Words & images by Richard Cornish
Bena Raw is a just-released raw sheep’s milk cheese from Burke and Bronwyn Brandon at Prom Country Cheese near Korumburra in South Gippsland. It results from years of experimentation, hard yakka, and gaining the trust of Dairy Food Safety Australia (DFSA), who regulates the cheese industry.
The manufacture of raw milk cheeses is incredibly tightly controlled in Australia. DFSA makes it incredibly difficult to create one. Cheese needs to be aged for six months and fit within a strict parameter of moisture and pH levels. The regulations are so stringent that it is, ironically, easier to buy an imported raw milk cheese than it is to get a locally made one.
Thankfully there are hard-core cheesemakers like Burke and Bronwyn, who have undergone the labyrinthine and kafkaesque nature of government bureaucracy to produce this exquisite hard cheese.
It starts with the diverse pastures the Brandons grow on their beautiful property at Moyarra in the Strzelecki Ranges. Here they have developed their own crossbreed of sheep with tough hooves to cope with the wet winters. In the summer of 2020, they embarked on this new cheese. The herd of 150 sheep was milked once a day, and their still warm milk was carefully taken to the cheese room. It is important to note that the Brandons don’t use pumps that could break up the fat structure of the milk – which causes lipase and a less than fresh flavour in cheese.
Vegetarian rennet is added, the curds cut and stirred, and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria, as well as added bugs, turn the lactose in the curds to lactic acid. At the same time, naturally occurring bacteria, enzymes, and microbes start to break down fat and protein. The curds are drained and cheddared – which means they are milled and stretched – which helps more lactose to be turned into lactic acid. The curds are hooped, pressed, turned, and the cheeses let at 12°C for 5 months and then matured at a cooler 9°C until now. During that time, their rinds were coated with morge, a salty mixture of cheese cultures that helped develop the rind and mature the cheese.
Bena Raw has a peachy-hued rind thanks to the brevibacterium in the morge. The texture is hard, slightly crumbling, but pleasingly supple in the mouth. Cut the cheese, and the air is filled with the aroma of fresh milk, the cheese inside a pleasing creamy marble with tiny flecks of cheese crystals. The aroma of sheep milk gives way to the aromas you expect to find in aged cheese. There are those lovely floral high notes you find in comté, some dark, sexy, funky aromas that give way to a hint of barnyard, and then the lovely meaty flavours that you find in great aged cheeses.
A beautiful cheese to star on a cheese board and wonderful with a big blousy chardonnay or even a golden ale, as Burke prefers. Bena Raw is a triumph for this cheesemaking family and something that Australian cheese lovers should be proud of.
We wish to acknowledge the Bunurong people as traditional owners of this land and to pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.