Christophe Prodanu is passionate about making cheese.
The third-generation French cheesemaker, who spent the last three months making cheese at an organic goat farm in Sutton Grange in Central Victoria, has dedicated close to 30 years perfecting the craft.
Much of his work involved working with unpasteurised milk from small herds, which he said helped produce “concentrated, exceptional flavours”.
“It’s an art because we transform a liquid into a solid,” Mr Prodanu said.
While many Australian cheesemakers were excited that Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) allowed the production of some cheeses from raw milk about two years ago, Mr Prodanu said the use of cultures, or a “cocktail” of microbes used in cheese making, was also important.
“Because if you’re just going to be adding the same cultures then how different is that? It’s not so different,” Mr Prodanu said.
He is dismayed at the monopoly of the cheese culture making industry, which he said is essentially in the hands of three large petro-chemical companies that produce the cultures added to cheese across the globe.
“That’s crazy,” Mr Prodanu said.
Economic viability driving limited cheese culture production
Secretary of the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association (ASCA) Alison Lansley said that in addition to the three large companies producing cultures there were a couple of smaller companies in France that specifically targeted artisan cheese makers but these cultures were not available in Australia.
“Although that’s another project we’re working on to bring those cultures into Australia,” she said.
Currently all Australian cheesemakers, whether they be artisan cheesemakers or large industrial cheesemakers, all get their cultures from the “big three” leaving little variety, with economic viability the driving force, according to Ms Lansley.
“It’s far better for them to sell a lot of culture of a single type to the big players — these big industrial cheesemakers — they see these cheesemakers as their most important client,” she said.
“So the little artisan cheesemakers, who only want a small quantity of culture, they’re just kind of ignored in the process because it just isn’t worth the while of these big culture companies to bring in more interesting cultures.”
Why interesting cheese cultures are important in Australia
The reason why more “interesting cultures” are so important in the Australian cheese industry is because the current regulations in Australia only allow for semi-hard cheeses to be made from raw milk.
“We are never going to make the softer cheeses with raw milk,” Ms Lansley said.
“The authorities in Australia — the food standards authorities and the dairy regulators — are always very worried about soft cheeses.
“Semi-hard and hard cheeses are not ever as risky as soft cheeses — that’s why they’ve drawn that line.”
That’s why Ms Lansley thinks that the “answer” for artisan cheesemakers, who want to make soft cheeses, lies in the use of more “interesting cultures” rather than commercial cultures for pasteurised milk cheeses.
“Because that’s how you get the flavour into them that is being taken out of them because of pasteurising milk,” she said.
In recognition of this, ASCA began their Cultures Trial project two years ago, the first of its kind in Australia, which involved a selected number of artisan cheesemakers working with scientists to produce and examine cultures by checking the microbes in raw milk.
‘Make cheese like before’
Mr Prodanu is a purist when it comes to making cheeses.
“The best thing for cheese would be to go back and make cheese like before, but that’s impossible,” he said.
Having spent most of his working life in the mountainous eastern France making 40kg wheels of Comte from unpasteurised cows’ milk, he now spends his days at 2,000 metres in a cheese room in Switzerland with the bare essentials — a copper vat, a draining table, and a sink.
The semi-hard cheese from unpasteurised cows’ milk is made using the same recipe and technique practised for hundreds of years.
The milk he uses is delivered to him twice a day in milk churns by the herdsmen who, when not milking cows, spend their days moving the herd to new pastures.
A ‘cave’ is used for the maturation of the cheese that maintains the desirable humidity and temperature for aging.
Ms Lansley said while it would be “lovely” to make cheese that way, Australia doesn’t have those traditions and said there was “no way” it would ever be allowed.
“Most of our dairy is industrial and we’ve got a very risk averse set of food regulations and food regulators,” she said.
“The best thing is to work with what we’ve got and there is still the opportunity to do a lot of interesting things and to produce some really wonderful cheeses in this country.”