Meet the bovines behind the new cheese in town. Each Jersey cow in Robe Dairy’s herd of 20 is named after friends and family members. It’s an example of the small but beautiful ethos of the little dairy farm in South Australia’s South East.
The 80-acre property is owned by David and Julie Hinchliffe who care for the herd with the help of their two young children Abby and John. They started small and still don’t consider themselves “real” dairy farmers but their milk, yoghurt, fromage blanc, and labneh have plenty of fans. “We’re not trying to be big, we just want to make really nice cheese our way, on our little farm,” Julie says. “Each product has its own cult following. We often struggle to keep up with demand.”
“We built everything ourselves mostly using salvaged materials from disused dairies.”
The couple purchased the land around their old Robe cottage eight years ago.
“It has everything we love – old stone buildings, beaches, nature, four-wheel driving, peace and quiet.”
Their journey into farming started 10 years ago after turning their backs on conventional nine-to-five jobs in science and environmental management. “We both grew up and lived in cities but it never really felt like the right fit for us. It was a compromised lifestyle.”
They embraced country life by throwing themselves in the deep end. “We still only think of ourselves as hobby farmers. Before cows, we liked growing veggies, fruit trees, keeping chooks, growing and eating our own poultry, then pigs,” Julie says. “We milked a house cow for a few years and reared the male offspring for our own eating. Somewhere in the middle of all this we decided a dairy and cheesery would give us the challenge and lifestyle we were looking for. Everybody thought we were crazy.”
They forged on regardless.
The cows are milked in a modest five-a-side herringbone. “We built everything ourselves mostly using salvaged materials from disused dairies. It’s a good setup, David is tall so it’s all been made for his height – and the Jerseys of course.”
The cud-chewers are adored by their owners. As are the chooks and two Heritage breed pet pigs Sybil and Polly. The porkers are always nearby, eager to help scoff whey and dairy waste.
The couple built a small cheesemaking facility adjacent to the cottage with help from David’s dad, a builder. It is small but their handiwork turns heads and tastebuds. It’s all about flavour, character, and seasonality. The milk is rich, high in butterfat and protein, and ideal for making cheese. “We don’t need to add cream.”
2017 sees the release of a boutique range of French-style cheeses including brie and camembert. “It is a big milestone for us.” The camembert hits shelves in early August and making it wasn’t without challenges. “We didn’t just want to churn out the same cheese and whack a camembert label on it,” Julie says. “We know that people have come to expect little from camembert. It is one of the most copied cheeses in the world but it’s really hard to find good ones.”
They wanted to surprise people. “The plan was to use a unique mix of cultures, including heirlooms, to create something really punchy, with lots of personality. It’s been a lot of trial and error, with plenty of cheese going to our pigs but at the end of it all, our wonderful Nora Creina Camembert emerged.”
They’re self-confessed outsiders. “We don’t really see ourselves as part of ‘the industry’ because we are going about things so differently and on a very small scale. The cheese industry in Australia is about large producers, long shelf life, and mass-produced supermarket style products. Cheeses are cheap, sealed in plastic, and easy to handle. They always look the same and behave the same.”
“We know there are people out there who are looking for cheese like this.”
Julie smiles. “Straight away we’re up against it. Here we are with smelly, fragile, expensive, highly perishable cheese… it’s nothing like the brie and camembert most people are used to and it’s ripening and changing all the time. We can’t sell through a distributor because the shelf life is too short for them.”
Their secret weapon? Taste. “We know there are people out there who are looking for cheese like this, not just because it tastes better but because it’s been made with great care, and by the same person who milks the cows. While it’s hard to break through in Adelaide, we are lucky to have strong local support in our little home town of Robe.” Selling at farmers markets in Mount Gambier earned Robe Dairy a following in the southeast and they also closely with a small number of retailers such as Foodland stores in Frewville, Robe, and Naracoorte. “They get to know our product – and us – very well. Our cheese never sits in a warehouse for two weeks. Nor does it travel to Adelaide then back out here.”
You can also find their cheese at Adelaide Central Market’s The Smelly Cheese Shop. Robe Dairy has also launched an online cheese shop. “We offer a set mixed cheese box that can be sent anywhere in Australia on a set dispatch day.”
The sea change had its hurdles but they wouldn’t have it any other way. “Anyone who looks after animals knows there are a lot of ups and downs but along with the hard work is independence and satisfaction. It’s character building.”