Kaikoura Cheese may be based in Marlborough but their wonderful cheeses have been available at the Nelson Saturday Market and Nelson Farmers Market for a number of years, their cheeses also appear on many restaurant and café menus in this region, as well as being available in a number of retail outlets, so I figure it’s ok for me to tell their story in this column.
And they have a great story to tell, from small beginnings to big growth, big earthquakes and a big rebuild this is a resilient business that has managed challenges that arose from the earthquakes while also expanding the business.
Last week I had a chat with co-owner and cheesemaker Daniel Jenkins who, with his wife Sarah, established Kaikoura Cheese in 2011. Initially making cheese at their home before relocating their creamery and main cheese shop to the centre of Kaikoura. The move came a few years before the Kaikoura earthquake during which they lost an entire season’s production of aged cheeses that were quietly developing beautiful flavours in their climate-controlled cheese storage room.
The Kaikoura earthquake wasn’t the first natural disaster Daniel and Sarah had endured, they relocated to Kaikoura when their lives were turned upside down in the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011.
Daniel was working in a retail outdoor store and Sarah was working for Cactus, a specialist industrial clothing and climbing equipment supplier in Christchurch when the earthquakes rattled their world, they had a two year old toddler (Pipi) and a six month old baby (Coya) but “the Christchurch Earthquake was the motivation we needed to move from a city to the country and rebuild our lives.
“We both love the outdoors, being connected to nature and understanding nature through food, I grew up in hunting gathering family on the West Coast and Sarah grew up in Wellington but we met when we were climbing in the Remarkable Mountains in Queenstown.
“We established Kaikoura Cheese because we have a passion for excellent, top-quality wholefood, the love of eating cheese, we also wanted to have a lifestyle for our family and add something of value into the community so we bought three goats, converted a shipping container into a certified cheesemaking facility and set about learning how to make cheese.”
The couple had no cheesemaking experience prior to establishing the business but three goats and a small facility were all they needed to get started, “we were selling cheese and learning by experimentation we went. We had travelled through Europe and that’s where we fell in love with cheese, we must have tasted hundreds of cheeses and we have learned to trust our palate and the cheese memories we have.
“We learned a lot from the Cheese Monger in Christchurch and a few good cheese books, when we set out to create a cheese we work within the environment around us, rather than saying ‘we are going to make this cheese’ we have an idea of the style of cheese we want and then work to create something tasty that reflects our environment.”
Daniel told me their approach to cheese making is to be as natural as possible using everything around them, “the creamy is right next to the ocean, it’s a really active area, heaps of kai moana, sea life, mountain life and has its own mauri (loosely translated as life force).
“The factory doors can be opened to the elements so the air that flows through the factory brings local native yeasts to our cheesemaking, our cheeses get their special characters from the environment, everything in our cheese is linked to the local environment.
“Some say the cheeses are like me, slightly feral on the outside and delicate and complex on the inside.”
When they first moved to Kaikoura they were living in a tiny 10 square metre house on five acres of family land overlooking the ocean, “you don’t make much money from milking three goats so while we were learning and developing our goat herd we grew own fruit & vegetables. I got a lot better at hunting and helped neighbours on their farm in exchange for some lamb while we got the business started. In the first year we turned over $12,000 so we learned to live off very little.”
Many people like me fell in love with cheeses Daniel and Sarah were creating so as the business and demand for their products grew they had to relocate to bigger premises. Daniel and Sarah bought an old butcher shop in the main street of Kaikoura and converted it into their creamy and store.
When the earthquakes hit Daniel says the building held up very well, the only issue they had was the availability and quality of water that had to be sorted before they could get processing up and running again.
“Many people didn’t realise what it was like for people farming animals at the time, we had to milk our goats the next day, they are essential to the business and animal welfare is always top-of-mind. We couldn’t just leave them, but there was no petrol to run the generator so we had to milk 40 goats by hand for some time.
“Two days after the quake our business mentor, David Taylor, who had also just invested n our business, put it to us that did we want to keep going or close the business, of course we wanted to keep going so we had about 10 hours of meetings in one day to organise what it was we needed to do to keep going.
“David flew down once a week and helped hugely, we had goats to milk and cheese to make and he filtered all the offers of help that were hugely appreciated, not just by us but by the whole community. How people responded to helping others was quite humbling.”
At Kaikoura Cheese they use traditional cheesemaking methods and only the very best goat’s milk, lovely creamy Jersey cow’s milk and new season sheep’s milk to make sure their cheeses are as authentic and beautiful as possible.
They also like to experiment with flavours and cheese styles, they have been creating collaboration cheeses for a while, “we wash our cheeses in a reduced grape syrup, sparkling wine, local beers and even a birch sap at the moment.
A cheese they made by leaving it in spent beer grain for a week and then washed with beer and aged for two months was runner up in a cheese challenge recently
At Kaikoura Cheese they produce a range of cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk cheeses; from soft fresh curd cheeses to aged hard cheeses and they are all beautifully crafted treats, especially the new season’s fresh cheeses.
The business continues to expand with an outlet at a couple of Wellington markets and they are even trialling shipments to Melbourne, “we need to make sure we have the logistics of freighting fresh cheese internationally sorted before we grow too much in that market” but you can sample all their cheeses as well as a range of other New Zealand cheeses at their Kaikoura store or at the Nelson Saturday and Farmers markets.