It would be difficult to talk about Australian cheese without bringing up Will Studd.
After a long time in the cheese profession, importing, wholesaling, consulting and promoting cheese in general, Studd has well and truly embedded himself in this country’s food narrative.
Studd’s show Cheese Slices is broadcast to hundreds of millions of people all over the world, and his books are considered “cheese bibles”, devoured by dairy enthusiasts everywhere.
Like many people in the food industry, cheese wasn’t something Studd set out to make his life’s work – when he left university, he set out to be an accountant. “The profession didn’t really suit me,” Studd says. “I didn’t have the right [personality] to be a good accountant.”
The interest in cheese began in London, where Studd worked at a “very posh” food shop called Justin de Blank, where he was exposed to top-end farmhouse cheeses that began his love affair with the foodstuff.
Studd says he remembers discovering the flavours of good cheese and realising how different they were to the vacuum-packed stuff in supermarkets, and it wasn’t long before he engaged others in his new-found passion.
“The nice thing about cheese is that you can actually demonstrate it by getting people to taste it. So I started talking about it and people started listening. I could explain it by saying, ‘Try this and you will taste the texture and the smell; you will realise it’s a really interesting food,’” Studd says.
After establishing wholesale businesses in England, Studd fell in love with an Australian girl who “dragged me over here to Australia” to live. Studs says he was surprised at the lack of cheese options in Australia at the time.
“The only cheese around in Australia in 1981 was really… it was all about commodity, commodity, commodity,” Studd says. “[The Australian] dairy industry has been built on the basis of selling butter and cheddar to other countries. It was all about [trade].”
It was this lack of variety that drove Studd to set up his wholesale imported cheese business in Australia, to sell traditional European cheeses. “In those days, every producer had to have a special quarantine permit, and every imported cheese had to have a label that matched up with the permit. So when I started importing European specialty cheeses, and as a migrant to a new country, I really wanted to see Australia producing its own specialty cheese.”
Studd started working with Richard Thomas and Laurie Jenson, the men behind the famous Gippsland Blue – now Tarago River – cheese. “They came to me and said, ‘Oh, we’ve got this new blue we want to produce and we’d love you to distribute it because we know you’re selling European cheese.”
Studd says in those days, no one wanted to pay the sort of premium needed to produce quality cheeses such as the Gippsland Blue in Australia. “That was the first farmhouse blue cheese made in Australia,” Studd says.
Studd went on to work with other cheese makers in the country, getting thoroughly involved in the local cheese scene. About ten years later, Studd sold his wholesale business to King Island Dairy, initially staying on with them to help them market the label.
It was his experiences within the corporate cheese production environment, combined with reforms to cheese production and trade laws in Australia, that prompted Studd to form the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association to lobby the Government to reverse the banning of production and sale of raw milk cheese in the early 2000s. “In those days, I still considered myself the Pied Piper of Australian Cheese,” Studd laughs.
“I learned in forming the association that associations are very political, and my views about raw milk cheese weren’t shared by everyone, and many thought I was undermining the industry with my [stance on raw milk cheese regulation],” Studd says.
Studd stood down from the Association and challenged the government on their regulations around Roquefort cheese. He says he didn’t understand why it was being banned in Australia. “Roquefort has always been sold in Australia. It’s been made in France for thousands of years with raw cheese milk, and it’s sold [all over] the world,” he says.
After Studd and others got behind the move to change the regulation of Roquefort, the production of the cheese was eventually allowed in Australia as an exception to the raw milk regulations. But Studd says there’s still much to be done in changing the attitude towards raw milk cheese in Australia.
“There’s more awareness about traditional cheeses and there’s more producers, but the truth is, it’s still Struggle Street for cheese producers,” He says. “It’s still very political, and it’s still very difficult for producers to define themselves as a genuine point of difference to the large producers.”
Studd says he hopes the laws will change, but isn’t holding his breath. “I would predict the change will be political, not scientific – [possibly] with Brexit, and Australia trying to have closer ties with the EU, the cynic in me says that’s would be [what instigates] change. It won’t be people like me arguing the science. It’ll be trade.
