Tell us a bit about you
I am Australian and finished a science degree here in Australia in 1992, at a time when there were few jobs for undergraduates. I was offered a PhD position in 1993 and finished that in 1997, then headed off to the University of Warwick in the UK and worked in microbiology, though not in dairy. As much as I liked microbiology, academic life wasn’t for me; I loved the bench work and learning new things, but I had just turned 30 and had reached that stage when I had to write a lot of grants and doing things I did not really enjoy.
Back home in Australia while working for a University I was looking for something else to do, and given that I enjoy cooking and eating food, have a micro training, I embarked on a one day cheese making course. I loved the whole process of turning the liquid milk into something solid.
Following on, I did a couple more cheese making courses with a lady called Carol Willman and then looked at what I had to do to set up a commercial cheese making business. My plans were somewhat waylaid when I had my first child in 2004. When I was on maternity leave, and supposed to be preparing a business plan and all that red tape/regulatory stuff, which I hate, I found a dairy farmer who could supply milk.
My grandfather had a farm but he sold it when my Dad was 7, so I don’t have any farming connections and we did not have the money to buy a dairy farm, so finding a source of milk was important.
Towards the end of 2004, sure enough, we discovered baby number two was coming, so my husband and I said, ‘if we are going to do this, we must do it now’. Within a month, my husband had chucked in his job, and we were off. My husband is a food technologist, so his food chemistry knowledge is incredibly helpful. He surprises me sometimes, with the things he knows!
We ordered a 300 litre vat and pasteuriser from Belgium, which was supposed to arrive in the May, and the baby was due in August. However, it
arrived in late August and the baby arrived 3 days later.
Five days after leaving hospital, we had our first official EHO visit, then 2 weeks later, we received our approval. We started to make cheese commercially in October 2005. So it was quite a time to remember!
I love food, love to eat and cook for people and I am a keen gardener. I am a dreadful singer, but love to sing along to the radio; my children cry when I sing but not for the right reasons. If I were not a cheese maker, I don’t think I would be an academic any more, I would probably be doing something in food.
What do you make and why?
We make a wide range of cheeses, cheeses that we like; we don’t make anything we don’t like. We source our milk from three farms. One farm has a
Jersey herd, one a Friesian and another a goat herd. We make the same style of cheese with the different milks
giving cheeses that are different in colour, flavour and aroma. This is largely because the farms are in different areas: grey volcanic soil, on red volcanic soil and temperate forest close to the sea. We make a few hard cheeses, including one we made by accident, about eleven years ago, which has since become one of our most popular cheeses: one day we were making a blue, but forgot to put the blue in. The blue veined cheeses are probably our bestselling cheeses.
When I teach cheese making classes, I always say, if the cheese does not turn out how you want it, as long as you have not messed up your hygiene, and if it is good, just give it a different a name.
We started off making soft cheeses, because they are ‘easier’, and quicker to go to market, though the first three batches ended up in the bin. Then, as we grew, we realised there was a lot of interest in blue veined cheeses, so we expanded into that, and then we made cheddar, because customers asked for it. We stopped making the cheddar in 2014 because people said it did not taste like the supermarket cheddar they were used to, combined with the fact that we did not particularly enjoy making cheddar, as it takes 14 hours and is back breaking work breaking up the curd. My husband and I had complained to each other how much we hated making cheddar, so we stopped making it. We also thought that the Tasmanian cheese company who makes a fabulous cheddar was better than ours, so we concentrated on making something else that was better. We really like Swiss mountain style cheese: buttery, nutty flavoured cheeses, and at that time not many people were making them in Australia.
Tell us about your dairy
We did not have much money when we started, we set up in an old unused abattoir which was perfect for cheese making as it is very well insulated. In the middle of summer when it is 40°C, outside, it is 16°C inside. In the winter, when it is 2°C outside, it is 12°C inside, so the ambient temperature is pretty constant.
