A century of cheddar

By WILLIE SIMPSON | A remarkable cheese with a history that dates back four generations is still made the same way today.

Jon Healey, a fourth generation dairy farmer/cheesemaker from Tasmania’s far north-east, has carried on a proud family tradition with the Pyengana Cheese Factory, which he opened in 1992 as a mere 23-year-old.

Both Healey’s grandfather and great-grandfather made cheese in the tiny Pyengana Valley — the tradition skipped a generation with father John. There has been a history of English-style cheddar making in this area for about 100 years. It’s always been the same style of cheese — a stirred-curd cheddar wrapped in cheesecloth.

Once such a cheese could be found on the counter of every Tasmanian greengrocer. However, with the arrival of supermarkets and pre-packaged cheese, it fell out of favour. “My father tells of years when they couldn’t sell the cheese,” Jon Healey recalls. “It would be stacked two deep in the maturing room.”

Cheesemaking in the area eventually petered out in the 1980s.

In a wonderful piece of historical symmetry, Healey recently acquired from a neighbouring property some equipment which originally belonged to his grandfather — a 500-gallon (2,400 litre) cheese vat built in 1950. Designed to make this type of cheese, it was still in perfect condition.

The youngest of five children, Jon was bitten by the cheesemaking bug at 16 after the family were advised to value-add to their dairy farm. He finished a dairy-farming apprenticeship in Burnie Agricultural College but was unable to find an opening in the cheesemaking industry. Older brother Gavin, a professional golfer living in Switzerland, arranged for the teenage Jon to learn cheesemaking at a tiny farmhouse operation in that country. He returned home and took an intensive course at the Gilbert Chandler Agricultural College in Victoria and then began plans for his own concern, building a factory with the help of builder brother, Simon.

Healey likes the idea that the smoking chimney tells people when a batch of cheese is being made

Today Healey makes his acclaimed Pyengana clothbound cheddar pretty much as his great-grand-daddy did before him. He still uses a wood-fired boiler to heat the milk. “You can make a whole batch of cheese with a barrowful of wood,” he says. Wood is pretty cheap in this neck of the woods and Healey likes the idea that the smoking chimney tells people when a batch of cheese is being made.

The busy Pyengana Cheese Factory shop sells about three tonnes of cheese a year. The clothbound cheddar is available in 1.2kg, 2.5kg, 4.5kg, 7kg and 18.5kg wheels or smaller packs which include various herb and spice ingredients like chilli, garlic, peppercorn and carraway seeds.

All in the family

The Factory Shop in Pyengana is open seven days a week and advertises “the best milkshakes in Australia” as well as various sidelines made by Healey family members. Sister Lee (a potter) supplies cow logo mugs, another sister Karyn makes biscuits and coconut ice, while a tasty tangelo paste (a perfect accompaniment to Pyengana cheddar) is made by Healey’s wife Lyndall’s aunt. Father John is back in the cheese business, helping along with Lyndall's parents, Brian and Helen, in the factory and shop as required.

The cheese factory was built by Jon Healey and his builder brother. There are plans for bigger better things when time and money permit.

The cheeses are matured on pine shelves in the maturation room which can be viewed through a window behind the shop counter. The room is humidified and kept at a constant 13°C. The cheeses are examined, turned and wiped several times a week. Most cheddar is sold at 12 months but Healey hopes to double the maturation time. "What we want is a hard, really complex-flavoured, crumbly cheese.”

Inside the cheese factory Healey employs a collection of antique presses and moulds rounded up at country auctions

Healey plans to double Pyengana’s current annual output of around 33 tonnes. While the clothbound cheddar will remain the flagship, there is also on offer a washed rind, surface-ripened soft cheese with a lot of flavour that matures in six weeks. Look too for a more traditional ‘chip’ cheddar.

Inside the cheese factory Healey employs a collection of antique presses and moulds rounded up at country auctions. He also uses unbleached, raw muslin for his clothbound cheddar, which is imported from England at $5 a yard. “It’s a really big cost but without that we don’t stand out in the market. But it’s not just a marketing thing,” he says. “We really believe the cheese matures better in its natural state.”

Cow paradise

What is it about northern Tasmania that keeps producing award-winning cheeses? Pyengana cheddar wins so many awards, Jon Healey doesn’t have time to frame and mount them all. Meanwhile, Heidi Farm gruyère is a past winner of the Good Living Australian Cheese Awards and a Bodalla aged cheddar (from United Milk Tasmania’s Wynyard plant) eclipsed a field of 1,025 entries in the 2000 World Championship Cheese Contest in the United States. And the list goes on.

Driving east from Launceston gives an idea of just why this area is special. Beyond the hop-growing area of Scottsdale lies prime dairy and cattle land (with the odd lavender farm thrown in). The road leads uphill through a native myrtle forest resplendent with luxuriant man ferns to the summit of Weldborough Pass. On the descent the forest clears, leading to the lush, green Pyengana Valley. Pyengana (pronounced ‘Pine-garna’) is a local Aboriginal word meaning “meeting of two rivers” and the abundance of water partly explains its dairying fame. ¶


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