Three years ago, Saul Sullivan, master cheesemaker of Udder Delights in the Adelaide Hills, set out to create an impossibility. He wanted to make a raw milk blue cheese in a country where the regulations strictly forbid it.
"I remember the auditor's first comment was, 'what? Are you nuts?' I went home to my wife Sheree, she's a cheesemaker too, and she said it can't be done. Everybody in the regulating authority said it can't be done," Sullivan says.
"Even when we went to our mentors in Europe, who I would consider some of the world's elite cheese makers, they said the regulations won't allow you to make it.
"That was like a red flag to a bull. I thought this is just the challenge I need. This is what I've been doing this for."
Sullivan had decided to put his own name on the line. King Saul, as he's called it, was to be a reputation-making product for Udder Delights that holds its umbrella over an entire brand.
Above: King Saul's blue cheese.
Sullivan started with his fascination of raw milk cheese. He says that common opinion holds the raw cheese coming out of Europe to be generally superior to the pasteurised products made in Australia.
In a strange twist to the regulations, European raw milk cheese can be sold in Australian stores, even though manufacturers here are generally forbidden from making it.
Sullivan travelled across Australia and Europe, looking for scientific answers as to why unpasteurised milk yielded better results in cheese. The consensus was that pasteurisation killed off 'the flavour'.
"I used to go to the experts in Australia and ask, 'what are you killing off?' No one could actually tell me, besides the potentially hazardous bugs that are living in the milk. What it actually is, there are natural flavours that come through in the taste of a raw milk cheese," Sullivan explains.
"I had to speak to a professor in France about it. Everyone else was very cagy about why the European raw milk cheese tastes better. The professor told me about a non-pathogenic bacteria called Hafnia alvei that lives in the very cleanest terroirs around the world."
Hafnia alvei can be found throughout cheese regions such as Bordeaux and Roquefort. Sullivan began his search across the Adelaide Hills farms that Udder Delights sources its milk from, using extensive micro-testing of the soil in an attempt to track down the bacteria.
They found Hafnia alvei occurring naturally in the Mount Torrens region – the very same strain found in Europe.
He explains that it works like a sponge, living in the dirt, the grass, the hay, the fields, the flowers and waters, collecting the naturally occurring flavours of the environment it resides in.
Cows consume all of that, and the Hafnia alvei ends up in the milk. Pasteurisation typically kills it, but in raw milk cheese, the bacteria survive and their 'sponge' is wrung out over time. It gradually releases the natural flavours, the terroir, in to the cheese.
"As the cheese is maturing, it keeps breaking down the fats and lipids, the proteins, and it will continue to release these flavours and they will intensify. It's like a honeybee. You can put a hive around a Eucalyptus Gum or an Orange Blossom and you'll get that flavour in the honey."
Above: the soft cheeses room at Udder Delights.
Having found the secret ingredient, Sullivan set about research and development of how to implement it in to his cheese. The dairy authority had granted him a one-off permit to research raw milk blue, but the regulations aren't conducive to making such a product.
"You need less than 39 percent moisture. You need your pH to be below five. It has to have 90 days maturing at above 10 degrees. These are all things that a blue vein cheese does not like."
Over two and a half years, Sullivan worked on developing methods to create King Saul in line with the regulations. He had laboratories poring over Hafnia alvei and testing the safety of his cheese.
"The laboratories were saying to me, man, you want to patent this stuff. But I can't – it exists naturally. You can't trademark a region. You can't trademark Hafnia alvei. All you can trademark is the way that you use or adapt it.
"Our intellectual property is specific to the dairy industry. We know how it works and responds with milk and feed, and I believe there are areas regarding the bacteria that we stumbled across that would take people years and years to work out."
He is fairly confident their techniques will not be replicated – or at least the cheese can't be. Working to the limitations of the Food Standards regulations, the final product has taken on a fairly unique character.
After two and a half years of research, King Saul was complete.
Sullivan describes his Edison moment – ten thousand tries before he finally nailed it. One day, he put the cheese trier in a King Saul wheel and had a taste.
"It blew my mind. I knew we had something phenomenal there. That afternoon I had the phone call with the dairy authority and they said to me, 'Yes Saul, but you've only been given approval to research and develop. There has been no approval – and we cannot that guarantee that this will ever be able to be sold.'”
On the chance that he did get approval, Sullivan had to prepare for the launch. If the micro-testing came through with a good result and the authority approved it, the release had to happen straight away. The labels had been hand illustrated in France, the boxes for the product were all handmade.
Above: the labelling room.
There are less than a handful of raw milk cheeses made and approved for sale in Australia. The others are all hard-pressed cheeses – there's no living bacteria or mould in them, which is the main reason there had been no legal raw blue cheese in Australia. If Sullivan got his approval, it would not only be the first raw blue vein cheese made in Australia, but the first living raw milk cheese.
"We were waiting on the final approval from the Dairy Authority, from the CEO. Sheree and I were out to lunch and an email came through with the letter of approval to release the product for public sale.
"We were so excited. There and then I ordered a bottle of champagne, and because I was so emotionally overwhelmed, I went to the toilets and had a bit of a cry. I try and be a macho man but I was so overwhelmed I had to get up and have a tear in the toilet. I felt like I had just won the lottery."
Despite any anxiety that the regulations caused Sullivan in the development of King Saul, he respects the fact that they exist.
"It really is amazing to see and understand what is in raw milk. I definitely am a very big advocate of pasteurised milk for human consumption. Particularly when playing with raw milk cheese, it really is and should only be left up to extremely experienced individuals."
Sullivan says that in the end, even passing all of the regulations and micro-testing requirements, it was only his title of Master Cheesemaker and the years of experience behind it that got King Saul over the line.
"There was the bath milk episode recently…one is a completely illegal, unregulated industry; the other is not. It's like buying unregulated pharmaceuticals for your children – you just don't do that.
"I am a big advocate for the manufacturing of raw milk cheese because it can be done safely. But it needs to be done with respect and responsibility. The discerning foodie in Australia is demanding and deserves a better quality cheese."
Udder Delights released the first run of King Saul in December – 160 of the 250 wheels produced in their first batch. It's sold as a premium product at $150 for a 500g wheel. According to Sullivan, that barely covers the cost of production and research – he himself was essentially working for free.
"What I will say is this: we're just packing, packing, packing pallet loads of cheese. What the King Saul has already done for Udder Delights, it has had a phenomenal halo effect on the brand. We're up 100 percent for November and December and we can't keep up with orders."
Above: the finished product.
It appears the prestige of having the only raw blue in Australia has boosted the business' profile beyond the one product – not only have their other cheeses reaped the benefits of trickle-down RnD, but the company's wider reputation has been boosted as well.
"Orders are so much bigger – they're at least 100 percent above what we had last year. It spiked with the launch of King Saul. I know you get a spike for Christmas – this is like a triple spike. It's completely unconventional in the terms of the rhythm of our business."
Much like Grange did for Penfolds, Udder Delights is betting their reputation will be made on their most premium, small run products.
Courtesy of The Lead South Australia: www.theleadsouthaustralia.com.au