Evansdale Cheese has matured since the days when the family cow Daffodil provided 20 litres of milk a day for novice cheesemakers who had no idea what they were doing.
More than 40 years later, the Otago family business gathers as much as 1500 litres of milk a day to produce between 20 and 30 varieties of cheese for supermarkets, restaurants and regular customers throughout New Zealand.
Three family members still handcraft, cut, bag and box the artisan cheese, says the Founder, Colleen Dennison.
“An artisan cheese is a cheese which is handmade,” she explains. In comparison, larger-scale factories pump milk through filters to produce cheese by ultrafiltration.
Initially, the Dennisons relied on Daffodil, a prolific Jersey cow: “She was a lovely old cow.”
When the family built facilities on its property in rural Evansdale, this was the country’s first small cheesemaking factory. Cadbury provided milk from nearby farms which supplied its Dunedin chocolate factory.
The first month of cheesemaking wasn’t very successful.
“The first lot of cheese was bloody awful,” Colleen recalls.
What we didn’t know about cheesemaking could be written in an encyclopedia.”
She says in those days, only big blocks of Cheddar were available. People who’d travelled overseas were eager to buy other varieties and became loyal customers.
In the 1980s, the Dennisons employed a professional French cheesemaker who taught them about what Colleen says remains the most important factor – curing cheese.
“That’s still important to us. It’s not what we put in the cheese or do to the cheese, or the milk.”
Evansdale Cheese grew and moved to its present location at Hawksbury Village near Waikouaiti. It buys local raw milk from Fonterra and pasteurises this on-site.
The family no longer owns cows.
“We’ve long since given that up.”
For decades, the full-time secondary school teacher would rise at 5am to collect and pasteurise milk, then drive into central Dunedin to work. Since retiring from teaching, Colleen still works daily at the factory.
The Dennisons understand significantly more about their craft nowadays and have built cheese factories in Australia and the USA and were involved in establishing Whitestone Cheese in Oamaru.
Just before Covid-19 prevention measures sent New Zealand into household quarantine for seven weeks from March 26, Colleen looked at 2500 cheeses ready for sale on the factory shelves and thought they’d need to be dumped.
However, the business enjoys a high profile around Dunedin as well as a national online presence, and is grateful that during the quarantine plenty of orders flowed in. And those 2500 items?
“All gone – we had no cheese left.”
Like most producers, Evansdale Cheese will wait to ascertain Covid-19’s long-term economic effects. Some retailers have resumed orders and the family is busy turning May’s high fat, high protein milk into yet more cheese.
Asked what she likes about the food, Colleen replies emphatically, “Nothing. I don’t eat cheese.”
She daily tastes the curd to check it but says cheese has never appealed. However, when discussing the craft of cheesemaking, her knowledge and enthusiasm overflow.
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