“But I’m not a politician, that’s the problem. My connection to cheese is emotional. It’s driven by what it represents, people, flavours. I’m not into the politics of cheese. That’s not why I got into it.”
It was through Studd’s passion for traditional cheese-making that Cheese Slices was born. “The power of TV is huge. And the purpose of Cheese Slices was to educate and to learn as well. If you can show people in pictures and in an entertaining way why traditional cheese is important and show the way it’s made, [my theory has been that] it would break down the barriers [and the perception] that it’s a really dangerous product.”
Studd says Cheese Slices has been about trying to explain how the rest of the world makes cheese, while raising awareness of raw milk cheese production in the process. “In Australia, we lack a choice [to consume raw milk cheese]. You’ve got to ask yourself, are we so precious that we’re not able to consume raw milk cheese? If it’s so dangerous, why is production allowed in [so many other] countries? Are we just too lazy to develop rules around the production of raw milk cheese?”
Raw milk agenda aside, Cheese Slices has grown quite a following, with viewers now reaching around 200-300 million people across the globe.
Studd says he attributes its popularity to the frustration over our lack of knowledge around where our food comes from, given much of our food is created in mass-produced, over-industrialised environments.
“People are looking for provenance, because so much of the food we eat is produced on such a scale that we have no idea where it comes from and what it represents,” Studd says. “Cheese is a very old fashioned food going back thousands of years. It’s a genuine and traditional food that really reflects where it comes from.
“I think when you eat a piece of really good, well-made traditional cheese, you are really sharing in the provenance of a particular region, in the sensation of taste or smell or texture. It’s that connection with something that you don’t get from food [produced on an industrial scale].
“And the amazing thing about cheese, it’s not just the cheese – the cheese makers themselves are wonderful. I mean, you’ve got to be seriously, seriously committed to produce farmhouse cheese.”
Studd says he is passionate about the rights of small producers in a corporatised, mass-industrialised industry. “The industrial cheese gets me the most upset, where everything tastes the same, everything is driven by the big multinationals, and producers are price takers rather than price setters [like for example] what’s happened with the milk industry in Australia.”
Studd says he believes there’s a quarter of the number of small family farms in Australia today than there was when he first came to the country. “It’s sad for farmers, but it’s also very sad for animals too. A herd of 500 cows has a very different temperament to a herd of 50,” Studd says.
“Animal welfare comes into it. And the ripple effects of this industrialisation to the cheese industry are huge. That’s why it’s so important to support farmer’s markets and small producers.”
While Studd’s relationship with the nuts and bolts of the cheese industry is complicated, his love for cheese remains unconditional. That said, he refuses to highlight just one cheese as a favourite.
“I’m going to dodge that question, because it’s always the last one [I’ve tasted],” Studd laughs. “You know, cheese is one of those things… every cheese is different, and there are just so many different experiences, it would be so wrong to pick out one as the best one. It’s a bit like asking a parent who their favourite child is. You can’t discriminate like that with so many different cheeses; there’s thousands of them.”
Studd says that even the worst cheeses have been a great experience… or at the very least, an experience. “There is an episode of Cheese Slices people often refer to where [we travel to] Corsica, where they ripen cheese using flies, and let the maggots grow in the cheese. People like to talk about that episode; they ask what it was like. Well, you know what? It was great theatre. What did it taste like? I don’t remember – I took a big bite of the cheese and the maggots, then took a bit gulp of the wine and just smiled,” he laughs.
Studd describes another occasion, off-camera, where he and his crew stayed with Sardinian shepherds who insisted he eat cheese that had been ripened in the stomach of a sheep hanging from a roof. “They basically take the stomach, fill it with milk, hang it for a couple of months. It dries out and then they crack it open with their very thin Sardinian bread, and wash it down with wine. That was pretty… mmm,” he laughs.
“The shepherds were there smiling, going, ‘You gotta eat this Will!’ You know, very macho. It was like an initiation. They’d be saying, ‘Oh this is very good, it’s good for your love life!’”
Cheese Slices is now available to watch on iView until March 1.