Western Australian artisan sheep cheeses in their purest form »
An extract from Beyond the Farm Gate, a culinary journey to WA's South West
Contributed articles and stories
Beyond the Farm Gate by Danielle Costley takes us on a culinary journey through Western Australia's South West. This beautiful book not only celebrates and showcases the regional food but relates the stories of the people – the growers and producers whose dedication and passion for quality has changed the food scene of this area forever.
In this extract we meet cheesemakers Chris and Sue Barton from River Valley Sheep Dairy.
Danielle Costley writes:
It’s raining lightly as I arrive at the River Valley sheep dairy in the small town of Brunswick. While the skies are grey, the mood at River Valley oozes sunshine and optimism as Chris Barton appears and guides me between the puddles and indoors to the hub of the farm: the kitchen. He is disarmingly gentle-natured and open, his smile filled with warmth and sincerity.
Cheesemakers use a range of methods to add complexity to their maturing curds, washing the cheeses with brine, coating them in ash, rubbing them with oil or allowing the growth of natural moulds.
As I enjoy a tasting of River Valley’s range, it’s clear that Chris has mastered this art. I am also struck by the strong, bold flavour profiles and earthy aromas of the cheeses. These are true farm cheeses, and a great combination of all of the elements I love: creamy, salty, savoury and sweet.
While I am contentedly sampling the product range, Chris explains how he and wife Sue set up a sheep dairy in the Harvey region back in 2006, with 12 hectares of land and 120 East Friesian–base sheep crossed with Border Leicesters and Poll Dorsets.
Chris and Sue’s early days were spent building the flock and nourishing their pastures, so that today the sheep can feed on natural grasses without the use of sprays, chemicals or antibiotics. Instead, weeds are pulled by hand – a laborious process, but part of the couple’s commitment to the most organic and nurtured product possible.
Driven by creativity and persistence, Chris has forged his own path as a skilled cheesemaker. His flock is now at 300 and the couple has leased a larger property which provides fresher pastures, more shade and an abundant water supply for the hardworking ewes.
“Grain feeding defeats the purpose of growing a natural flock,” explains Chris. “We aim for more concentrated flavours in our products by giving our sheep a pure, unprocessed diet and by milking only once a day.” “Pushing yields too high would result in a variation in milk proteins, which inevitably alters the flavours of our cheeses,” Chris continues. “This is not our intention. I believe it’s also why we haven’t suffered any illness or needed to use antibiotics with any of our stock.”
Once the tasting is over, it’s time to meet the other ‘workers’ on the farm. As I enter each paddock, I’m struck by the animals’ pure white wool coats and white faces, their eyes watching me with curiosity.
Chris explains that East Friesians are naturally docile animals and adapt well to parlour milking systems. I have always found sheep to be quite skittish, so you can imagine my surprise at milking time when I watch a group of very contented sheep enter the dairy and stand on a platform as they happily feed from a bale.
These working girls are milked each morning and the dairy is now averaging up to 1.5 litres of milk per sheep per day. Richer than both goat and cow milk, sheep milk contains higher amounts of fat, solids and protein, as well as 10 per cent less water. This is why sheep milk gives a much higher cheese yield.
The distinctive flavours and aromas of sheep cheese are also popular with lactose intolerant cheese aficionados. Even if people are severely lactose intolerant, they are usually able to eat sheep milk yoghurt because the lactose has been converted into lactic acid by this stage.
River Valley’s current product range is hand-made in small batch lots of 100 litres and the milk is poured and mixed by hand. While this traditional method of cheesemaking is quite labour intensive, Chris says it results in a higher quality of cheese as there is no damage to the milk structure from a mechanical pump.
The company’s smooth, creamy yoghurt is made in the Greek pot set tradition, from pure sheep milk, healthy active cultures and nothing else. The feta cheese is full-flavoured and creamy, and has a silken, smooth texture. (Back home, I mixed mine with some extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs and served it with crusty bread.)
The camembert is meltingly smooth and creamy; a soft-ripened table cheese with the texture of a triple cream style. Paying homage to the semi-hard Spanish Manchego, I use mine to garnish paella. Delicious!
No longer confined to a cheeseboard at the end of a meal, many of the Bartons’ restaurateur customers are happily featuring River Valley cheese as the star of a dish. Some establishments are even requesting flavour variations in the cheese so their chefs can create dishes around these unique tastes.
“Sue and I are constantly amazed at how chefs utilise the contrasts of cheese flavour and texture in their cooking,” Chris says.
It truly is a labour of love for these intrepid artisan producers, who will leave no washed rind or crust unturned in their tireless quest to deliver the best possible cheese.
This extract is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and publisher.
Beyond the Farm Gate – a culinary journey through Australia’s South West by Danielle Costley and photographs by Chris Gurney is published by Margaret River Press (WA, 2015, HB, RRP A$60.00). It is available at good bookshops and direct from the publisher here »
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