A young couple travelled to Europe to discover how to make cheese. They returned to the green northeast of Victoria and teamed up with an organic dairy farmer with a rare French breed of milking cows.

The Peaks’ cheese production is small, but the cheeses, Richard Cornish writes, are exquisite.

What is it?
The Peaks Artisan Cheesemakers is a small artisan cheese producer handmaking just a handful of cheeses, some only available for a short time due to seasonality. Three are available throughout the year. Firstly, the rich Monolith is a surface-ripened goats’ milk cheese comparable to a French Selles-sur-Cher. A velvety wrinkled skin with a fine layer of ash cloaks a dense, fudgy cheese with aromas of red berries and clean notes of citrus. A lactic acid cheese, it finishes with a gentle cleansing tang. Next comes Mountaineer, a semi-hard cheese made with whole cows’ milk with a rind washed with a little brevi bacteria to encourage its savoury notes. Finally, if you like raclette, you’ll love Smoko. Aged for three-to-four months, it’s then lightly cold-smoked over a blend of native and European hardwoods. As it ages, it develops a pliable texture and rich honey-sweet flavours complemented by subtle smokiness. Made for melting, it’s perfect for fondue, to serve over potatoes, or even a take on pizzocheri.

Who is it?
Luke and Vanessa Armstrong met in a cheese factory in Brunswick. “Italian nonnas would be hand-making ricotta and other Italian-style fresh cheeses,” says Luke. “They’d stop for lunch and bring out their giardiniera, crusty bread, red wine and enjoy it with cheese. I knew I had to learn more about cheese.” The pair moved to work at Milawa Cheese Factory, learning skills from legendary cheesemaker, Stephen Russell. In Northern Italy, they learned to make Toma Valle d’Aosta, and in Romania, they made cheeses with raw buffalo milk. “When we returned to Australia, we wanted to be near great quality milk to make great cheese,” says Luke. “I now spend my days up to my elbows in curd while Vanessa runs the cheese room retail in Bright and does marketing and distribution.”

Where is it?
The Peaks Artisan Cheesemakers is a small affair based in a converted shipping container in Myrtleford, a town in northeast Victoria. Production is modest, distribution is limited, and most of the cheese is sold in the region, making it a truly local product.

Why is it different?
Luke and Vanessa use milk from the Quast family, who have a herd of rare breed Normande cattle at Dederang in the Kiewa Valley. Known for their rich milk, which is high in both fat and protein, in France, Normande cow’s milk is famous for its use in French cheeses such as Brie and Pont l’Eveque. The goats are raised on the same organic farm on pastures growing on the flats of the Kiewa River. The milk is never pumped, only carefully gravity fed into containers and then transported over the hills to the cheesery in the Ovens Valley. Pumping damages the fat globules in milk, which causes off and rancid flavours in milk and, therefore, the cheese.

Who’s a fan?
Executive chef of Pepperberry at Hara House in Bright, Yasuaki Tokuda, uses Smoko in a dish of cabbage stuffed with tofu braised in a tomato and capsicum puree. “Our mantra is to use local products, and the best local products,” says Tokuda. “This raclette-style cheese brings smokiness and creaminess to the dish. Being a vegetarian dish, it’s important to have umami. Smoko has that. Matched with skinsy pinot gris from Eminence Wines in Whitlands, it’s an excellent dish.”

Michael Ryan, chef and owner at Provenance Restaurant and Accommodation, serves the Mountaineer as part of a European-style breakfast. “The Peaks cheeses are handmade, yet always consistently excellent,” says Ryan. “You can taste the careful way Luke handles the milk – that cleanness of flavour. He makes the milk the hero of his cheese. He ain’t taking no shortcuts.”

Where can I buy it?
Buy direct from The Peaks Provisions in Bright; Ripe at Queen Victoria Market; and Myrtleford, Bright, Wangaratta, and Beechworth farmers’ markets. It’s also available on a cheeseboard at Ringer Reef Wines in Porepunkah and Eldorado Road in Beechworth.

By Richard Cornish