The story behind the cheese - Corinne & Peter Blacket
I have a massive list of places and people I want to ride the bike and visit this year. So many people with a passion for good food and booze! Chances are I won’t reach them all, you just can’t do everything you want, but I did get to tick one off the list recently.
I was pretty stoked to fire up the Little Ripper and head down the coast to visit some cool humans doing great things with goat cheese in Drysdale. A while back I bought a ticket for a cheese making course for my girlfriend and she returned inspired and refreshed, I had to meet the people behind the cheese.
The road down to Drysdale is one I've travelled a bit recently and it's not much of a ride to be honest, apart from a nice spell of winding roads through Stony Reservoir near Meredith. As for the rest of it, it's dry, parched pasture this time of year, and to make things worse you have to ride past a disgustingly smelly cattle feed lot. Seriously, who in their right minds thinks it's a good (healthy or natural) approach to feed thousands of cattle in a confined space to finish them off on grain just to have a consistency in end product.? They live in cow shit in those pens, it's ridiculous. I'm reminded of this every time I ride past, and even at 100kmph you can't avoid the stench of human stupidity. Grass fed all the way. Eat less meat, eat the good stuff. Eat well. Rant over.
I did pick a rad day to ride down, a beautifully sunny 'Australia Day'. Over the years I think I've made my opinion (for what it's worth) known about this day, even lost a few friendships online but who cares? If you can't see the injustice of not wanting the day to be truly celebrated by all, on an appropriate date respectful of the 40,000 y.o. culture that the formation of what we call Australia destroyed in the process of formation, then we probably aren't really going to be real mates anyway.
On a positive note, all the bogans were out parading in their Aussie classics of Holdens, Valiants and Fords. What a spectacle of polished chrome and sunburnt faded paint on the old girls, brings a tear to the eye seeing these classics on the road, might also have been the stench of cow shit. Spotting these cars also made me realise how much I talk out loud alone on the bike with a few “what a ripper!” and “you bloody beauty!” popping out from under the helmet to oneself.
I pulled into Drysdale hot and bothered in my leathers gaging for a coldie. I got some last-minute text directions “ours is the house with the yellow picket fence” and there I was, pulled up the front of this beautiful old weatherboard named 'CorioLynn' warmly greeted by Corinne and Peter. Corinne asked “so what do you want to do?” I quickly replied “have a cold beer!” After a few hours on the bike on a stinker of a day it was a real treat to sit at their old wooden table, in a cool dark kitchen sharing a beer and talking about what we'd do with my visit. I don’t dig formal occasions or formal plans, I find life a lot easier if you just go with the flow, so we just went from one place to another for the rest of the afternoon into evening talking about what they do with food, and why.
First off, we headed out to the male kids from the current season. The gang of kids were nearby grazing in weedy paddocks on a magnificent historic property originally set up post Crimean War as a place to rehabilitate returned servicemen. The property is now in private hands but still has the ceremonial old canon parked in the driveway which still gets fired up once or twice a year!
I’ve had plenty of contact with goats over the years, friends have them for milking or meat and I’m very fond of their friendly nature and cheeky behaviour. To be expected, these young male goats were cute as. They came up to greet me with a nuzzle and a cheeky bite on anything, apparently, camera straps are appetising.
It didn't take me long to pick up on Corinne and Peters approach to food production, as amazing as social media is, it only tells a small portion of anyone's story. A real-life connection is still the only real way to truly hear and feel a person's story. They explained how the land owner was managing the weeds with machinery, but the goats did a better job, and they convert the weeds into food. Makes sense. The kids are the product of impregnating the female milker's to encourage milk production. A lot of people don't vibe on this reality yet happily consume dairy, which is odd and ignorant. I reckon you really need to have an understanding of where and how your food is produced, unfortunately dairy production is an unknown process for a lot of people. I've never understood the logic behind being a vegetarian for the sake of reducing harm to animals whilst consuming dairy, but I don't understand a lot of humans anyway, go figure. In any case, Corinne and Peter are both trained Pharmacists with the logic of science, driven by their personal ethics and are happily producing and consuming meat as part of the process to produce milk. They approach it as a linked system, where the meat is as valued as the milk is.
I'm always curious to get other people's take on the ethics of food production so I asked Corinne about the vegan approach of not supporting dairy for this reason (male offspring is killed as a ‘by-product’ of dairy production). Her response was pretty clear and sound. What do we do with these species of animals that humans have managed for so many thousands of years? They only exist because of generations of human farming techniques. I posed the question, what do we do with all these animals that we’ve manipulated and managed for the benefit of human food production if we all stop eating meat? The practical answer is to continue managing it. You simply can’t release these animals into the wild in Australia, the results would be ecologically devastating. You can't simply keep farms going with all the investment of time, resources and money but not yield any return. Do we shut off breeding and let these species simply become extinct? Or do we look at better ways to manage the situation? Let's face it, it’s highly unlikely the masses are ever going to stop eating meat or dairy. We can’t even get people eating healthy food, so what chance have we got turning people vegan? These conversations need to be had, as uncomfortable as they might be for some with passionate and emotional opinions. I'm no expert nor does my opinion count for much but I do find great value in visiting and talking to the people that produce our food to explore ideas that better help me understand the systems in play.
