When chatting with chefs around Australia for the feature stories we’ve been working on, one man’s name comes up repeatedly when talk turns to cheese — Will Studd. Or, Will Studd, “the cheese guy”.
Studd arrived in Australia in 1981 after establishing delicatessens in central London in the 1970s with the goal of concentrating on importing and distributing cheese. While selling cheese sounds like a fairly controversy-free way to earn a living, Will Studd did not have an easy time of it in Australia when he first arrived.
Will’s initial thoughts about Australian cheese were not positive. “The Australian cheese scene at that stage really wasn’t anything and the only surface ripened cheese I can remember… well, it didn’t really meet my taste,” he tells us as we chat at his home in Melbourne, which also houses his production facilities for his successful television series Cheese Slices.
It was a local Australian blue cheese that gave him hope. “I had this visit from some cheese makers who were making this blue (cheese) from Gippsland,” Will reveals. “I said, “this is really exciting”. I said they should name it after its region, so it became Gippsland Blue. And for a long, long time I pushed that and it’s still a really good cheese.”
Australia did start to produce some reasonable cheeses in the late 1980s and 1990s. “Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s there was this big revolution happening in Australian cheese which was on par with what was happening in the UK,” Will explains. “It’s not hard to look at the rest of the world and get ideas.”
“I was very, very involved in that early period in Australian cheese — I still am — and I was very passionate about developing an identity for Australian cheese throughout the ’90s. During the ’90s we had this big move toward bringing the states’ regulations to a national standard, which meant that places such as Adelaide could not make raw milk cheese — they (the authorities) banned the production and sale of raw milk cheese. They basically banned Parmesan! They didn’t realize they’d banned Parmesan so we formed an association, the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association, and worked for two years to try and get the law overturned.”
The authorities did end up making an exception for Parmesan, but they still banned the production of local raw milk cheeses. Will wanted a strong local cheese making scene with a distinctly Australian bent, and most significant cheeses — if not all — are based on raw milk. However, the big cheesemakers saw Will as someone who only wanted to import the cheeses he wanted and had no interest in Australian cheeses, which was clearly not true at all.
“They tried to vilify what I did because of my strong association with imported cheese,” Will explains. “A lot of the large dairies use co-operative milk and if you use co-operative milk — which is a foundation stone of Australian dairy — you would never want to make raw milk cheese.”
Despite terroir becoming increasingly important for wine, fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and dairy, Will believes the predominant Australian attitude toward raw milk cheese still discourages artisanal cheese production.
“Provenance now is even more important than it was in the ’90s, in the sense that as soon as you pasteurise milk you ‘denature’ it, you destroy the natural esters, the natural flavours in the milk. And then your only way of making cheese is to add a starter, and nine times out of ten that starter is an industrial starter made in Europe and brought over here frozen, so it means that milk from King Island, milk from Tasmania, milk from Victoria, and milk from New South Wales has essentially has lost its individual character,” Will explains.
“It may differ in structure and may have more or less fat, more or less protein, but essentially it becomes a science, and the art of moving with a changing quality of milk disappears,” Will says. “And the irony of that, of course, is that the whole bundle of what makes milk special and cheese special comes undone. For me, even today that is the ongoing challenge for Australian cheese.”
Will’s frustrations continued, not just with the local cheese production regulations, but with the importation laws regarding raw milk cheese. When a minor change in food regulations occurred in 2002, Will tested the law by attempting to import 80 kilos of Roquefort cheese after having it tested in France to ensure it met Australian standards. Unfortunately, the Imported Food Inspection Program (IFIP) refused to test the cheese and Will appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, only to have his appeal rejected and see the cheese buried in a rubbish tip.
An Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) story on the case, including footage of the ‘burial’ with the cheese draped in the French flag and delivered to the burial site in a hearse, so embarrassed the Australian and French governments that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) changed the regulation and made an exception to allow Roquefort to be imported — 11 years after the initial ban.
While these small wins against the system were important for the development of the Australian cheese scene, Will’s frustration about the production of cheese in Australia continues. Will insists that to make an authentic artisanal cheese, the link between the region, the animals, the farmer, and the cheesemaker is what makes the product unique and special.
Fortunately, in recent times, small steps have been taken to allow raw cheeses to once again be made and sold in Australia. These hard cheeses, such as cheddar and parmesan, are thought to pose far less ‘risk’ than soft cheeses such as camembert and brie.
These small strides, along with the support of culinary luminaries such as Tetsuya Wakuda, Peter Gilmore, Justin North, and Neil Perry, are helping Will make the issue of raw milk cheeses one that won’t go away.
While Australian cheeses in supermarkets are incredibly bland (despite what the big cheese companies claim), the new breed of producers such as Holy Goat are producing cheeses of which Australia can be proud — even if they admit that they could produce even better cheese if they were allowed to make cheese using unpasteurised milk.
For Will, the struggle continues: “For an artisan cheesemaker who wants to make cheese that really reflects its regional identity, that’s the challenge — how do you do it?”
Will Studd’s Top 5 Australian Cheeses
- Holy Goat, La Luna, Victoria
- Bruny Island Cheese Co., C2, Tasmania
- Woodside Cheese Wrights, Goat Curd, South Australia
- Tarago River Cheese Company, Gippsland Blue, Victoria
- Pyengana Dairy Company, Pyengana Clothbound Cheddar, Tasmania