Calum Hodgson, aka The Curd Nerd, talks to Kim Knight about parmigiano's opioid effects, the link between body odour and dairy and the state of the country's farmhouse cheese industry.
Irish scientists are printing cheese.
According to a study published by the Journal of Food Engineering, meltable malleable processed cheese is ideally suited to this exciting 3D technological application that offers "many possibilities for customised nutrition".
Here is what Calum Hodgson likes to do with processed cheese:
"Cheese slices! That dirty, analogue stuff wrapped in plastic ... you chuck them on the barbecue in their plastic. They blow up! That's something fun to do. If you're standing around, having a drink, you can say 'five bucks on that one ...' 'Cos they jump up as well. It's fun, and it's cheap. It's a good thing to do with cheese slices."
And then Hodgson reaches into a cardboard box and pulls out a lump of pure white. He slides a bit off the side with a small, sharp knife. "Ricotta salada. Three months old. Dry salted."
It rushes up my tongue like the tide returning. This is cheese.
Two hours ago, Hodgson ordered the flat white coffee he still hasn't finished and ushered me into a meeting room at Auckland speciality fine food store, Sabato. The company's marketing executive came too. Just to ensure the store was being represented correctly, she said. But I suspect it was also because their cheesemonger says what he thinks and sometimes he thinks the Ministry for Primary Industries "doesn't know its arse from its elbow" and also, that if the national Cheese Awards were shifted to A&P competition showgrounds and made viable for small farmhouse producers to enter, "I would champion that like a motherf***er".
Hodgson is the shock jock of Auckland's cheese world. As equally obsessed with Twin Peaks (he's planning a themed dinner) as he is cheese, a man who buys tickets to The Pixies (and The Wiggles), whose dream dairy project is a New Zealand version of pecorino di fossa, an unpasteurised sheep's milk cheese from Umbria, Italy, coated in herbs and spices and buried underground to mature.
"It comes up, and it's black like a little cannonball and it's really, really difficult to cut, it's just one big aggregate of crystal.
"Most of the three cheeses that have got me distinctly high have been from that family. Two pecorino di fossa, and bizarrely, one from Devon in Cornwall."
Cheese has an opioid effect. Cheese has the same cultures you'll find under your arm. The holes in emmental cheese? "Propionibacterium ... that's human acne." Hodgson delivers these dairy factoids with grand gestures and plooping, explosive noises. Hodgson brings cheese to life.
If you eat cheese and follow social media, you've possibly already encountered the 40-year-old father-of-two from Whangaparaoa. His Twitter handle is "Curd Nerd" and, in his profile picture, he balances a 40kg wheel of comte balanced on his head. Because: "I'm a cheese head."
The New Zealand farmstead cheese evangelist was born in the Solomon Islands (his dad was installing telecommunications equipment), the only boy in a family of five. He is Ngati Potiki, Tuhoe and Ngati Awa. When he talks about where cheese comes from, he refers to its whakapapa, not its terroir.
He trained to be a social worker. He met his wife, Bec, when he was a teenager. They were both working the phones at Youthline - Hodgson, because he was atoning for a drink-driving offence. Bec is his everything. "The big cheese in my life. My roquefort."
Social work was okay, "but I kind of got out of doing that, because people are cool, but I don't want them to be my job. I can work with people in a different way, with the conduit being cheese."
The couple went to London. Ten years in a tiny bedsit with foxes out the back and epic cheese and beer parties (Bec is a home brewer). By now, Hodgson was working as a landscape gardener but he was hanging out with chefs, having food adventures and realised, he says, there was another itch he wanted to scratch.
"Bec gave me permission to leave my regular paying gardening job and run a-whey and join the cheese circus," he writes, in response to an email request for a brief curriculum vitae.
Over the coffee he's not drinking: "If I have something that turns me on, I don't let go. I just keep on going hard until I get bored of it. I've had a whole range of obsessions. Life is nothing without obsession, in my opinion.
