Mt Eliza Raw Milk Cheese

September 2016

One of the few producers of raw milk cheese in New Zealand

Chris Whalley is originally from the UK. He worked as an industrial chemist before training as a cheese maker. The idea to train in cheese making was prompted by a desire to move to New Zealand and set up a cheese making business here. Chris trained at Wensleydale Creamery in the Yorkshire Dales and also at the Northumberland Cheese Company and eventually moved to NZ in 2006 with his family. Jill is a kiwi, originally from Matamata. She trained as an occupational therapist.

The family bought 4 ha of land near Katikati and converted a shed on the property into their cheese factory. Setting up was a lot harder than they’d anticipated as all the equipment and moulds were imported from the UK and Germany.

The business is named Mt Eliza after the Kaimai Range peak near their home.

The Whalleys make 7kg rounds of cheese. Before starting their business they scoured England and parts of Europe tasting cheese and doing their research. At that time, NZ artisan cheeses included lots of gouda, creamy blues and bries, so Jill and Chris decided to specialise in the traditional Anglo-European style cheeses inspired by Cheddar, Red Leicester and Stilton.

The cheese can be eaten young but matures over 6 months to a year. Chris uses recipes that are over 100 years old. He says the UK cheese tradition goes back to Roman times. Their cheeses are:

Farmhouse Cheddar – a traditional truckle of cheddar with all the complexity of flavour of the raw milk and a good cheddar “bite”.

Red Leicester – a traditional “table cheese” with smooth creamy, rich, round, full-bodied flavours with the unexpected complexity that comes with the raw milk.

Eliza Blue Raw – inspired by Stilton, but made with raw milk; cloth-bandaged, this is a complex rich and buttery cheese with blue veining.

Blue Monkey – this is Chris Whalley’s original recipe; cloth-bandaged, beautifully marbled and intensely blue.

In 2009 the Whalleys started working towards making a raw milk cheese. The couple believed there was no reason why they couldn’t produce a cheese as good as that found in Europe. They believe that the texture and flavour of the cheese is superior in a raw milk cheese. Chris also says that a lot of the beneficial enzymes that produce the flavours and feel of the cheese are denatured during pasteurisation.

In 2015, after a three year process, the couple released their first raw milk cheese with MPI approval. The Whalleys say it was a comprehensive process involving food safety and risk management programmes. Producing cheese from raw milk has required a lot of attention to detail and a lot of patience with the process and bureaucracy.

Having for decades prohibited the sale of cheese made from upasteurised milk, MPI are now licensing some small artisan dairies.

The Raw Milk for Sale to Consumers Regulations 2015 were passed on 7th December 2015 and came into effect on 1 March 2016. The regulations allow for raw milk to be sold directly from the farmer to consumers at the farm or via home deliveries. Previously the law restricted raw milk sales to the farm with a limit of 5 litres per person. After March 1 2016 there is no limit on sales of raw milk farmers can sell, the new regulations introduce strict hygiene requirements and tighter distribution controls.

Carl and Alana Williams milk on a farm roughly ten minutes from the Mt. Eliza cheese factory. The couple milk 340 cows in a 50:50 share milking business operating as Huia Trust. They supply Mt Eliza with approximately 2000L of raw milk per month.

Their herd will be drying off in early May. This milk pickup will be the last Mt Eliza makes for the season. They’ll start supplying the cheese company again in August.

The Williams love being involved in producing a product that is clearly so sought after. Alana remarks it is a long way from just putting the milk in the vat and never really hearing anything further after that.

Although they were keen to get involved, neither of them wanted to get too bogged down in the paper work involved in getting approved. Alana says Chris from Mt Eliza has helped them enormously in dealing with the process.

Raw milk producers need to have a pre-assessment report, be verified by an agency and also need to provide documentation and pay fees. Because the Williams are selling raw milk for further processing by a commercial operator they also need to have their own Risk Management Programme – RMP.

Alana says there are some key things they need to be mindful of if they are due for a milk pickup from the Whalleys. Above and beyond standard good farm practice, they need to be monitoring somatic cell counts to make sure they don’t exceed a certain level.

Hygiene in the cow shed has to be at a high level. Milking staff wear gloves and must make sure the cows udders are clean before putting on cups. Staff has to be extra vigilant for any signs of mastitis. Cows can’t be fed silage because the bacteria used in making silage aren’t conducive to making good cheese.

There also needs to be caution about which paddocks cows go on. Anything that has been sprayed with effluent is out of bounds within a specified time frame.

Aside from the Tauranga Farmers Market the couple send their cheese to 20 delicatessens around the country, as well as restaurants, hotels and lodges.

In 2010 the Mt Eliza Red Leicester won a gold medal in the European style category of the Cuisine NZ Champions of cheese, along with some silver medals for the Cheshire and FarmHouse cheddar. In 2015 Mount Eliza won a gold medal for their Blue Monkey and a silver for their Red Leicester. Mount Eliza Cheese also won the top prize in the NZ Farmers Market Awards for the “creamiest producer from the dairy” for 2014 and 2015.