Because the building was vacant, we could take up a fair bit of space and the owner helped to do it up for us. It is pretty tiny, about 40 sq. meters and this houses our office, make room, draining area and four maturing rooms. Our favourite piece of kit is our pasteuriser. At the time we could only afford a 300 litre pasteuriser and it would be lovely to have a bigger one.
My other favourite bit of kit is the system we set up to regulate the pasteurising cool down temperature. When we set out, Australia was in a severe drought, so we really had to conserve water. We cool our pasteuriser down with a recycled closed circuit water system using water that we chill overnight. The near freezing water is pumped from a chest freezer through the heat exchanger and back the freezer in a closed loop. We are pretty pleased with that as every time we make cheese, we save about >200 litres of water each make. I am very proud of the job that does.
We have a couple of packaging machines and everything else is done by hand. We have the same vat that we started out with. We could fit in another vat, say a 500 litre vat, which would be nice, but we have to be very judicious with the space we have.
Having an assistant would make life easier, but I love what I do and I enjoy the time that I spend making the cheese; I am pretty happy with what I have got.
One of the things that Nardia spoke about was her contract making of camel cheese. This was very exciting as Ribblesdale Cheese has never come across anyone with camel milk processing experience, so we absolutely had to include this!
We make some camel cheese, actually camel feta for a local camel farm (they are 3 hours away). Working with camel milk is completely different to cow, buffalo or sheep, and needs a different rennet. The price of camel milk is over A$10 a litre, so a bad make of camel milk can be pretty expensive. It is an interesting tasting cheese, it tastes like really ripe tropical fruit, like a paw paw, and has a sweet, tropical smell. Even though it contains similar fat levels to goat milk, it has a much creamier mouth feel. We had to research different styles of camel rennet and got in touch with someone trying to get a camel milk industry in India going, as ‘normal’ rennet is not suitable.
It takes a long time to rennet and you have to handle it very carefully as the curd can be very fragile and breaks easily. The whey is almost syrupy, very unusual to look at it and is so different to cow or goat, being almost clear.
Camel milk retails at A$15-25 a litre and looks a lot like goat milk, without the goat flavour. It is very white in appearance, and people really like it. We have a local community of Sudanese refugees who know and consume camel milk and also know about camels.
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker
We are seeing a lot of farmers going out of the dairy industry. Back when we started up, 13 years ago or so, there were about 30 dairy farms in our area, and now it is down to single figures. The size of the remaining farms have increased in terms of the number of cows milked. We are also seeing a lot more goat dairy farms.
There are a lot more artisan cheese makers now, and although the cheese industry in Australia is still quite small, less than 30 years old, it has really got going in the last 15 years.
As far as advice to people thinking of setting up as a cheese maker: marketing! Come with a background in marketing, as marketing makes the difference. Have some sales and marketing skills. I have learned that you have to market yourself and not the product; people buy from you, it is not about selling your product, customers buy from you, so my hot tip is that people need to like you and then they will buy from you.
When I think of the people who have started up here, they have largely come from finance and marketing backgrounds, with a fair sized start up budget and they have the skills to get themselves going, and often know people of influence.
Where can we find your cheese?
Only in Australia, we don’t have an export licence. We sell within a 150km radius our dairy, which is in Ballarat, Victoria. We sell primarily through famer’s markets.
Favourite cheese making music?
I love classical music and listen to Classic FM. I can’t help feel that classical music is better for the cheese. When not making cheese, I am a bit of a podcast addict, because I work largely on my own. My husband does all the packaging and labelling and the books, whilst I do the actual making of cheese. I listen to a wide variety of podcasts, including Jan Murray’s marketing podcasts and to the Archers Omnibus every Tuesday. Radio Cherry Bombe is another podcast I like about food, all about women in the food industry, chefs, food writers etc.
Name: Nardia Baxter Keene
Nardia, thank you so much for your time. It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to talk with you. What a background both you and your husband have; I love your style of cheese making, so much of it rings true with me, with what we do. Your cheeses look amazing, you have an impressive range that shows your skills – and I love that you make camel cheese!
Coming next Kristen of Gringa Dairy