"The cheese thing, for me, just picked up when I stopped getting high and focused on getting high on food."
Multiple high points: chief cheesemonger at Daylesford Organic. A judge's spot at the British Cheese Awards. A stint on the Kappacasein Cheese stand, making the most famous cheese toastie in the world, the one food critic Ruth Reichl dubbed "the platonic ideal of grilled cheese". A job at the famed and feted Neal's Yard Dairy, initially in retail and later in affinage (the alchemic, arcane art of cheese maturation that includes physically patting down soft cheeses to thin down their blooming rinds).
"You wear scrubbing gloves, like a surgeon, and pick up all the cheeses ... patty-pat-pat."
Hodgson is a solid bloke with long hair pulled back into a ponytail. He went to school at the sports-heavy St Peter's. He looks like he'd play rugby. But overseas, when he went looking for cheese work, his shtick was simple: "Hi, I'm Calum, I'm from New Zealand. I don't play rugby. I'm cheap and easy and can we hang out?"
Once, at Daylesford, the bazillionaire owner Lady Bamford rounded up the cheese team and flew them in her private jet to Terra Madre Salone del Gusto - the "Indiana Jones of food festivals" in Turin, Italy.
"I was this dude from Titirangi on a private jet to go and look at cheese. I was pinching myself. 'What the f*** has happened here?'"
So far, so not bored.
"I have been called an idiot savant of cheese."
Hodgson says the cheese world can be a bit hoity-toity.
"Buying a cheese is a measure of your self-esteem, or self-worth, or you're important or rich or whatever. I f***ing hate that. A lot. All the stuff that I do is kind of just to demystify - no, that's the wrong word - to chill it out.
"I don't seek to take myself seriously. Though I take what I'm doing very seriously."
Because Hodgson has a mission. When he and Bec came home to have their children (Cleo is almost 5, and Cooper is almost 3) he thought, perhaps he'd be a cheesemaker.
"The vision was to chuck my two cents in too - 'cos I'm an idealist. I've learned a lot more about the industry now."
Back in Auckland, he managed the new Kapiti Store and was the "founding curd nerd" at The Dairy in Ponsonby Central, where he was scooped up by Sabato co-owner Jacqui Dixon, who was impressed with his Neal's Yard Dairy ("the English cheese mecca") experience.
"We thought there was potential to give the local cheesemakers a more reliable market," says Dixon. "Cheese is a high-cost product to handle, with all the rules and regulations in today's market, plus of course it's generally a highly perishable product, so Calum has both the fun and responsibility of choosing and nurturing this part of our range."
Or, in Hodgson's words: "I pimp the cheese and supply all the bad-arse kitchens worth eating at."
Today, he says he's "living vicariously through the misadventures of New Zealand's farmhouse cheesemakers".
Cheese is just milk - but it's also a little bit magic.
"For such a simple food stuff, that essentially has the same raw ingredient, you can produce a whole layer of esters and flavour profiles. That is bonkers. It's pretty supernatural, right? Like say the cows are out in the paddock and they're standing in the wind and the acidity in their milk goes up because of the wind. But then they come into the parlour and you put some bad German pop music on and the acidity starts to drop, because they're more chilled out. And then, at the side of the parlour, you have something for them to scratch their bum on, as they come in. There's all these variables at play, which you can recognise, and you can help stage manage, but you've got no absolutes. And that's just to get the milk ... so it's just this whole, weird, Twin Peaksy mystery. It's like, what the f*** does it all mean?"
What does it all mean? Hodgson has a seven-ring Cretan labyrinth tattooed on his arm - a symbol, he says, that's found all over world, "and they don't know why". There is a blurry barcode on his wrist. He was really into barcodes when he was 17. Painted them on his walls, made barcode sculptures, thought a lot about the system and Big Brother, "the idea was to get the Weetbix barcode and have that tattooed on, so I could scan up as a Kiwi kid. It didn't quite work out." Now he completely and seriously describes cheese as his "muse".
