A small Whangārei cheese company has been named the best soft cheese maker at the world's biggest competition.

Grinning Gecko's Camembert - which has previously netted a total of six national medals - won gold in the soft cheese class and its halloumi won silver in its class at the International Cheese and Dairy Awards in Nantwich last week.

All up, Grinning Gecko won four medals at the biggest cheese competition in the world, which draws more than 5000 entries from 30 countries.

The company's ''stinky soft'' Kau Piro, which last year earned cheesemaker Zev Kaka-Holtz a bronze award in the International Novice Cheesemaker class, this year won the silver medal in the open class for soft cheeses. Grinning Gecko's halloumi also won a bronze in the non-Cypriot halloumi class.

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''The third best halloumi in the world, made outside of Cyprus, is an outstanding achievement but one we have long suspected,'' said Catherine McNamara, who founded Grinning Gecko Cheese Co with her husband, James.

''To say we are stoked would be an understatement. The International Cheese and Dairy Awards are like the Olympics of Cheese, as there is only one gold, one silver and one bronze medal per class.''

Grinning Gecko has now entered the international competition three times and each time has won a medal.

Grinning Gecko cheesemaker Zev Kaka-Holtz after last year's win at the international competition.
Grinning Gecko cheesemaker Zev Kaka-Holtz after last year's win at the international competition.

McNamara worked in human resources and her husband in engineering six years ago when she began to culture the idea of a career change.

''It was either cheese or chocolate. Unfortunately, I didn't have the finesse required for chocolate.

''I did a one-day cheese course in the Waikato at what's now the New Zealand Cheese School, and it really resonated with me. I went home to Whangārei Heads and started experimenting. It became an obsession.''

McNamara did formal theory and practical training, then concentrated on developing a small commercial venture. James also came on board.

''The timing was right. New Zealand was on the verge of developing its now well-recognised international palate.''

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Having the right people involved was crucial to the McNamaras' vision.

''The thing that anchors me the most is the people that work here. We work as a whānau [apart from the McNamaras, the other three staff are not related] and we also work to a set of guidelines which gives what we call the wairua of this place.''

As well as pride in the cheese, the workers and the company's ethos, McNamara is thrilled to ''utilise the fantastic product and environment we have here in Northland''.

The cheese is not called organic but is all made from certified organic cows' milk.

''We're always on the lookout for organic sheep, goat and buffalo milk, too, but it's hard to find it in the quantities we require.''

As for the latest gold medal, it's even more special because each of Grinning Gecko's three cheesemakers has now had international success: McNamara for her brie in 2016, and her pupil Zev Kaka-Holtz won the bronze for Novice Cheesemaker in 2018, followed by this year's success with the Kau Piro and halloumi. Finally, Clara Autet, who has been with the company for nine months and is being trained by Kaka-Holtz, won the Camembert gold as well as making the base cheese for the Kau Piro.

Autet began her cheesemaking apprenticeship as part of the Ministry for Social Development's Mana in Mahi programme, which matches young people with potential employers and provides training and wage subsidies.

MSD regional commissioner Eru Lyndon said the partnership with Grinning Gecko was a great example of how work programmes could transform lives.

Grinning Gecko had a winning formula all round, but McNamara found early on that: ''It's easier to make cheese than sell it.''

Now it's sold in supermarkets, other outlets, markets and ''from a little wee cave in the corridor'' at the Port Rd factory. But sometimes people don't recognise the value in artisan cheeses compared to, say, a ''family block'' or a rubbery $4 mass-produced Camembert made for shelf-life qualities more than flavour and texture, she said.

Grinning Gecko cheeses had a maximum shelf-life of 24 days, becoming ripe and rich and delicious until suddenly being over the hill. They are, after all, a living thing, McNamara says.

''It's time to educate people.''