A pinch of this and a drop of that leads to obsession
There is an old adage: if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.
But that is a load of rubbish, says local cheesemaker SJ Pienaar.
And that’s not because SJ doesn’t love her job, she does — very much. More than just a job, cheesemaking is her obsession – one that saw her turn her back on a career in engineering.
But the fact is, it’s still hard work.
“It's about 80% cleaning… it's not as glamorous as people think,” said SJ, who is now the owner of local artisan cheesemaking business, Second Mouse Cheese Co.
While the cheesemaking process itself can be quite physical, often that is just the start of what’s required to care for a cheese through to being ‘table ready’.
“Once they're made they'll get brined or salted, then they might go into ripening rooms. Some of the Cheeses get washed before they get packed. A lot of them have to get turned really regularly and then with things like a Brie and Camembert, we’re keeping an eye on how much mould growth we're seeing on the cheeses and when that reaches the right level, we pack them.
“So there's a lot of work in it. And then there's the cleaning operation that goes with cheese being a high-risk product… So, hygiene and cleanliness are extremely important and cleaning takes up a big part of our day.”
Growing up in the mining town of Mount Isa, SJ didn’t even know cheesemaking was a career. It was only a few years ago, after she attended a one-day cheesemaking course here in Orange, that the idea took root.
“I just fell in love almost instantly,” said SJ. “I was just utterly fascinated at the idea that you could take milk, heat it up, a pinch of this and a drop of that and it would be cheese! It was some kind of black magic and it got seriously out of hand really quickly!”
SJ started making cheese at home on a regular basis and scoured the internet for blogs and more and more recipes. Wanting to learn more, she dropped back to part-time work in order to spend a year studying cheesemaking at the Artisan Cheese Makers Academy of Australia in Adelaide.
It was during this year, that SJ met Kai Woltmann, the founder of Second Mouse Cheese Co.
“I met Kai at a party and we got talking and he said he was going to need help, so I started working for him a couple of days a week while I was still training,” said SJ, who was still doing engineering work at the time.
“I got to a point where I decided I didn't want to be an engineer. There wasn't any point in staying with it, so I left,” she said.
“I just knew that this is what I wanted to do. I’m just fascinated by it and the whole food industry… it's a really different sort of vibe and I wanted to be part of that kind of creativity and that passion.
“I found I was scrambling out of bed in the morning to go to the cheese factory and I just loved it!”
In October last year, an opportunity arose for SJ to purchase the Second Mouse Cheese Co., a move that has presented challenges, but one she is excited to be grabbing with both hands.
“It really, really was not what I anticipated, but I had this moment of realisation when I said to my husband, ‘If not now, when?’ It's not every day this sort of opportunity comes up. So, I thought I better do it and we did it!” said SJ.
“It's really good. I've got a great team and also, I'm part of a bigger team here at the Agrestic Grocer and then there's that bigger community of all the other producers in Orange. We are all trying to achieve the same thing; adding to the attractiveness of the whole region and the more participants that are in that sort of game, the more people we attract to the region and the better it is for everyone.”
Now, the important question for all of us consumers at home: just which cheese is our local cheesemakers favourite?
“That’s the hardest question of all! It changes daily at the moment, but I'm really obsessed with our Ruby Blue. I get this real joy, every time we cut a wheel open — it's just so pretty!
“But halloumi just never gets old and then the Double Cream Brie — I think I almost enjoy watching other people eat that more than I enjoy eating with myself! Not that I don't love it, but to see the reaction when people go, ‘Oh, yes! That's delicious!’ But what's not to like about double cream Brie!”
Photo credits: Lucas Martin and Marianna Saran.