Deb and Sue have a Whey with Cheese

My mind in clouds I miss the turnoff, rocketing endlessly towards Tweed Heads then having to loop back via the maddeningly curvaceous Clothiers Creek Road until I am on the Tweed Valley Way, destination Tweed Valley Whey. By the time I have (with no difficulty whatsoever, so impeccable were Deb’s directions) located the farm and factory of the cheese-makers, I am ready for the mug of coffee placed before me.

Mooball could not, after all, be more apt headquarters for a couple of cheese-makers. Ponderous gentle-faced cows shuffle and snuffle beyond the wall which shields the back-of-factory space where I sit with Deb Allard and Sue Harnett, ‘the cheese ladies’ as their business card proclaims, over morning tea.

Farmers Market aficionados would be familiar with these two girls by now; it’s been about three years since they began tentatively holding cheese parties amongst friends and family to try out the fruits of their experimentations. Now they can be found at Byron, New Brighton, Brunswick and the new Mullumbimby Farmers Markets and soon, when they are up and running, the Murwillumbah one as well.

It was a program about cheese-making on ‘Landline’ that started it all. Sue’s husband Rob is a fourth- generation dairy farmer – as Deb’s father had been; both the girls’ husbands ‘used to kick around together’ so it was perhaps inevitable that they would become friends. Despite both having young families, they decided to do a cheese-making course up at Witches Chase on Mount Tamborine. ‘We came back after two days absolutely exhausted’, Deb tells me, ‘the car full of all these cheeses we had made: mascarpone, blue, camembert… We had such a fantastic time that we started making them at home.’ ‘For our own experience’, inserts Sue, before admitting that a possible future business had been inboththeirminds.‘Itallworked!’, exclaimsDeb with triumph. ‘We’d have a cheese party, offering about 13 different types’; their guests would be vociferously divided as to which they preferred. All of this was fuelling their self-confidence but it wasn’t until they started doing courses in Brisbane with Graham Redhead from the Department of Primary Industries (‘he’d started up a little business running home cheese-making courses on the weekend’, says Sue) that they realised that they wanted to make cheeses commercially. ‘We absolutely loved that course’, Sue tells me. Graham became their mentor, visited the farm of Sue and Rob (which spans 400 acres), checked the conditions and ‘gave us so much self-confidence to start’, Deb continues. The girls set up their own little factory and ‘from the minute we started, it was self-funding.’ ‘We made cheese solid for two weeks’, Sue tells me, ‘packed up our truck and off (to the markets) we went – we came back with two tubs of cream cheese!’ ‘We were absolutely stuffed!’, Deb adds.

The girls recently won first prize at Sydney Royal Easter Show for their romano and their ash-matured Friesian Fog; last year at Brisbane’s Ekka they were awarded maximum points for all their entries. Sue spent several months last year travelling, and learning, throughout Victoria and Tasmania on a cheese-making scholarship from Dairy Australia. And yet for all the accolades ‘we’ve got the same concepts – and containers – as we had when we did it at home … hand-made, home-style cheeses like farmers’ wives used to make’, says Sue. ‘We’re really true with our cheese – we like to sell face-to-face… When you’re relaxed it somehow works. Cheese is such a slow food and you can’t rush it – you just have to be slow and steady…We basically want to stay making these hand-made farmhouse cheeses…’

There is an image imprinted as I drive away : emerald rolling hills dotted with fat dairy cows and the gorgeous gleaming faces lit up by the farewell smiles of Deb and Sue, who have just thrust into my arms a bag of cheeses (there goes the diet). In my mouth the lingering salty creaminess of the award-winning Friesian Fog I tasted before I left.

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