The founders of artisan cheesemaking business Cilantro Cheese are adamant: "We don't want to take over the world".

And while they don't have lofty ambitions for conquering the cheesemaking industry, they have achieved success in the relatively short time they've been around and have plans to grow the business.

Cilantro Cheese was founded in 2010 by scientists Monica Senna Salerno and Jenny Oldham.

The pair worked together at AgResearch and there was talk of redundancies around the potential amalgamation of two groups. Monica remembers Jenny saying that if there were redundancies she'd put her hand up. They discussed what kind of business they might get into and Jenny mentioned she had a cheese making kit at home that she'd been given for her birthday and never used. Monica had a passion for good cheese so it was a given that she would be on board with Jenny's cheesemaking business idea.


"I am Brazilian but I was living in Italy before coming here so I was very used to pecorino cheese which is made from sheep's milk," said Monica. "I arrived here and there were sheep everywhere so I thought 'Ha! Pecorino is gonna be easy to find'. But it wasn't."

Back then, she found a goat's milk supplier who would sell her small amounts of milk at the farm gate.

"I started making cheese and the leftovers would go to friends who said it was good, and asked when I was going to start selling it."

Jenny eventually took redundancy (she's now at Plant & Food Research) - Monica is still there - and so the pair started looking for somewhere to set up the goat and sheep's milk cheesemaking business. They came across the location they are in now - a small building on the AgResearch campus.

"In September 2010 we started bringing equipment in and working on a food and safety plan which allows you to make and sell cheese," said Monica.

They got their approval for that in March 2011 but that coincided with Monica being diagnosed with breast cancer and she underwent several operations, which meant the business sat idle for the most part.

However, in November 2011 they ramped up production again and started selling their cheese at the Cambridge Farmers Market.

"That's when I consider that we really started," said Monica.

Monica and Jenny had plenty of support from the Meyer family.

"A good friend of mine, Miel Meyer, he used to work for me in the lab - his parents own Meyer Gouda. He stopped working in the lab to take over the business when his parents wanted to retire," said Monica.

"They gave us a lot of support, they showed us the ropes. The Meyers were just adorable. They came here to look at the premises, told us what we should do, what we shouldn't do.

"Miel said 'why don't you enter the cheese awards?' I said 'nahhhh'. He said 'just put it in and see what happens'."

So Monica and Jenny entered their chevre - a soft, fresh, cream cheese-style goat's cheese - into the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards.

"I remember being at home with a migraine and the phone rung and I thought I'm not going to answer it," said Monica.

But she relented when the phone kept ringing.

"It was someone from the cheese awards asking if we were going to the awards dinner. She said 'I can't tell you officially why but you should come'," said Monica. "So I go 'what the hell?' and I called Miel and he said 'you've got a championship of some sort, they don't just phone you just for the medals'."

Miel was right; Cilantro's chevre was crowned the 2012 Champion Goat Cheese, just four months after they'd really got started.

The following year they entered a hard goats' cheese and the chevre again and picked up gold and bronze medals.

Three years on from that first big win still gets Monica excited about those wins. Her Brazilian accent gets thicker, her speech faster and more animated.

Hamilton News spoke with Monica and Jenny on a Tuesday - their cheesemaking day. Monica veers between the interview and checking on the goats' milk that is heating gently on the gas-fed elements.

Today their production has increased to them using about 150 litres of goats' milk each week. Originally Monica collected 5-10 litres.

"On a Tuesday I wake up and go straight to the farm to get the milk, I come back, filter it, pasteurise it, I make the cheeses to the orders," said Monica.

Then she splits the milk into different volumes depending on the orders, calculating how much she needs for chevre, how much for a hard cheese, halloumi, feta or ricotta.

"Depending on what cheese I'm making I mould on the same day or leave it overnight and mould it the next day. The chevre I start making on a Tuesday and it comes out of the mould on Friday and it's ready to eat. For the halloumi I start in the morning and by the afternoon I have edible cheese.

