While Northland is reputed for its scenic wineries and orchards bursting with lush citrus, avocados, and kiwifruit, it may not be quite so obvious that it also offers a smorgasbord of delights for cheese lovers.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at two award-winning artisan cheese makers, as well as an overview of retailers who provide a great cheese buying experience.
Tucked away behind a bakery in central Whangarei, the Grinning Gecko cheese factory is quietly crafting cheeses on a par with Europe’s finest. Just last year, the Grinning Gecko ‘Kau Piro’ cheese landed a top prize at the highly-acclaimed International Cheese and Dairy Awards in the UK. The company has also won numerous NZ Champions of Cheese Awards since it commenced in 2013.
Best known for its soft cheeses, such as brie and camembert, Grinning Gecko manages to give its product a creaminess and ripeness that’s often missing from mass-market New Zealand varieties.
When I asked cheesemaker Catherine McNamara why her cheeses are so uniquely creamy, I expected her to tell me it was down to a secret technique learned from an ancient artisan. I was wrong; it turns out that the two key elements are far more practical than they are mysterious. The first factor is the quality of the milk; the second is the gentle way the milk is processed.
Made from certified organic milk
Grinning Gecko use certified export-grade organic milk, all of which comes from a local herd of Ayrshire cattle and which has a good balance of milk fat and protein. Catherine is in constant contact with the farmer about where the cows are grazing, as there are approximately 40 different types of grasses on the farmland, which affect the nature of the milk, and consequently the flavour of the cheese.
“The high degree of traceability and our close relationship with the farmers is central to our cheese making,” says Catherine.
Gentle batch processing
“We collect the milk and process it at our factory on the day of milking”, she continues. “We batch pasteurise it by gently heating it, and cooling it straight away. Because we’re so gentle with the milk, and it’s not being pumped at high pressure, the fat molecules don’t get smashed through long pipes and pumps, and that’s what gives our cheese its unique flavour and texture.”
Cheese range: Farmhouse Caraway Seed, Farmhouse Cumin and Garlic, Farmhouse Hot Chilli, Feta, Halloumi, Hatea (Red Leicester), Kau Piro, Parihaka, Brie, Camembert, Quark, Ricotta, Woolleys Bay.
Best sellers: Brie, Camembert, Kau Piro, and Halloumi.
Buying info: Cheeses are available to buy onsite, and you may see cheese making in action through the interior window. If he has time, Zev Kaka-Holtz, the head cheesemaker, will gladly stop for a chat, but this isn’t always possible as it is a working factory. There’s a large car park across the road suitable for campervans, and it’s within easy walking distance of Hatea Drive car park, where self-contained motorhomes can park overnight.
Address: 81 Port Road, Whangarei.
Award-winning Mahoe Cheese is a family business located on a picturesque 200-acre farm in Oromahoe, south of Kerikeri. Established in 1986 by Anna and Bob Rosevear, three of the couple’s four sons work in the business as artisan cheese makers and farmers.
Mahoe Cheese makes all its products using milk from its own cattle, which are Friesian and Jerseys crossbred with Montbéliarde and Normande.
“Our herd has a good fat-to-protein ratio, which is ideal for our hard cheeses,” says head cheesemaker Jake Rosevear.
“Having our own cattle means the milk is really fresh, and we just pump it through the wall into our factory, rather than having it slosh around in a tanker. That makes a big difference to the quality of the cheese.”
Jake’s brother Tim manages the farm, and the two are in daily contact about where the cattle are grazing and the quality of the milk.
All of the herd’s milk is used for cheese making. “That means we’re making cheese five days a week in spring, when the grass is in abundance, and three or four days a week in summer,”, says Jake.
“In spring we focus on making the premium maturing cheeses, such as our Very Old Edam and Very Old Gouda, which are left to mature for 10 to 18 months.”
Cheese range: Farmer’s Fresh, Blue, Chives and Garlic Gouda, Cumin Gouda, Edam, Feta, Gouda, Greek Yogurt, Haloumi, Mozzarella, Quark, Very Old Edam, Yogurt.
Best sellers: Very Old Edam, Cumin Gouda, and Blue.
Buying info: The factory shop is open Monday to Saturdays, and samples are available to try. Parking is easy. You can also sample and buy Mahoe Cheeses at the Kerikeri Farmers’ Market (Sunday mornings) and Paihia Farmers’ Market (Thursday afternoons).
Address: SH10, Oromahoe, Bay of Islands. Website: mahoecheese.co.nz
Kaiwaka Cheese Shop
The Kaiwaka Cheese Shop is best known for its vast range of imported cheeses, many of which are in a Dutch style. As well as European maasdam, gouda, and leerdam, you’ll also find packets of fondue – as well as a fondue set if you’ve left yours at home!
The deli range includes crackers, cured meats, wine, European spirits, chocolates, gifts, dressings, oil, spices and condiments, health food, and organic options. Parking is easy, and the shop is open seven days a week.
Address: 1957 SH1, Kaiwaka.
The old Packhouse Market, Kerikeri
The new deli area at the Old Packhouse Market is a great place to sample Grinning Gecko and Mahoe Cheese.
There’s a cheeseboard with the samples all ready to go – just grab a toothpick and find your favourite. The deli is open on Saturdays 8am to 1.30pm, and Sundays 9am to 1.30pm, and parking is plentiful.
You’ll also find a wealth of other Northland foodie treats at the market – especially on a Saturday – including olive oil, wine, sweet treats, condiments, sauces, fresh produce, and more.
It’s not just a food market: there are locally-made skincare, craft and art products – perfect for picking up some souvenirs or gifts.
Address: 505 Kerikeri Road, Kerikeri.
Waipapa Four Square
This is no normal Four Square! The former Nosh store has rebranded but still carries delicatessen items. In other words, you can stock up on toilet paper at the same time as sampling and buying cheese, and treating yourself to other goodies.
There’s fresh produce, fine wine, barista coffee, freshly-squeezed juices, fresh sushi, sliced meats, pastries, pies, crackers, and a vast range of health foods and organic groceries.
The cheese range is significant: as well as stocking Grinning Gecko and Mahoe Cheese, you’ll find other New Zealand offerings including Clevedon Buffalo Mozzarella, Over The Moon, and Thorvald. There’s also a large selection of imported cheeses, all cut to order, which is changing and growing all the time.
“I order imported cheeses weekly, and I’m happy to take custom orders,” says storeowner David Whyman. “So if there’s something you’re craving, I can probably get it for you.” Parking is easy, and as the store is next to a Gull petrol station, you can refuel yourself as well as your vehicle. Open seven days a week.
Address: 1993 SH10, Waipapa.