready for wrapping and the Wensleydale variety is dried and waxed. Deb has also been experimenting with different flavours with finger limes sourced from a local orchard now infused in their feta giving more of a ‘bush tucker’ taste. The process to make the halloumi is different to the other cheeses with the mixture heated to 96 degrees (almost at boiling point), where it is set into blocks and put into hot whey and left for 40 minutes to create its rubbery consistency.
Deb, who teaches at a local school and resides on a 180ha cattle property, recalls having established the venture in the height of the drought and how Blue Sky Cheese became a talking point.
Deb has even been asked to provide cheese platters at local events – at the time of our chat she had just prepared 100 cheese platters for the World Whisky Day celebrations at Black Gate Distillery at Mendooran.
“Setting up a very different little business, then creating the different varieties and experimenting with particular flavours did give us something positive to be thinking about and it provided a distraction from the bigger problems we were having with the drought,” Deb explains.
“We are often asked to speak at community events now to explain how the business began and the processes involved. We also encourage people in to visit to learn about cheese making when we are at the showgrounds each Wednesday – there’s even a sign at the local rest stop to invite visitors and travellers in our area to stop by.
“I really enjoy the process. It is interesting, fun and something different for our local area.
“We hope that by sharing our story it inspires people to think about their own passions and how they can make anything happen, even in rural areas.”