I am currently staying in South East Queensland in Australia, home to fertile dairy country including one of the only sheep cheese producers in the state, Towri Sheep Dairy. On a warm overcast Friday, about one month after the area had been hit with torrential rain and flooding, I visited the rolling green farm in Allenview about 60kms south west of Brisbane.
Fridays are tour days, where for $18 I was lucky enough to be joined by two fun, energetic elderly couples from Brisbane, a ‘fell-in-love-with-the-area-so-recently-moved-here’ full of life mother and her friend, and a single woman who had just returned from a trip around South East Asia. I was probably the only one really interested in the dairy setup, as the cheese-tasting and demonstration at the end seemed to be the highlight for most. And to be fair, it was pretty impressive.
We sampled six different cheeses in all, starting with an entrée of “Eweghurt”, a yoghurt cheese marinated in herbs and olive oil, together with a smooth salty Feta, which apparently is no longer allowed to be called “feta” unless it is produced in the town of the same name. So as we are not in Greece, it instead goes by the apt name of ‘Baa Jar’.
Our mains followed and were a combination of aged crumbly pecorino (which for me being a Parmigiano Reggiano lover and all, certainly scored most of my points), and Peppered Ewe, a fresh curd cheese infused with black pepper, also quite tasty.
The cheesy meal was wrapped up with samples of a smooth, creamy, mild ‘Blue Ewe’ (which has been known to convert any blue cheese hater to a lover) and a desserty style Lavender Cheese, presented like a beautiful slice of cheesecake with honey drizzle. It’s a shame it was so fresh it had not yet been salted so did lack a lot of flavour, but Carolyn, the farm owner, tour guide and avid gardener, was up front about this and to be honest, I was having such a good time (thanks to the beautifully landscaped gardens and eclectic, enjoyable company) I did not mind at all.
Now back to the dairy itself, the key to producing this fine assortment of cheese. Towri is run by Carolyn and her husband, along with an events coordinator and ad hoc farm help when her children and their friends are at home. The 300 acre farm is home to 3 different flocks of sheep, all a cross between Awassi and East Fresian. With an average of 70 ewes in milk at any one time, where the lambs are kept with their mums and milking is only done once per day, the current average production per ewe at milking time is 1.25L. Carolyn explained that when they first started milking back in 2004, the average was probably about 750ml per ewe, and although milk quantity is certainly not the be all and end all, through selective breeding they have been able to increase yields over the years.
She also tells us that if the flock was 100% Awassi they would likely be averaging 3L per ewe per milking, but along with higher production of the pure breds, also potentially comes more problems and less hardiness.
The sheep graze on natural, organic pasture year round, except in flood worthy conditions like last month, when they are bought into a covered, safer area. Carolyn explained it is important to keep them out of the wet for lengthy periods of time, as in as little as three days in soggy conditions, the sheep can become lame, cold and sick. Unfortunately this is what happen just recently when although they nursed them for as long as possible, they ended up loosing 5 of the 400 sheep flock. Thankfully those weather conditions are few and far between.
One thing I was very inspired by, was the way the dairy and cheese-making facility, along with sheep yards, the milking platform, an office and the café area are all located under one roof, thanks to a large second hand shed that was available during construction. The cheese-making and cooling rooms are enclosed in their own walls (and roof) within the shed, but they all border each other making it feel like a smooth and easy operation.
The setup allows 12 ewes to be milked at one time, where they are each fed a grain ration each milking. The milk is pulled through the pipeline and directly into a holding tank in the cheese-making room. The cheese vat is actually a second hand jam kettle, with a capacity of 100L, however, the average amount of milk used per batch is 75L. No milk is sold as fluid milk despite the weekly requests from consumers (including myself) for as Carolyn informs us, she would have to sell it for $10/L in order to recover costs. A hefty price that would no doubt, not last long in the marketplace. Instead for her, is far more economical and valuable to turn into cheese.
At a point a few years ago I thought sheep may have been the animal I’d like to milk due to their small size and high milk solids, but since working with cows, particularly smaller breeds, I just don’t think Id enjoy it so much if I milked any other animal. Being around the sheep at Towri confirmed this, for although cute and friendly, they just don’t have the same effect on me as cows. We all resonate with different animals, and for me, it is the cow. It also happens that good quality cows milk, and cows milk cheese remains my favourite out of them all, even in the face of the delicious sheep products I have just savoured.
All in all, visiting Towri Sheep Dairy was a thoroughly pleasant surprise. I always find it interesting to see how others have setup, what processes they use, what challenges they have faced and why they do what they do. Not only did I gain insight into all of these, but I thoroughly enjoyed the company of strangers on a very beautiful property, which has given me inspiration and creative ideas for when I eventually have my own.