"The hard cheeses are moulded overnight, pressed, then taken out and brined for at least a day before they are matured for at least a month to six weeks."

A vintage cheese will be matured for six months or more.

Jenny says they aren't making sheep's milk cheese at the moment because sheep milk producers are tied up with milk powder production.

"It's of no advantage to them and a pain in the neck for them to deliver small amounts of fresh milk so we just get that when we can."

But when they do, they make pecorino.

"It's a Tuscan-style pecorino, not the sharp Pecorino Romano," said Jenny. "It's a quite buttery, it's the Italian sandwich cheese and it's got these layers of flavour. Sheep's milk is much more complex than cow's milk in terms of its flavour. Goats' milk is very clean with one or two flavours or features that are prominent but sheep's milk is a completely different beast."

About 75 per cent of the goats' milk is used to make chevre. While the chevre has a shelf life of about six weeks, Monica likes it to be as fresh as possible for the orders from restaurants (Hamilton's Dough Bros and Chim Choo Ree) and retail outlets such as Farro in Auckland and Moore Wilson in Wellington.

They are working on having a retail outlet in Hamilton but they sell their cheeses on alternating weekends at the Cambridge and Hamilton Farmers Markets and direct from their Ruakura base.

"It's all hand-made ... it's labour intensive," said Monica. And that means these artisan cheeses are a little more expensive than others. But in addition to supporting a local business, consumers can purchase the cheese knowing Monica and Jenny do their best to run their business as environmentally and socially responsible as they can.

"I have an arrangement with Rototuna Countdown where I pick up their polystyrene boxes and slicka pads ... things they would otherwise dump, and we clean them up, wipe them down and it goes off with our cheese inside," said Jenny. "As we get bigger that's going to be a bit more of an issue, the time and effort required to do that but we don't want to be paying for polystyrene boxes that people are going to dump."

And the whey goes to a free range pig farm. "The whey is full of protein and sugar that will be good for the pigs," said Monica.

"We recycle the oil bins from the popcorn place next door to us here - we put the whey into those bins so they get recycled.

"People sometimes forget that people are important as well. We are tiny but we try to give something every year to a charity."

Aside from doing their bit for the environment and community, they are putting their science background to use by assisting with some scientific experiments.

"There are certain things you can extract from whey that we are trying to see if it improves the flavour of the cheese," said Monica.

"There is flexibility for us because we're not from a cheesemaking dynasty like the Meyers," said Jenny. "We want to muck around a bit with traditional recipes; we're not bound by strong history of product."

The pair say they were able to produce good cheese from the beginning because their science backgrounds enabled them to understand the production process.

"There is quite a bit of art in it as well especially when it comes to the hard cheeses and how you're going to take care of them," said Monica

Where to from here for Cilantro Cheese?

Monica wants to make it a full-time job. In order to take the business to the next level they are concentrating on getting their products into other stores and being able to make enough of the cheeses to have available.

"Billy the Kid (their hard cheese) is a huge success but we just make so little at the moment that it is difficult to push it," said Monica. "With the new equipment we've got and with more time we'll be able to produce more."

But they have no intention of taking their cheese to the world.

"We are a micro business," said Monica. "Every time we try to get some support, it's not there. The government is not interested because we're not going to export. There seems to be this folklore that everyone's ultimate aim is to export, but we make a fresh product and it's unlikely we'd ever want to export," said Jenny. "To get those volumes we'd have to get large, then we'd have to step back, it's a whole different domain."

However Cilantro Cheese develops, what remains certain is that it's Monica's "therapy".

"If I've had a bad day at work on the Monday this is my therapy. I arrive here - and Jenny has seen this - I can be stroppy."

Jenny concurs: "She sounds off for 45 minutes, stomping around".

"And then I'm fine and it has everything to do with the cheese," said Monica. "I'm making the cheese, I'm thinking about the cheese. I just wish to be someone who can make a living from cheesemaking but I don't want to take over the world".