Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Land of Cheddar

Homer Simpson always has food on his mind. And in his fantasies. When Homer learns that the power plant where he works might be taken over by Germans, he doesn't fear for his job. Instead his mind drifts to the Land of Chocolate (a.k.a. Germany), where everything is made of chocolate, including cute barking dogs that he pets, picks up, and then eats. To Homer, this is heaven.

I, too, have food on my one-track mind (or three-track mind if you count tennis and travel). I, however, fantasize about the Land of Cheddar, not Chocolate. Unlike Homer, I've succeeded in finding this yummy place in the real world. It's not England or Wisconsin; it's New Zealand.

I had a sense that New Zealand might be the promise land when I took my first Cheddar trip abroad, to Australia. That was back in winter 2006/7. For New Year's Eve, my friend Lucy and I drove down from her farm in the bush in New South Wales to the King Valley, a wine region in Victoria, with her husband and infant son. There we celebrated the new year at a vineyard with her friends Peter and Pieta from Melbourne. The trip was a dream come true: I finally got to visit the nearby Milawa Cheese Factory and Cafe and the Milawa Mustard Condiment Centre. Cheese and condiments--that's my heaven! And throw in reserve wine from the young Aussie vintner and you have the perfect new year's eve celebration!

I had wanted to stop by those savory places ever since Lucy and I drove from Melbourne to New South Wales in her van three years earlier. Before we left Melbourne, she gave me the choice of the inland route that went by the mustard factory or the coastal route. The ocean won out over the condiments and I was forced to leave the food destinations for another time. (But I did get to visit the Bega Cheese Factory on our road trip.)

The time had finally come. During the day on New Year's Eve, Peter and Pieta, real foodies who have become good friends of mine, kindly drove me to a number of food destinations in the area, while Lucy stayed behind at the vineyard with her infant son and husband to rest. The three of us went to the cheese factory and the mustard place, as well as to honey, berry, and olive farms that sold sun-kissed prepared foods like chutneys, tapenade, and mead. At the cheese factory, I had to try, of course, Milawa's Cheddar. When I asked the young woman behind the counter to tell me more about the cheese, which didn't have Milawa's distinctive navy blue label, she told me that their Cheddar actually came from New Zealand, but they aged it on the premises. I was really surprised. All their other cheeses, mainly goats' and cows' milk cheeses, were made locally on a small scale and that's what they're known for. It was the first I had heard of New Zealand Cheddar, but it wasn't the last.

A few weeks later I was on my own in Tasmania, to visit two traditional Cheddar-making places, Ashgrove and Pyengana. One night, while in Launceston, I splurged and had a fancy and solo dinner at Fee & Me. The folks at Ashgrove had told me that Fiona, the chef, had won an award for a souflee made of Cheddar cheese. I had to try it, as well as the cheese course which included Cheddar. Again to my surprise, Fiona didn't select one of the farmstead Tasmanian Cheddars. Instead she looked eastward to New Zealand. This was at least my second Cheddar from New Zealand, and it now meant that I was going to have to visit.

Visit New Zealand I finally did, just this past February, and my suspicions were confirmed. New Zealand is indeed the Land of Cheddar. Their Cheddar isn't particularly good, but it's everywhere, like misplaced apostrophes. Almost everyday during my three weeks on the South Island, I started the day with a savory scone or muffin (see the photo above from the Dunedin farmer's market), made with Cheddar and sauteed veggies, such as tomato, spinach, and onion, and sometimes herbs. Cheddar was the cheese of choice for sandwiches, like the strange one I had with pineapple (see the previous posting) and the delicious ones I made for myself while out on the stunning Marlborough Sounds with a kind Kiwi family who had adopted me at the Cork & Keg, the local pub in Renwick. To accompany the cheese in the sandwiches were thick chutneys, roasted seeds, and slices of beetroot. Cheddar even appears on pizzas, like the incredibly satisfying veggie one I scarfed after hiking up Avalanche Peak at Arthur's Pass.

Why is Cheddar much more pervasive in New Zealand than in Australia, two distinct countries that we in other hemispheres unfairly clump together? The reason, I think, is that Australia's cuisine has changed over the years by adopting the food of its Mediterranean immigrants, which is more suited to Australia's hot and sunny climate. New Zealand, on the other hand, hasn't had that same sort of immigration pattern, and its climate is more similar to England--cool and rainy. There hasn't been as much reason to move away from Anglo cuisine, which, of course, features Cheddar cheese.

Perhaps I am unfair in saying that Kiwi Cheddar isn't very good. After all, a good deal of the cheese sold in Asia (and Australia) is from New Zealand. How bad can it be? But, for the most part, their cheeses are bulk cheeses, not farmstead ones, which means that they lack subtle and seasonal flavors. Why this is the case will be covered in an upcoming post, whenever that may be. Probably not for another month at this rate!

Until the next post, know that I am forever changed from my visit to the Land of Cheddar. I am probably 7 kgs heavier and I haven't touched much cheese since, and I'm not even eager to resume my cheese eating. What happened to me Down Under in the Land of Cheese?