The quaint South Canterbury township of Geraldine has become a gastronomic paradise for foodies from all over New Zealand.
In among its burgeoning tantalising foods lies Talbot Forest Cheese – a cheese business that may have started off with small intentions but now has one of the biggest reputations in the country.
It all started when Geraldine born and bred Paul Fitzsimons got interested in the magic of speciality cheeses while he was helping to research and develop recipes at the now defunct Dairy Research Institute in Palmerston North.
Paul began his dairy based vocation at the also now defunct Alpine Dairy Products in South Canterbury and wound up gaining a diploma in dairy technology at Massey University.
But it was at the Dairy Research Institute between 1993 and 2000 that Paul began his love affair with speciality cheeses. Working long hours got Paul thinking about who he really should be working for.
Back home, Geraldine sat like a diamond on the tourist trail. Paul and his partner Angela Veale knew if they were to begin their own cheese business they would need to base it somewhere where people came and so the couple decided to build their very own small cheese factory in the centre of town.
His original intention was to produce around ten tonnes of highly flavourful specialty cheeses a year and sell them through a retail shop attached to the front of the factory. “Our aim was to develop existing cheeses and styles and to use much more flavour.”
Back in 2000, much like with wine, New Zealanders were undeveloped cheese consumers. For many generations the block of Colby cheese Mum grated up for Macaroni Cheese or Cheese toasties was the only relationship they shared with cheese. “It was like wine. People didn’t know the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But now people have moved away from the old block of cheddar and know exactly what they are looking for and what they want.”
2001 became the first vintage for Talbot Forest Cheese with a variety of blues, white moulds, European, flavoured, parmesan and Goats milk cheeses making their way into the retail shop at the front of the factory.
While Paul acted as the cheese maker, Angela handled the manufacturing and packaging side. What started out as a dream in which the couple hoped they would be working fewer hours on a passion they both enjoyed quickly turned into a seven day a week job.
By year three Paul and Angela were producing over 100 tonnes of cheese and had won a stack of medals through the New Zealand cheese awards.
With little to no promotion or marketing the couple relied on word of mouth from those that visited their shop and the word was growing.
This year 150 tonnes of Talbot Forest Cheese will be produced and it is likely you will find it in Foodstuff and Progressive supermarket delicatessens in the South Island.
Paul believes the original idea of retaining uniqueness in the cheese by selling it mainly through his retail shop was sound due to the fact that it gave the couple time to grow at their own pace. “We were trying to keep it away from supermarkets as it was a nice way to grow and that worked fine for several years. We are only a small company with no marketing or distribution systems. But now to meet customer demand we are selling in supermarket delis.”
The exploding growth has left Paul and Angela seriously considering whether to expand the factory in order to meet South Island demand. Currently 5 staff works in manufacturing and two work in the retail arm of the business.
And the business has had positive spin offs to the local farming economy with Paul sourcing 15 000 litres of goats milk a month from an Ashburton Goat Farmer.
Keeping that boutique flavour alive, Paul is very much hands on in all parts of the business, even in collecting the sheep’s milk every three days in his own tanker.
The 20 000 litres of cows milk required each month is sourced from a Geraldine dairy farmer with a herd of Jersey cows. The Jerseys produce more cream in their milk which makes creamier sweeter cheeses. Fonterra collect and deliver the milk.
The way the business is going Paul and Angela look likely to continue to increase production. Paul is happy with where the business is at and says it has proved financially to be a good move to base Talbot Forest Cheese in an area that not only has tourists moving through but also has a growing reputation for food.
To that end Paul and Angela have just purchased the building their retail shop is in and are now starting a Fudge Factory to add to the towns Chocolate shop and Barkers famous range of condiments.
New Zealand and Talbot Forest Cheese may only be fledgling in the cheese making history books but around the world, for those visitors that try Kiwi speciality cheeses we have a resounding reputation.
Talbot Forest Cheese has already been mentioned in an overseas cooking television programme and in several books. The future for Paul and Angela now lies in just how far they want to take their product.
Today Geraldine – tomorrow the world!