Whitestone Farmhouse is a remarkable cheese. It looks like a giant’s white powder puff that when cut reveals a smooth, pale cheese with an aroma that hints of lemon, milk and freshly mown grass. One expert noted a whiff of feijoa. The tangy taste of the cheese is just as distinctive. As far back as 1995, eminent cheese judge Juliet Harbutt commented that this cheese is one of only a handful that are uniquely New Zealand. That year it was awarded the prize for Best Original New Zealand Cheese at the New Zealand Cheese Awards. Now, 10 years later, Whitestone Farmhouse has done it again – at the Champions of Cheese Awards, where it was named Champion Original New Zealand Cheese.
Bob Berry, owner of Whitestone Cheeses, says this cheese has been in production since 1987, with his cheesemakers fine tuning the original recipe in the following years until they achieved a consistent result in the early 90s. This year it was made by chief cheesemaker Jason Tarrant and his team.
Although the Whitestone cheese had the same starting point as Colin Dennison’s Evansdale farmhouse cheese, the styles of the two cheeses have diverged over the years. The exact technique for producing it is a trade secret, but Bob describes the finished cheese as being something like a brie that has been subjected to pressing. The cheese is ready to eat about four to six weeks after making, although it is still good to eat up to six months later, with the fresh, tangy flavour of the young cheese maturing to a robust nuttiness.
American cheese expert John Greeley, who was chief judge at this year’s Champions of Cheese Awards, said that for a cheese to qualify as original, it must meet three requirements. Not only must it be made to an original recipe, but it must also have a character unique to itself. Bob says that the distinctive aroma and flavour of Whitestone Farmhouse is contributed to by the attributes of the friesian cow’s milk from which it is made, the flavour of which is influenced by the climate of North Otago as well as the local water, limestone rocks and type of grass grown. In fact, this cheese is more than a unique New Zealand cheese. It is also specific to North Otago.
Greeley’s third requirement for an original New Zealand cheese is that the name should reflect its place of origin. In the case of this cheese, the company name of Whitestone acknowledges the local limestone, while the generic term “farmhouse” correctly implies that this cheese is made in a particular dairy from a single milk source. At this year’s Champions of Cheese Awards, the judges did not know the names of the cheeses entered, meaning that the existence of an appropriate name had to be taken on trust.
Other finalists for the award, such as Ferndale’s Bleu de Montagne, which hints at an altogether different country of origin, might need to be renamed. In recent years, the European Union has been pressing the World Trade Organisation to formulate rules that would restrict the use of traditional European names to those cheeses that are actually made in their places of origin. If the EU gets its way, many New Zealand cheeses will have to change their names.
As soon as I knew that Whitestone Farmhouse had won the Champion Original Cheese award, I went to my local supermarket to buy a piece so that I could savour it away from the rarified atmosphere of the judging room. I was in for a disappointment. On display on the specialty cheese island were small, plastic-wrapped wedges that had none of the appeal of the velvety-white wheel that I’d sampled at the awards. Nevertheless, I bought one and opened it up at home. Another disappointment. The white mould of the rind had not survived its incarceration in plastic and was now nothing more than a sticky beige coating. Although the cheese itself was still pleasant to eat, it lacked the liveliness I was expecting.
A few days later, I ordered a whole wheel and it was every bit as delightful as the cheese entered in the awards. You can see it in the photograph. Bob shares my dismay that retail customers rarely have the chance to taste this cheese at its best. It’s the same old problem that has plagued local cheesemakers for many years. Most retail customers still prefer to buy small pre-wrapped packages of cheese, rather than wait for a deli assistant to cut a slice from a wheel. For the moment, a restaurant that serves freshly cut wedges from a wheel is probably the most likely place to eat Whitestone Farmhouse at its best. Or you can order a whole wheel, which weighs about 1.5kg, and share it around with family and friends.
When it comes to eating this tangy cheese, Bob suggests that it should be allowed to speak for itself, perhaps accompanied by a glass of sauvignon blanc. After all, it has been described as the sauvignon blanc of New Zealand cheese. It simply does not go with salty crackers or sweet fruit. However, I couldn’t resist scattering a few beautiful fresh Westport cranberries around the cheese in the photo. The successful commercial growing of these tangy berries is yet another reason to celebrate the distinctive produce of the South Island.