Push for cheese perfection

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

It almost seems destiny that Chris Vogel ended up making cheese, after all, he heralds from Swiss heritage. But by no stretch was it an easy path to tread.

Chris' journey from milker to cheesemaker was a long and winding road that first began with him simply trying to find a sideline to keep the family dairy farm viable.

It was the end of the 1990s and with the spectre of dairy industry deregulation on the horizon, Chris was keen to shore up another revenue stream to complement the farm's milk production.

His Swiss father had bought the Denmark property in the late 1970s, stocking it with his beloved dual-purpose Swiss Simmental cattle.

Twenty years on, Chris needed to make a decision about whether they should stay in milk production or try to diversify.

"To see the way the dairy industry was going in advance was a bit of an advantage," Chris said.

"The big passion was to make a sustainable interest industry for this farm, to hang onto this farm, because it was the thing that glued us to Australia."

The idea to use the dairy's milk to make cheese seemed obvious, but Chris was not content to do things by halves.

Instead of taking a cheesemaking course in Australia, he travelled to the home of cheese - Switzerland - and began years of intense learning.

"I pretty much round it off as a 10-year event because it took up so much time," Chris said.

"I thought that hopefully would give me the edge but it was the long way of doing things."

After completing a bachelor degree, he spent years working in diverse cheese factories, including one that churned out 12 lots of 120kg Emmental per day, honing his skills.

By 2004 he was ready to return to Australia, but setting up a business making handcrafted cheeses was never going to happen overnight.

"I literally spent everything doing that degree," Chris said.

"You have a whole year where there's no money coming in and there's just money going out.

"Then I get back here and it's not so simple to just go out and buy cows and run the farm again.

"I couldn't make the cows pay for the cows - it didn't work financially."

But he wasn't prepared to let go of his dream and so began three years of working on mine sites and driving 300-tonne road trains.

"That's how I funded everything," Chris said.

"I'd work for two weeks, come back to Denmark and then my six days off were essentially building the factory.

"I constructed the factory with the help of a couple of friends, doing as much of the work myself as I could, just to bring those costs down.

"There's no easy road and you really have to push hard for it."

With his paddocks still leased out, Chris bought milk from a neighbour and three years ago produced his first batch of Dellendale Creamery cheese.

"It was all so humbling and small - I was making maybe two batches a week, 180 litres in a batch," Chris said.

"There was a big learning curve and probably the biggest one has been the milk itself and how that changes here in Australia throughout the seasons. That really caught me out in the first few years trying to maintain product consistency.

"There's been a lot of adaptation and just getting a feel for it and that's taken a few years to come online."

Taste sensation

From those early beginnings, Chris now has a product line that includes a triple cream brie, brie and camembert, a washed rind cheese called Shadforth and its more mature brother, Churchill - matured for 12-16 weeks.

There's also a couple of experimental cheeses in the pipeline and his standout product, the Outback Brie.

"That's something that I've come up with - it's my own version of a washed rind without going to the extremities of a really strong cheese," Chris said.

"You can eat the whole rind, but it's a work of art.

"Triple cream brie has a lot more cream in there.

"I actually skim milk off to make that triple cream and then Outback Brie is using standard milk.

"But then the big difference is what's growing on the surface. There are multicolours on the Outback Brie surface (and it becomes) robust, pungent and intense - that's the aim."

He's humble about his abilities, but Dellendale's products are far from the ordinary, mass-produced cheeses lining supermarket shelves.

Chris has a penchant for pushing the boundaries and fuses his Swiss training and heritage with his Australian upbringing to create something truly unique.

"That's really the aim of Dellendale Creamery, to push those limits and go for something which really gives people a sense of change in their mouth," Chris said.

"I don't want to be a cheesemaker who comes back from Europe and copies their cheeses.

"I'd like to have a product distinct to Australia.

"The aim of the game is to come up with your own thing - we really have to be Australian, be creative and do our own thing."

From humble beginnings - he started making just 18kg of cheese a week - Chris' business has grown and he now produces up to 120kg a week.

It's still classed as a cottage industry - Chris describes it as a microbusiness - but things are moving along for Dellendale.

Stocked in places like Cottesloe's Boatshed, Urban Locavore, Herdsman Fresh and several IGAs, Chris is also starting to see his cheese on restaurant menus.

"I'd like to have that type of product where restaurants will turn around and say 'that's what we'd like here'," he said.

"I'm really hoping my forte, which is the Alp style, firm-cooked cheeses, will push production in the next direction of specialty cheese.

"Those cheeses are really not here yet.

"As far as I know I'm the only one who's doing a product like that in WA and there's only a handful of cheesemakers in the east doing that."

He prefers to call his determination a "will to make a great product" rather than a passion, but there is little doubt Chris has thrown his all into Dellendale.

That sheer grit to produce a unique, first-class product shows through in the complexity of his cheeses.

Although the cheese was originally intended to help sustain the farm, these days the former dairyman is firmly committed to his new craft.

"The philosophy has changed so much - I assumed I'd be manufacturing my own milk into cheese, that was the thought before I got into making cheese," Chris said.

"But when you get into cheesemaking yourself you realise how much time is involved and it's quite handy just to go across to the neighbour and just pick up the milk that you need.

"It's now become more than just a pastime, it's my trade.

"The farm really comes back to probably having a few Simmental cows on the beef side as a little hobby.

"Once you've made the cheese in the morning, the afternoon is packing the cheese and then going out and doing a bit of farming and enjoying the sun."

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