Mahoe Farmhouse Cheese in Oromahoe has won so many awards for its cheeses they've lost count. Reporter Jenny Ling finds out what makes their products so special.
There's an unspoken rule one must follow when visiting Mahoe Farmhouse Cheese in the Far North.
Making cheese puns is not allowed.
The big cheese, to brie or not to brie, cheese the day – they're all just plain cheesy.
These witticisms and all the fuss about their award-winning cheeses make the three brothers who run the cheesery and farm in Oromahoe collectively cringe.
Cheesemakers Jake and Jesse Rosevear and their brother Tim, who looks after the herd that produces the milk for their famed product, would much rather "let the cheese do the talking".
And it most certainly does.
The artisan cheesemakers have won swags of awards for many of their cheeses which include gouda and edam, gouda infused with cumin, chives and garlic, blue cheese, and the mysterious Montbéliarde.
When asked exactly how many, Jake and Jesse are genuinely stumped.
They are pretty sure there have been at least seven supreme awards along with "heaps" of gold medals and trophies.
Their most recent was at the New Zealand Champions of Cheese competition in Hamilton this month, where the very old edam won the supreme champion award in the mid-sized producer category.
If there's anything the brothers dislike more than cheese puns it's talking about fancy awards, so we're straight back to cheese.
There are fresh cheeses like feta, farmer's fresh and volcanic along with two types of yogurt - plain and Greek - and quark.
But they're most well-known for their mature edam and gouda style range, created from recipes and techniques based on original Dutch methods they have refined and adapted.
Edam and gouda wheels are matured on site for anywhere from three to well over 12 months.
"They're good cheeses to make," Jake said.
"You can mature them longer, they've got a good shelf life, and they're nice as a young mild cheese and as an aged cheese."
How they came to focus on Dutch cheesemaking goes back to their parents Anna and Bob, who started the family business from their dairy farm at the same site 35 years ago.
It was the early 1980s and Anna had started experimenting with cheesemaking in her home kitchen.
A few years later after a poor payout from the dairy board, they realised they needed a backup plan, something to add value to the milk.
They knew of a Dutch cheese maker in Whangārei who was retiring and closing his business and bought his equipment along with a new pasteuriser.
By 1986 the cheesemaking business was born, with a ready supply of milk from the farm.
The brothers gradually got on board, initially helping out during school holidays then more regularly after Jesse had finished his degree at Auckland university's Elam School of Fine Arts.
Jake had decided he needed a proper career path and began as an informal apprentice to Tony van Stokkum, who was then head cheesemaker and who is still part of the team.
These days Jake and Jesse make the cheese while farm manager Tim looks after 60 cross-bred Friesian cows that produce the milk for the cheese and yogurt.
The family still prefers to keep the business small, employing four part-time staff.
"It's a small business so we end up doing a bit of everything," Jesse said.
Jake, the head cheesemaker since 2010, is particularly proud of the herd, which grazes on farmland surrounding the cheesery.
Their fresh milk is pumped directly from the cows in the milking shed and is pasteurised as it goes into the cheese vats.
"It's not transported into tankers and Tim does an amazing job," Jake said.
"He looks after those cows so well.
"On this farm, it's not about trying to get that maximum output, it's more about getting good quality milk and having healthy cows."
Tim also ensures there is plenty of silage for times when the grass is scarce, which means there's no need for supplementary feed such as grain or imported palm kernel.
Over the years several traditional cheesemaking breeds have been introduced to the mainly Friesian herd.
It's now a colourful mix of Montbéliarde, Normande and Swiss Browns, along with a few others.
For Tim, temperament is the number one requirement.
All the calves are hand-reared so by the time the females are introduced to the herd they are placid and friendly.
Even Henri the Normande bull enjoys a back scratch as much as the rest of them.
Animal welfare is also a priority; none of the male calves are sent away as "bobby calves" instead they're either reared on the farm for beef or sold to lifestyle blocks.
And when the cows get too old for milking, they're sent to lifestyle blocks instead of being culled.
Happy, healthy cows produce high-quality milk that yields characterful cheese, they reckon, and consumers seem to agree.
Along with the small on-site farm shop, the cheese and yogurt are sold at Whangārei, Paihia and Kerikeri Farmers' markets in Northland, along with Four Square shops, specialty shops and supermarkets around the country.
Jesse calls himself the "experimental one" who has spent a lot of time in Europe visiting cheeseries to come up with ideas for the business.
To France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria he traipsed, tasting alpine cheeses and attending food festivals looking for inspiration.
That once included the International Cheese Festival in Bra, Italy held every two years in September attracting around 200,000 people.
He developed a Komijnekaas, which is gouda with cumin seeds, and a gouda with chives and garlic added into the curd, along with a pepper-infused gouda, and the popular Mahoe blue.
His "secret" Montbéliarde is a flavourful hard cheese with a natural, washed-rind named after the same breed of cow.
Jesse takes a small amount to the market "for people in the know" and the rest is pre-sold to various restaurants around the North Island.
Overall, the brothers are quietly pleased with the product.
"It's really satisfying making a nice product people enjoy," Jesse said.
"When we sell cheese at the market, we've got all these loyal customers and they're like friends.
"They keep coming back and they appreciate what we're doing."