Wednesday, 21 August 2019 11:55

Big grins as cheesemaker collect more medals

Written by  Pam Tipa
Grinning Gecko team (from left) Clara Autet, Catherine McNamara, Katie Prestidge and Zev Kaka-Holtz. Grinning Gecko team (from left) Clara Autet, Catherine McNamara, Katie Prestidge and Zev Kaka-Holtz.

Not compromising on milk quality is the key to good cheesemaking, says the owner of award winning Grinning Gecko, Catherine McNamara

The Whangarei artisan cheesemaker has just won another four medals, this time at the International Cheese and Dairy Awards in Nantwich, UK. She has previously had other successes here and offshore.

“We have one supplier farm and quality is everything to us,” McNamara told Dairy News, outlining three principles of their top product. 

“Firstly, you have probably heard the old saying ‘you can’t make good cheese out of bad milk, but you can make bad cheese out of good milk’.

“You’ve got to have the base ingredient right and ours are very consistent in their milk quality.

“We take the milk directly from the milking machine so you can’t get fresher than that. That is straight into our vat at 7.30 in the morning.

“We’ve got a pick-up directly from the farm to bring it here, so first and foremost is no compromise on the milk quality and freshness.”

Grinning Gecko has one year-round milk supplier but plans to take on more. They only use certified organic milk.

Secondly, their success depends on their recipes. 

“We have really good robust recipes and we developed them right from the start. You can’t just list a recipe off the shelf. It has to be tailored to the milk you use,” says McNamara. 

“No cheesemaker in New Zealand could just pick up a recipe and start working with it unless they had exactly the same milk to start with. It is about developing a recipe for your milk specifically.

“We work with culture blends and things like that to get the various flavours and textures we want. But we are constantly adjusting those recipes throughout the year to deal with all the seasonal fluctuations and the different composition of the milk which is the fun part of cheesemaking.

“Unlike most cheesemakers in New Zealand we don’t standardise the milk. We take what we are given and I guess that gives us that edge. It might be slightly different each batch but it will always be good.”

Thirdly, great cheesemaking depends on never underestimating the value of a great team. 

“You are only as good as your weakest link. If you have one person in the team who doesn’t really care about what they are doing that compromises your whole operation.

“We have done well here in developing a fantastic team environment. We are all invested in the success of the business. Every time we make cheese everybody is making sure we are doing the right things at the right times to ensure the product is fantastic.

“We pride ourselves on having a real team focus. So it is not just about one person getting things right. It is about everybody getting everything right all the time.”

Grinning Gecko is looking at expanding into more stores in the Wellington area and upper North Island as they often have people asking where they can buy the cheese. 

“We are trying to expand it in a sustainable way. We can’t just turn on and create more cheese instantly.” 

Plans include bigger premises and bringing on more supplier farms. 

“We really want to champion our local producers, our local farmers here so they can actually see the end product of what they do.”

Their supplier farmers often comment on the pride they have in seeing tangible results from what they do on farm.

“When we tell them we have won overseas, they are part of that team, they are part of that equation. Often farmers just see their milk disappear on the truck and they don’t get any feedback on the milk they have put so much passion into creating.”

Their Camembert, which has previously netted them a total of six national medals, won gold in the NZ soft cheese class and their Halloumi won silver at the International Cheese and Dairy Awards.

Their Kau Piro, which last year earned their cheesemaker, Zev Kaka-Holtz, a bronze award in the International Novice Cheesemaker class, this year won a silver medal in the open class for soft cheeses – no small feat given how many soft cheeses the world has. 

Their Halloumi also won a bronze medal in the non-Cypriot halloumi class. McNamara says the whole competition is like the ‘Olympics of Cheese’.

Catherine McNamara founded Grinning Gecko Cheese Co six years
ago with her husband James. 

Each cheesemaker has now had international success. Catherine won bronze for her Grinning Gecko brie in 2016. Then in 2018 Zev Kaka-Holtz, who was trained by Catherine, won the bronze award for novice cheesemaker, followed by his latest success with Kau Piro and Halloumi. Clara Autet, with the company only nine months and still being trained by Zev, won a gold for a Camembert she made, and she made the base cheese for the Kau Piro. 

The new normal

Grinning Gecko wants to champion “the new normal” for the dairy industry, says Catherine McNamara.

That is a focus on quality not quantity.

“The whole philosophy: sustainability, livestock numbers, pasture and animal health - all those types of things feed into what we believe in.” 

The industry needs to focus on high-end products, she says. 

“Our milk is so precious that we shouldn’t be looking at those mass commodity markets overseas. We should be looking at having half as many farms and doing it 20 times better.

“We really need to be looking at better ways of doing it. The old model is on its way out.” 

Fonterra nabs 15 awards

Fonterra NZMP has had its most successful year at the International Cheese and Dairy Awards held annually in Nantwich, UK. 

NZMP took home 15 awards for cheese and butter made in NZ and Australia.

The awards are the world’s peak contest for cheese and dairy products. Independent judges assess thousands of cheeses. 

NZMP’s chief operating officer, Kelvin Wickham, says the awards recognise processors’ hard work in turning farmers’ raw milk into quality dairy ingredients.

“The awards are seen as Europe centred, and that’s considered the heartland of cheese by many of our customers and regions. 

“To have won in this context speaks to the quality of our products. We’re proud to bring the best of NZ to the world stage.”

The International Cheese and Dairy Awards feature 300 individual awards for dairy products, including categories open only to certain regions such as UK-only entries.

Will Moore, NZMP Dairy Foods sales manager in Amsterdam, attended the awards ceremony for NZMP.

“The awards [attract at least] 1200 delegates and 250 judges it felt like attending a cheese version of the Oscars.”

NZ’s standout gold winner was the Fonterra Hautapu NZMP Mature Organic Cheddar. 

Many Australia-only awards were contested and NZMP Australia cheeses won three gold awards. 

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