Blue Sky Cheese – Meet the cheesemakers Pip and Deb

In the oldest town on the Castlereagh River, two local girls joined forces late in 2018 to create Central Western NSW’s first cheese business, in Mendooran. Pip and Deb met over the local Agriculture Show and began talking cheese. Pip had enjoyed home cheesemaking while Deb had trained in the craft in the early years of Hunter Belle Cheese in Muswellbrook.

We only intended to make cheese for friends and family for Christmas and then decided to sell at markets and in no time flat, we had a name, logo, ABN and were shopping for more pots!  A love of all things artisan and a joint passion for pure, honest cheese, we were the right age to hang up our day jobs and concentrate on producing  high quality, delicious products that would appeal to everyone but also educate rural people that cheese doesn’t always have to be a ‘block of yellow’. We are passionate about making handcrafted cheeses the old-fashioned way –by hand– with skill, passion and intuition.

We are the most western cheese producers and are lucky to have a fantastic single source milk source just 70kms away, so our milk is only a day old when we make!  We do notice seasonal changes in the milk. At the end of the year, our area was in drought, then in March, we received a big fall of rain. The next week the milk was so rich and creamy! We buy 120 litres of non-homogenised milk already pasteurised as we use a double boiler setup to heat the milk in 30-litre batches and we tried pasteurising, but it plateaued at around 60 degrees. Also, we are only on rainwater in our kitchen so it’s difficult to justify lots of water for cooling – especially in the recent drought. We only make one day a week and spend the following day washing up, brining and packing. We are both farmer’s wives and so need to spend some time working on the property as well as enjoying our cheesemaking.

We use a relatively new commercial kitchen in the Showground Pavilion. Blue Sky Cheese is a ‘user’ of this facility, so the upside is that our rent is only a few hundred dollars a year. The downside is that we must evacuate when other users need the kitchen – pony club, polocrosse, weddings or the annual show. However, we can do that quickly now with the use of a cool room trailer for cheese storage. Our kitchen and cool room trailer are both approved by the Food Authority. We also use this trailer to attend local markets.

As Mendooran is a very small community, we are the first to be told if anyone is at the showground for any reason. The Post Office sends us photos of parcels when they arrive (often before 9 am), so we can duck in and get them if they are starter cultures.

Firstly, we made camembert. One of our initial challenges was hooping to achieve a weight of 200g. We have found that this challenge continues with the winter as we are essentially making in a tin shed, no air conditioning! So, during the hottest summer for years our cams were draining quickly overnight. Now we have cold nights and frosty mornings, so the cams are holding more moisture. We use 2 wine fridges to mature the cams, setting them at 14 degrees. Racks for those fridges have been a nightmare, supposed stainless steel racks have gone rusty quickly. Now we use soft, white lattice type mats on top of the racks. This works, but not ideal for air circulation.

Our first feta was so rubbery it was more like halloumi. Deb was aiming for a soft textured feta, not too tarty or salty, so we changed starters and have just won a silver medal in the DIAA awards for our feta. Hooray! Flipping the feta during draining is still a manual feat! We sell our feta in tubs of brine.

Then it was time for Blue cheese. We wanted to produce a semi-hard cheese with a long shelf life that could travel as people drive long distances out here. The recipe Deb devised produced this style first up with the wheels developing a natural rind and a mild blue flavour. The biggest discovery here was the gadget that we use to plug a good second-hand fridge into so that the temperature could be set at whatever we need. It came via the Internet from ‘Inkbird’ and has been terrific. Our blue has its own fridge and runs at 14 degrees. We spike each cheese with knitting needles after a few days then cryovac these wheels at a month old. We cut into 50gram wedges as needed, vacuum packed for sale. Many people around here have never tasted blue vein cheese, so we are happily converting the masses!

We have been absolutely overwhelmed with encouragement and support from the entire region. Every week we are fielding enquiries for sales, events or tours! It’s hard to keep a lid on it all. We are very mindful that our cheesemaking must remain fun, so we don’t want to get too big!

Having a go at something that interests you and makes you happy is as easy as just beginning. Life is an adventure and we have found that with a shared passion and a positive attitude anything can be achieved.

120Litres on the go. This will make 72 “Castlereagh Camembert” cheeses.

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