By JrmFebruary 27,2017
You might recognise the logo of a man’s face with a huge nose and large nostrils, reseeding hairline and closed eyes. His expression is the one of someone that is taking a deep breath to smell the surrounding; this is a logo that you’ve possibly seen in restaurants, cafe’s and most probably at a farmers market. This is the face of Pepe Saya, a fictional character that has become a trademark of Australian butter. Pepe being the nickname of founder Pierre Issa and Saya being the name of his childhood fantasy island.
What makes this butter so unique is its creamy, mature aroma and it’s fluffy texture that you only get from handcrafted, cultured butter; a creaminess only to be interrupted by small crispy salt crystals. As you spread this delicious butter onto your morning toast, and as the slightly yellow butter melts into the air bubbles of your sourdough, you are at a point of no return. Throw away that manipulated supermarket butter and become a Pepe Saya converter.
I was already a Pepe converter when setting up our meeting with Pepe, but when you get to meet Pierre ‘Pepe’ himself and see his production team at work at their small factory in Tempe, you can’t hide the infectious feeling of excitement. Pierre’s drive, willpower and determination are fascinating, and yet he is such a relaxed, joyful and friendly character. The cornerstones in the Pepe Saya’s produce are handmade and sustainable production. “Those are the pillars of my business, which I won’t compromise on, I think that texture, flavour and presentation is everything and for me. ‘You eat with your eyes first’, so if you can make butter appealing, you are half way there. You will not get the same texture with a machine.”
So why did Pierre start making butter? It was by coincidence, back in early 2000, Pierre together with some friends had a small business making on-the-go dessert pots, that they sold to places like Harris Farm. One Christmas, they were due to close down for a couple of weeks and had a cool room full of cream that they couldn’t let go to waste, so Pierre decided to make butter. What started off, as a fun project soon became an obsession. He recalls how that first experiment was a disaster but with it came a fascination of the procedure and a determination to succeed. This was late in 2009, and in 2010 Pierre gave up everything to make the perfect butter.
Spurred on by his passion for sustainability and Australian produce he soon found himself with a fridge full of beautiful creamy butter, but no one to sell it to. Pierre tells us that back then, only seven years ago, the market was so different. Australia hadn’t really ‘woken up’ and started to appreciate the incredible produce that we have here. Our flagship restaurants were still looking to Europe for their top-end produce, and ‘Pepe’ was rejected over and over again with the excuse that French butter was the best. Pierre makes a good point of how you wouldn’t want to fly into Paris and eat at one of their best restaurants, to be served Australian sparkling wine and an Australian butter with your pre-meal bread roll. Same goes for tourist visiting Australia; You don’t fly over the Indian Ocean to be served the butter from the farm down the road from your house in France. You would want to be served the butter from the farm down the road from the chef’s house. (Australia being a huge country it might be more like from a farm in the same state that the chef lives.) “It was chefs like Alex Hubert, Roger Barstow and Niel Perry that got it straight away and supported us from the start.” This kind of thinking had been ingrained in Pepe since he was a child. He grew up in a small village outside of Byblos in Lebanon during the war in the 80’s and remembers a simple village life where they would get their milk from his dad’s cousin up the road and then make your own yoghurt and cheese at home or buy it from your closest neighbour.
Today Pepe Saya produces not only butter but creme fraiche, glee, buttermilk and mascarpone. All milk is carefully sourced from farms in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Pierre makes sure only to use the best and keeps a sustainable relationship with the dairy farmers by paying a genuine price for the milk. It is then transported to the factory in Tempe where culture is added, the milk gently heated and matured before it’s turned into butter. When salting the butter, they add two kinds of Australian salt, a fine salt and a rock salt that is the source of those crunchy little crystals in the butter. The butter is then portioned and cut by hand into whatever shape requested and each package is labelled individually by a team of loyal workers. Just watching how the cultured creme fraiche is whipped into a creamy butter makes your mouth water. It’s a fascinating production, especially when you see the number of individual portions that are being prepared for the Quantas first class flights.
The time, respect and effort that goes into the making of this butter make you understand why you end up paying $15 for the final product. It even makes you want to spend $15, because not only will you get the best butter in Australia but you will also support Australian dairy industry, an ageless craftsmanship, and a very passionate and determined man.
When we asked Pierre what advice he would give himself if he had the chance seven years ago, he laughs and looks over at his wife who is working in the corner office of their staff room on top of the factory. “It’s been a tough road, and we have worked so hard to get here, the problem with hindsight is that if you knew what it took or what path it would take you down, you probably wouldn’t do it. “But despite that my advice to anyone that is thinking about putting a product out on the market is, ‘Just do it!’ “How can you live with yourself if you don’t. You will regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t give it go”.
Click here to find out where you can purchase Pepe Saya’s products.
All images on this page are credited to Pepe Saya.