Cressida Cains’ hours revolve around cheese – both the tasting and the making. No stranger to an early morning, she and husband, Michael milk their 150 East Friesian ewes before tucking into fresh curd on toast with marmalade for breakfast, sweet and delicious. With a full day of farming, marketing and cheese making on the cards, it might then be a three-cheese toastie for lunch, and pasta with cheese for dinner. Bellisimo.
The award-winning artisan cheese maker lives and works on the family property; 200-acres of lush, rolling hills in Robertson, the green heart of the Southern Highlands. Named after the Italian word for sheep, Pecora Dairy boasts Australia’s only working, pure East Friesian ewes, the most productive breed of dairy sheep in the world. However, this isn’t a fourth-generation operation. The Cains traded their corporate life for greener pastures in 2011, swapping Sydney’s traffic blare for the bleating of lambs along the way.
The snowballing of their business started with a baby and an overgrown lawn. Falling pregnant with their first child, Cressida and Michael decided to buy a small property an hour out of Sydney. With a house cow and an interest in milking already in place, Cressida bought a few sheep to help eat the grass. “I guess coming from the wine industry, I already had a love of the confluence between art and science, which is really what cheese making fundamentally is,” Cressida says. “It took us about six years of research and development to understand whether it was feasible for us to actually make sheep milking a business; to source genetics, learn the science of agriculture and how to make cheese.”
The pair eventually found their perfect property in the Southern Highland. The first year of business passed in a haze – with Michael travelling to Sydney part-time for work, Cressida often set up dinner for her two young sons in the dairy as she milked the ewes and raised the lambs. It was a challenging time with a rainbow glinting though the storm; in its first year of operation, Pecora Dairy won a gold medal for its Blue Cheese at the Sydney Royal. It was the start of many firsts as Cressida continued to push boundaries. The dairy was also the first Australian cheesery licensed to make raw milk cheese in 2018; the result, named Yarrawa after the indigenous word for Robertson’s unique cool climate rainforest, uses very simple starter cultures, resulting in a buttery cheese that is a complete expression of the Cains’ sustainable farming ethos.
“Sheep milk is unlike anything else. It’s one of the most nutrient dense and rich milks, which makes it incredibly suitable for cheese making,” Cressida says. “It’s way higher in protein and calcium than cow or goat milk. It’s really the Rolls Royce milk for cheese making, which makes it extremely attractive to us.”
Every day is different, depending on the season. During the frosts of lambing, the family, including sons Hugo, 16 and Darcy, 14, are up early, walking the flock to check mums and bubs. They milk twice a day for six months of the year, and then once a day for four months. Sustainability and the health of the ewes and lambs is of utmost importance. In the cheesery, Cressida focuses on the art form. “We’re producing about seven tons of cheese a year and we are growing; we don’t want to grow massively, but we do want to grow at a slow and steady pace,” she says. “Once the lambs are weaned in about September, then we’re full on into cheese making. The actual making part is really only 50 percent of the cheese making, the other part is what’s called affinage, or ageing, which is the care and maturation of the cheese and that’s really an art form itself. It’s very time consuming, where we brush, turn and rind the cheeses.”