Cathy Oakley had to be cajoled into entering her Just Ewe Farmhouse sheep milk cheese in the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, but it paid off.
Their unique mould strain they developed themselves is the other flavour aspect.
“It has a sweet finish no one else in the world has. When taken onto the international stage it stands out,” Berry told Dairy News.
Vintage Windsor Blue has just won one of the supreme awards, Outstanding Producer Dairy Crafted, at the inaugural Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards. Three other cheeses from the Oamaru based cheesemaker were also finalists: Vintage Five Fords, Windsor Blue and Lindis Pass Camembert.
Berry says Vintage Windsor Blue had numerous wins in the New Zealand Cheesemaker awards and is highly decorated nationally and internationally. The last award was a silver medal in the blue category in Wisconsin USA at the World Cheese Champs.
“So it is right up there on the world stage,” says Berry.
A recent scouting trip to France turned into a sales trip when a French cheesemaker sampled the blue cheese. Immediately he wanted to sell it in his shop.
“Another cheesemaker tried it and said, ‘New Zealand has got the All Blacks and now you’ve got a blue cheese’.”
Whitestone buys Fonterra milk under DIRA regulations but has a preferential system to get milk from two farms in the spring and a couple of winter milkers.
“We know the milk is local; it comes from about 15km away and we know which farms it comes from. We build relationships with those suppliers.”
Those Otago soils are limestone “plus we’ve got the lovely water coming from Mount Cook and irrigated onto it. That combination gives us great grass and from that we get fantastic milk.”
He reckons if you lined up a cheese made with their milk versus exactly the same recipe used in the North Island the flavours will differ. “They are not better or worse, but you can taste it definitely.”
All Whitestone’s processing systems are natural; they produce small batches and methods are partly craft and partly science.
“Cheesemakers have to adjust to seasonal variability and that can be a challenge particularly for white mould cheeses because you have the fluctuation of milk solids through the season.
“We are not standardising, we are not extracting cream or fat or putting it back in. We are using the milk that comes in the door; we have certain recipes we put cream in but we are not standardising our milk so we have a fluctuation through the year.
“That can be a challenge to get things right 12 months of the year. But that is part of the process; we still respect the natural processes…. It is a really handcrafted product right across the board.”
The cheese is sold nationally and they export to South East Asia, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Fiji and a small amount to Qatar and the US.
“We focus on the domestic market but we export…. mostly by air freight so we can’t go too far. But we are working on getting Vintage Windsor Blue into Paris now.
“We have ticked all the EU boxes (for accreditation) and we have to wait six months for the cheese to mature.”
While the snow-capped mountain image is important, taste comes first in marketing overseas, he says. “We think it comes down more to the flavour and what has been developed in that taste.”
The grass-fed and free range cow image is important, but it is the blue culture that stands out when taken internationally, he says.
“Also the texture…. People are looking for something different; they don’t want a replication of something already in the market, particularly in Europe.
“We are seen as a ‘new world’ producer; we are a young market developing new flavours and new recipes…. There is interest in what New Zealand is producing, what is coming out of the ‘new world’...
“Blue is our flagship product that introduces us. They see we are creating something new and different with that flavour and texture. That’s why it stands on its own two feet against, say, European established cheeses like Stilton or Roquefort.
An interesting learning from their European trip was getting people to try the product, to see why it is different.
“Then the flavour speaks for itself. They look at the environment that is producing it and say ‘wow you must have a good environment if it tastes like that’. So that backs it up.”
People, product and place are Whitestone’s three core pillars.
“When we go to the market we push that we are family owned, an owner-operated business… then you’ve got the place it comes from as well – 45° latitude, lush pastures and glacier fed waters and so on.”
The latest win is a great tribute to the team, Berry says.
“We have 50 staff and everyone is focused on quality and attention to detail. That shines through our product.”