My inner monologue questioning the value of dairy and its place in human culture was distracting me from being present with Corinne and Peter, I turned my inner monologue off and took in the surroundings. The warm afternoon sunlight was dipping low, so to make the most of the remaining light we jumped in the ute and headed to the dairy just a few minutes down the road. It’s not a massive farm, they don’t have many milkers (just 30) and have no intentions of upsizing. I love this approach! So often you see food producers start small, become successful, convince themselves they need to expand, grow the business and lose a little bit of that special thing that made them special in the first place. It’s often the case where an expansion of a business results in short cuts being made and ethics compromised, but not with Corinne and Peter. They milk their 30 goats and aren’t planning on increasing the heard. They also only milk once a day, where many goat dairies milk twice a day. A twice daily milk is good for making more cheese to sell but puts pressure on the bodies and health of the goats producing the milk. The Drysdale goats are absolutely loved, each one having an individual name, personality and relationship with the farmers. The name tags made it easy for me to make conversation with the goats as their friendly noses snuggled and rubbed into me, nibbling at my dusty road worn shirt. I couldn’t tell if it was an affectionate thing or if a lot of them just had very itchy noses, but man did they love a snuggle, I obliged like a kid in a petting zoo. Goats are amazing creatures, inquisitive, cheeky and affectionate, in fact I found their company to be more pleasing than many humans I know.
Corinne and Peter have a daily routine of an early morning milking and an afternoon check-ups on all the animals for health and feeding purposes. Peter took a pole saw from the ute and cut off branches from a row of Tree Lucerne to feed the goats. It’s great seeing these guys use what nature provides, reducing the energy inputs involved associated with supplementary feed. The goats pushed and nuzzled their way to access the green leaves of the branch, making light work of it, stripping the branch bare. As entertaining as it was, it also represented good farming techniques. The guys took me over to check out the veg patch on the farm which grows amazing produce for themselves, the goats and the public. They had a pretty good garlic harvest this season and look set to nail the pumpkin department. I really liked the approach they have to growing veg, it’s similar to mine. I asked what varieties of a few good-looking plants were and the response was “not sure, just planted the seeds” or “got this of a lady in town”. They had amazing looking eggplants with spectacular dark leaves and a cucumber called ‘hand grenade’ that looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They also grew a variety of tomato, “an old wog variety” that's ripe to eat and still appears green which is great to stop the birds from eating them. They got those seedlings from an old Nona in town, and the plants are thriving with the coastal climate and rich black volcanic soil. That’s the thing about Corinne and Peter, it’s not just about goats and cheese, in fact Peter said the cheese had taken over a lot of other things he was enjoying, that’s when they took me back to the old house to show me their amazing backyard.
“So what did you guys plant?” I asked pointing to the 180 degree view of established healthy natives, rambling vegetable garden, fruit orchard and grape vines. “All of it!” they replied proudly. This is what I love about visiting people, you get to see hidden things that are so special. These two humans had a vision to turn a blank paddock into something amazing, a return of native vegetation to benefit the ecology and a food bowl to provide for a growing family. They’re been at it a while, the kids are all grown up adults and out in the big world now, but what they created in the backyard remains totally functional. The yard is an expansive labyrinth of wooden and wire fences, partitioned vegetable gardens cover the sloping land down towards the creek where tall Mana Gums and wattles stand tall, like they’ve always been there. “There was nothing here when we arrived” Peter tells me. I looked and admired what these guys have done and was almost lost for words, and a little bit jealous of such a bounty. So much food was all around me, small integrated systems of chooks eating waste, making eggs and producing meat, ducks mowing the grass under grape vines, juvenile goats trimming hedges and millions of life forms in the soil, all the detritivores doing their part in a complex natural system that was encouraged by two pharmacists that decided one day that they wanted to create something out of nothing.
We walked around the block talking about food systems, imported asparagus, wine and chooks. Corinne picked up a chook here and a duck there, she sat with the goats. This lady clearly loves animals. It always amazes me that there are people out there that have very strongly formed opinion about what a dairy farmer is, what they think about their animals, but has never actually taken the time to get to know that farmer or ask why they do what they do.
