I came to New Zealand a few years ago and am occasionally asked what I miss from my time in France where I lived before for nearly 20 years. I'm very happy here but one thing I do miss is…French cheeses.
In France there are literally several hundred types of cheese available from the milk of goats, sheep and cows — as well as mixed cheeses made from various blends of milk from these animals. For me, these would be mostly from the Midi-Pyrenees region where I lived but also from the rest of France.
An abiding memory is of the pleasure and enjoyment from weekly trips to local markets or cheesemongers to savour and choose from the many affordable varieties on offer. It was a joy discovering the distinctive and characteristic smells, flavours, tastes and textures of these cheeses over the years. These traits would subtly evolve through the seasons reflecting the change in pasture and plants available for grazing. The best of these cheeses would always be made from "lait cru" (raw milk).
Coming to New Zealand I was surprised and disappointed that there was no similar range of cheeses available. After all, Aotearoa is almost swimming in milk from its many millions of dairy cows. Unfortunately, the artisan cheeses produced here rarely use raw milk and, in my opinion, don't match the AOC (PDO or Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses that I enjoyed in France. These have strict rules of designation and provenance mostly requiring the use of raw milk in the cheesemaking process.
Nevertheless, a few intrepid artisanal commercial cheesemakers using raw milk have established themselves in New Zealand — none of which are in the Whanganui area. Two are Mount Eliza Cheeses and Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese. Another is Aroha Organic Goat Cheese. Their task is not easy as they face high compliance costs for MPI testing, which they pass on to customers.
For example, the cheapest offerings on their websites are, for Mount Eliza, the Red Leicester it sells for $49 a kilo and, for Aroha, an 800g plain goat's cheese sells for $70. Freight is in addition. All these cheesemakers produce only hard cheeses. A once-traditional food staple is now a luxury product beyond the reach of most people.
Two iconic French cheeses illustrate the challenges for New Zealand cheesemakers. The first is AOC Camembert, which can only be made from the raw milk from Normandie breed cows. Currently there is no New Zealand equivalent cheese available.
Cheesemakers have not felt confident in meeting the onerous challenges of MPI's regulatory testing requirements for raw milk to be used in softer cheeses with a shorter maturity. The second is the famous AOC Roquefort blue vein cheese made from the raw milk of Laucaune breed sheep. No equivalent cheese is produced commercially in New Zealand.
Insofar as I have been able to determine there are no cheesemakers using raw milk from sheep. Interestingly, both these cheeses are imported into New Zealand and can be bought from high-end delicatessens, albeit for a price that puts them out of reach for most people.
The focus of New Zealand milk production and the regulatory regime that frames it appear to be primarily geared towards milk powder for export. It seems absurd that these regulations effectively bar the widespread use of raw milk in the production of artisan cheeses where the value added is potentially much greater.
Perhaps MPI can look at the current French experience to consider reshaping their regulatory regime so that it is fit for purpose in accommodating cheesemaking using raw milk?
■David Hughes moved to Whanganui after working for 35 years in England, Australia, New Caledonia, France and other countries. He works as a translator from French into English and is involved in a project growing heritage wheat varieties.