A cheese made from sheep milk created history in the WA dairy industry last month.
Farmhouse Gold, a boutique, matured, firm variety hand made by Cambray Cheese on a farm surrounded by forest 12 kilometres north of Nannup, won Grand Champion Dairy Product at the 2017 Dairy Industry Australia Association WA annual product awards.
It was the first time the Grand Champion Dairy Product award –considered the peak of WA dairy quality and taste achievement - was won by a non-bovine product.
Cheeses and gelatos have won the top DIAA WA award before – cheeses won it four years in a row 2011-14 and a gelato won the first award in 2009 and again last year – but those products were all made from cows’ milk.
Farmhouse Gold smashed the barrier that previously saw sheep and goat milk products relegated to a “non-bovine” judging section of their own.
The same cheese had broken a similar barrier at the Perth Royal Show dairy section in only its second year of production, winning the Champion Dairy Product and Grand Champion Cheese awards at the 2006 royal show against dairy products from all over Australia.
Cambray was invited back into the DIAA competition this year after a 10-year absence, and it cleaned up with both sheep milk and cows’ milk cheeses.
Cambray’s Boursan and St John’s Brook sheep milk varieties and its Chilli Gouda cow’s milk cheese also won gold.
Its Cream Brie, Curds & Ale, Camembray, Ashover, Blue and Marinated Feta sheep milk varieties and its Blackwood Blue and Gouda cows’ milk varieties won silver.
The awards were recognition of the hard work, dedication and determination to win an on-going battle with a multitude of authorities administering food production, demonstrated by Bruce and Jane Wilde since they turned what was a hobby into a family business in 2005.
Cambray Cheese now also involves one of the Wilde’s six children, son Tom and his partner Madelin, and Bruce’s sister and her husband, Robyn and Dave Robinson.
It also employs about 12 local people in various roles.
The business is a combination of Bruce’s knowledge of sheep and Jane’s skills as a cheese maker.
Jane first tried her hand at cheese making as a hobby while recuperating from a serious illness.
It became clear she would have to specialise in sheep milk cheese if they wanted to vertically integrate and produce their own milk.
“As a sheep man, I simply refused to milk cows,” Bruce said.
Looking after and milking their self-replacing flock of 260 East Friesian sheep - a milk breed from the north-east coastal region of Germany - quarter-crossed with Poll Dorset/Bluefaced Leicester breeds from the west of England to add size and weight, is his department.
The East Friesian breed is acknowledged as the world’s best milking sheep, producing milk with a fat content averaging 6-7 per cent, compared to 3-4pc for cows’ milk.
Under ideal conditions a good milker can produce up to five litres a day but the average is three litres or less, Bruce said, and at this time of year his ewes are producing about half a litre each as they dry up.
“We’ve got the rams in with them at the moment and production drops off pretty quick when we put the rams in,” Bruce said.
Pure bred East Friesians are identified by their thin, bald ‘rat tail’.
They do not do well in hot or harsh conditions but generally produce excellent crosses with breeds better adapted to local conditions.
“The Poll Dorset cross has worked best for us and we’ve also had some success crossing with Texels,” Bruce said.
“They are also crossed with Border Leicesters, but that didn’t work for us.
“They (Border Leicester crosses) produced good milk for three months and then dried up,” he said.
Other breeders – there are about 12 registered sheep dairies in Australia - had some success crossing with Awassi, the highest milk producing Middle Eastern sheep breed, Bruce said.
He and his brother-in-law are currently milking about 190 sheep once a day in a dairy at one end of a former soft drinks factory brought in and adapted by another son, a carpenter, into the cheese room, hard cheese and soft cheese maturing rooms and a farm shop.
Most of the machine milking equipment, including the 12-stand, side-by-side fast exit raised platform the ewes are milked on and the smaller suction lines and cups –only two per claw of course - came from New Zealand.
“That’s part of the problem with doing sheep milk in Australia, there’s not a lot of equipment or supplies available here,” Bruce said.
“For example, only two of the drenches are approved for use on animals providing milk for human consumption.”
Bruce lambs in July and August - East Friesians can have a lambing average of 230-270 per cent and triplets are quite common – and milks for about nine months.
Lambs stay on their mother for 14 weeks but the ewes come back through the shed again after a couple of weeks with only one side milked out and the other left for the lamb.
Most of Cambray’s mature cheeses are made during the spring flush when there is ample milk.
To maintain cheese production throughout the year Bruce and Jane buy cows’ milk and produce a range of cows’ milk cheese varieties to complement their sheep milk cheeses.
They only buy the best, from Ben and Caroline Letchford’s Walsall Dairy near Busselton.
The Letchford family have received a Dairy Australia gold plaque for being in Australia’s top 100 dairy farmers who produce the lowest cell-count milk every year since the award was introduced.
But the difference between sheep and cows milk – the higher fat content means a litre of sheep milk will make 2.5 times as much cheese as a litre of cows’ milk – is where Jane’s skill plays a role.
“There’s a bit of guess work involved in working out how much rennet (the agent that sets the cheese) is needed and the temperature adjustment,” Jane said.
“The recipes are mine, I come up with them.
“I’m basically self-taught.
“It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning, but we have a really good friend who was a Dutch cheese maker and they helped us a lot,” she said.
The cheeses are made in eight and 10 kilogram moulds and matured for up to a year - depending on the type of cheese - stacked on wooden shelves in temperature and humidity-controlled cool rooms.
They start off on the bottom shelf and are gradually moved up the shelves on one side and down the other side as new product is added to the bottom shelf.
For the first month or so each cheese round is turned and wiped daily - to remove any mould that might have formed on the wax coating.
From then on every cheese is turned and wiped once a week.
It is a tiring job that takes several hours and Tom Wilde and Cambray employee Lauren Cartledge have a competition going on who can do it quickest, with the latest times pencilled on the cool room wall.
Sheep milk is said to be superior to cows’ and goats’ milk, being richer in vitamins A, B, D and E and with more than double the calcium content of cows’ milk.
There is also evidence the lactose in sheep milk is more readily digested and tolerated than that in cows’ milk.
But the secret to making award-winning cheeses is not about the type of milk.
“You can’t make good cheeses unless you start with the absolute best quality milk – it doesn’t matter whether it’s from sheep or cows or anything else – it just has to be the best,” Jane said.
For information about Cambray Cheese and where to buy its products, or on visiting Cambray Farm, visit cambraysheepcheese.com.au.