Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Say Cheese

As a child I wasn’t much enamoured of cheese.  Not surprisingly, given that about the only commercially available variety in those simpler times was Kraft Cheddar.  This, for those who can remember and those who can’t, was a block of processed rubbery material encased in a colourful blue cardboard wrapper.  Those who have feasted on it will never forget its uncanny resemblance to soap, in both texture and taste. 

There may well have been a wider selection available but this was the only one that made it to our table.  In fact by the 1960s there were around 20 cheese varieties being produced in Australia, a quantity that was to double in the next ten years.  So it may just have been that Mum was an unimaginative shopper, or a slavish brand follower.

Something else from those times that can’t be forgotten is the old admonition whenever a camera hove into view, to say Cheese!  While the stuff itself was unlikely to bring a smile to childish lips, its articulation demanded it.  Rebellious kids probably gave it a shot, but it’s pretty well impossible to say the word, given its obligatory stretching of the lips and baring of the teeth, without giving the appearance, at least, of smiling.  It wouldn’t work in French of course.  Fromage doesn’t cut it in the facial grimace stakes, despite the suggestiveness of that husky rolling “r”.  Happy snappers in France apparently encourage grinning in their subjects with the request “dit souris”, (say mouse); not too far a stretch when you think about it.

Smiles and mice aside, cheese was very much on our minds when we visited Pyengana in Tasmania, not far from St Helen’s and requiring only a minor detour from the route that would take us to our next destination.  The Pyengana Dairy Company has been making cheese for the last hundred years or so.  There was therefore good reason to believe they had perfected the art. 

 Some distance from the esteemed cheese making establishment, the scenery began to take on a distinctly pastoral appearance.  Situated in a river valley, the region is climatically perfect for the rearing of dairy cattle.  Some of the brochures we’d read described the countryside in these parts as “lush”, a word that struggles to do justice to the picture postcard gorgeousness of the scene that unrolled itself before us.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 could have been composed with precisely this little spot of cow heaven in mind. 

The Pyengana Dairy Company has, to its credit, capitalized on the Tasmanian foodie tourism trend and set itself up well to capture the interest of passing travelers.  It has an attractively presented shop of course where one can buy in addition to cheese, a variety of cow related objects, spanning the spectrum from eclectic to kitsch.  The cheese offerings include a commentary by the assistant (with samples) on the range of cheeses manufactured.  There is also a café called (what else) the Holy Cow.  It is all tastefully done with a minimum of crass commercialism and a view to die for from the Holy Cow café, which looks out on the surrounding pastureland and the original cheese producers – the contentedly grazing cows. 

Having discovered as I matured (like a good cheese) that the world of cheese is not as insular as my early Kraft Cheddar years suggested, I must confess to now being an unregenerate cheeseaholic.  My judgement in regard to cheeses is therefore possibly suspect, in that I pretty much love them all.  At Pyengana they specialize in cloth-bound mature cheddars, ranging from mild (matured for up to 6 months) to mature (12 months and more).  There are also flavoured varieties, including “devilish” (spiced with chili) which is a popular choice.  After sampling them all, I found it hard to go past the ultra mature cheddar, which although bitey, as one would expect, had a mellow and almost silky texture, rather like fine chocolate, or wine.

As there was an inviting open fire and the aforementioned view, we decided to stay for lunch in the Holy Cow Café.  In between ordering and partaking, David decided to step outside for a first-hand look at the producing side of things.  As he was born and raised on a dairy farm at Woodside in the Adelaide Hills, he harbours some nostalgia for those days, notwithstanding the rigours of early morning milking and other such delights.  He was therefore keen to see to what extent progress had caught up with the industry.  By the time he returned, lunch had been well and truly served and mine, which was delicious, already consumed.  It would be a pleasant life, I imagine, tending the cows and mixing up the curds and whey, especially in such delightful surroundings, however life on the udder side sometimes looks better than it is. 

And now that every suburban supermarket seems to boast a specialised cheese counter to rival the best of the old David Jones’ Food Hall days, there must be so much competition for the consumer dollar that small companies such as this no doubt work very hard to make a profit.  It is gratifying to see that they are able to do this in Tasmania and not only survive, but maintain such high quality products over so many years.