Corinne told me how this season their mobile butcher couldn't do the job due to injury so her and Peter decided after years of watching him that they were competent to do it themselves. The butchering part she had no problem with after having helped the butcher for many years, but she was concerned about the dispatching. They did it, they managed. These are animals they have raised from babies, year in year out they do it. They have an understanding that this is the process, they believe in it as a system, they do it well and not without consideration. This husband and wife team are intelligent, thoughtful humans. They want to do what they believe is best for their farm and their community, I value and respect that. I admire the effort and consideration that's not immediately obvious when you look at a block of their cheese on the shelf. When these guys open their shed cheese shop once a month, they have lines of people cueing to be served, and they sell out every time. The reasons are obvious to me.
Too much food politics and existential thought, I needed another coldie so we headed into the kitchen where I sat and watched the preparations for dinner while flicking through photos I’d taken. Corrine has a Croatian background and talked about meals where she integrates her produce with traditional cooking. She’d made some killer flat bread gozleme with a tzatziki with backyard cucumber, goat yogurt, mint, salt and slurp of olive oil. I could not stop dipping the gozleme and had to make a real effort to hold back to leave space for mains. Glad I did because it was slow braised kid, like the ones in the paddock we'd feed earlier. Melty, sticky and well cared for by-product of the cheese we enjoyed later. The kid was served with grilled zucchini and crispy BBQ potato grits. My favourite food is simple food and these guys obviously embrace a similar peasant food approach, a mixture of Croatian tradition and a passion to serve their family real food that’s easy to prepare, has good nutritious value and tastes amazing. Both being Pharmacists these guys know and understand the benefits of healthy food intake versus a reliance of medication to treat the ills of processed foods and inactivity. It really isn’t simple to get your head around it.
We’d shared the meal outside under a frame of climbing vines and a stunning summer evening sky. After a few glasses of Rosé and good conversation our outside dinning was cut short by very welcome summer downpour. The Rosé ran low so we opened a bottle of Peters home-made wine, the technique secretly taught to him by Croatian relatives on Corinne's side. A simple natural wine of crushed fermented grapes, that's basically it. It's wine that's been enjoyed for thousands of years and it was wonderful. He’s done a pretty darn good job of honing the technique over the years and I could have sat up eating cheese, drinking wine and talking about family history and food all evening, but I had a big ride the following day to the border of NSW to meet a pretty lady and needed rest.
Before we finished up I asked why the two got into farming in the first place and the answer was oddly “mad cow disease”. They explained that they were working as Pharmacists in the UK in the 1980’s when a big outbreak of mad cow hit and they discovered that feeding of animal meat to herbivores was obviously not a good technique and started asking the question “what is in our food and how can we do it better? They became students of permaculture principles and eventually found their way to goats and the blessed art of cheese making, which has taken over everything, probably to the detriment of the veg patch as Peter explained. He has plans to return the focus to the garden patch and the integrated food wonderland that is their backyard, but I reckon they’re already doing a great job. They do much more than most of us do.
In the morning we grilled goat halloumi and ate true goats feta with backyard tomato and that beautiful gozleme before we headed out to the dairy in the early light. The rain that passed overnight created a spooky mist around the town and the farm was fresh and steamy. It was a real pleasure to watch the milking process, even more so to see Corinne showing a new farmer her techniques or 'industry secrets' as she called them, she's very much about sharing the knowledge. I really liked the simplicity of Corinnes system, especially the magnets with every goats name stuck to the wall so Corinne can easily keep track of which girl has been in, and which is still to process. I also had a chuckle at how eager the girls were to be milked! Some of the cheeky buggers would climb up the shed gate, peeping over with a goat moan as to say "is it my turn yet?" There's something to be said about keeping things simple, and this milking shed was just that. No bells and whistles, no fancy equipment, just the bare essentials and a bit of ingenuity, and it produces a very real and honest bunch of cheeses.
It’s rarely just about the food. I'm interested in the story behind the food. I’m keen to learn about what drives people to do what they do. Corinne and Peter filled me full of hope with their approach and passion. They clearly love what they do. At some point, Peter said how amazing it was that Corinne gets paid an income from doing what is effectively a hobby. A pretty good outcome for all those years of hard work and dedication. I appreciate their approach to the realities of dairy production, and how they value the meat as much as they value the milk. The approach is truly holistic, as hippy as that sounds. But really, these guys are the coolest modern peasants around and they’ve been doing it long before a hipster like me propagated a tomato in a dunny roll and thought he’d solved the worlds problems.
Corinne told me that people ask her why the hell she shares her techniques and secrets with new farmers eager to learn as they set up their own goat diaries. She explained to me she has a desire to see more of their operational approach on other farms. I wish for the same thing, I'd like to see more Drysdale cheese farms around the place.
Thank you to Corinne and Peter for letting me into your private world of food.