Getting up to milk the sheep at 6am every day has paid off for Central Hawke's Bay home cheesemaker Phillippa White, who, in her first foray into competition, walked away with the top home-crafted cheese title at the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards this month.
As well as gaining the gold for her Sentry Hill quark, the mum of three, who helps run her husband's family farm, Sentry Hill, on Makaretu Road, also gained a silver for her Sentry Hill feta and a bronze for the Sentry Hill pecorino.
The annual contest is run by the cheese industry to reward excellence in cheesemaking.
Mrs White only started making cheese about 15 months ago, inspired by an earlier trip to France where she discovered a farmer in a village milking 300 sheep to create Roquefort cheese.
Thinking she would like to take a cheese course, she reverted to books instead and started making the farm-style cheeses she favours for their simplicity to produce.
"I used to milk a cow for cheese but sheep milk is so much better - it's creamy and the flavours are phenomenal."
She milks about 20 East Friesian sheep, bought especially for the task, once a day.
By about 7am, she said, the milk was in the cheese pot, and then pasteurised, and a culture and rennet added.
Then it went into the hot water cupboard overnight.
For the quark, it was drained the following day through a cheesecloth and left for another 12 hours, by which time it was ready to eat.
The pecorino, feta and tomme (a French farmhouse style) cheeses were a bit more time-consuming, as they required pressing, but were still simple to produce, she said.
She said she entered the awards to get some feedback, and her award tally indicated she was on the right track.
"The quark was beautifully crafted with a very light texture and very sweet milk," judge and cheese tutor Jean Mansfield said. "This product demonstrated Phillippa's attention to detail as a practised cheese craftsman making a high-quality product. For a fresh cheese to stand up in judging against a more mature cheese, it has to be outstanding - and it really was."
Until now, family and friends have been the recipients of Mrs White's efforts, but the next step will be to start producing the cheeses commercially.
Mrs White is currently going through that process with the Ministry of Primary Industries, and the farm is also two years into a three-year certification with OrganicFarmNZ, a certification aimed specifically at the domestic market.
She hoped to be up and running as an approved cheese producer by the end of this year.