He sells it, but he also collaborates with cheesemakers, suggesting new products and helping them bring their ideas to commercial market.
Kaikoura Cheese's ash-coated goat's milk "Tenara" is a recent success story. Last Christmas, Hodgson had forecast orders for 600. When the November 14 earthquake hit Kaikoura, only 238 were viable. The #tenaratothepeople hashtag was launched. "We had to whistle them out on a fishing charter and get them up from Christchurch. It was a big effort."
Right now, he's pimping the geotrichum-wrinkled pasteurised sheep's milk "Cheese With No Name" from Sentry Hill Organics, where Philippa White milks 55 East Friesian ewes.
Hodgson says it took 11 months - a lifetime in the life of a small business - to get the cheese approved for commercial sale (cue "arse from its elbow" and other assorted criticisms of the compliance regime).
A couple of years ago, says Hodgson, he thought the farmhouse cheese industry was "on its knees a little bit" - production was stymied by regulations, and retailers wanted imported product. "But year on year, it's not going away. There is a growing demand from the food service industry and the quality is there."
The red tape is still a problem. Hodgson says there is a "one size fits all" compliance model that favours big operators. He points to Biddy Fraser-Davies, the country's sole raw-milk-only cheesemaker. Her Cwmglyn Raw Farmhouse Cheese has been served at Government House to Royals on State visits. You could "paper a palace" with the compliance documentation she has collected, Hodgson wrote recently in food magazine, Stone Soup.
Fraser-Davies is 75. She has just five cows, "and she pays around $4500 in compliance, annually, to milk five cows!"
Hodgson isn't knocking the 1kg block of cheddar ("It's a cultural tradition. It's part of being a New Zealander. Everyone grew up with one and I've got it in my house, too") but the way commodity dairy is marketed leaves him cold.
"Gerry who gets up at 5.30 in the morning and walks his dog down to the milking parlour ... All that story, for want of a story!"
Meanwhile, back on the small farmhouse cheesemakers' farm, "we're just selling really good cheese ... these guys are not telling stories for a story's sake. There is a whakapapa there. Methodology, provenance and traceability."
It's paying off. Mahoe edam is currently being served on selected American Airlines flights, "despite folk saying there's no money in small-scale New Zealand cheese".
Hodgson has been contacted by a commercial customer who wants to buy cheese that has been made exclusively within Tainui iwi boundaries. Last year, he orchestrated the #AllWeAreSayingIsGiveNZCheeseAChance social media campaign featuring top chefs posing with cheese from farmhouse producers struggling with compliance costs. He's taken chefs to farms and cheesemakers to high-end Auckland kitchens and is a "one-trick pony" when it comes to cracking a giant parmigiano in public. His kids ground him. "I go home, and Cooper's like, 'How's the cheese today, Dad?'"
Actually, today, the cheese is a little smelly. "That's the odorants warming up. Say you're grading cheddar. You take a sample out and you want to roll it round like a soil sample. If you really want to taste it, you need to tease it out, you need to warm it up."
He reaches into his cardboard box and unwraps a Kau Piro (literally "stinky cow") from Whangarei's Grinning Gecko.
"Catherine was like, what should I make ... I want a really unstable, big-mouth washed rind that just punches. It's going to knock you out. It has to be a big bugger, because a lot of washed rinds in New Zealand aren't. The retailers want profit margins and a shelf-stable cheese. Cheesemakers love the opposite."
A browny-orange bloom tracks across the kau piro rind. That bacterium, says Hodgson cheerfully, "has the same whakapapa as your underarms and your feet. Human BO!"
How does a professional taste cheese? Hodgson looks at me like I'm mad.
"I just think people overthink things too much. They have this tippy-toe approach. What do I do, how do I do this?"
He pulls a hunk of stinky goo from his knife and swallows. I follow suit. It coats the back of my throat like molten velvet. This is cheese.