We were invited by Simon Johnson to join in on Pecora cheese’s 5th year birthday celebrations. So together with 50 or so other chefs and hospitality professionals we boarded a bus to take us to the beautiful rolling hills of the Southern Highlands
Pecora Dairy is located in the village of Robertson at the very edge of the southern highlands, known as the Illawarra escarpment, where the highlands drops down toward the coast of Jamberoo and Kiama. Robertson has a history of cheese production and you can still visit the old cheese factory in town which has now been converted into shops and delis.
Spring is definitely in the air as we are driven down the windy road, taking us through the highlands to a place where everything is extra lush and green following yesterday’s heavy rainfall. Apparently this particular area cops the highest rainfall in NSW (up to about 2 meters a year). And, after yesterday’s heavy down poor we were all wondering whether we should have packed our wellies. But, in true NSW fashion, there is no sight of yesterday’s rain and the sun is glistening high in the sky. The grass is as green as can be and the cherry blossom, clover and other spring flowers are bursting out of their buds.
The McNamara family lives here with around 120 East Fresian sheep, a flock that has been carefully bred over the years. When Michael and Cressinda McNamara left corporate life in Sydney it was not to make cheese, but to find some peace and quiet in the Southern Highlands. What started off as a hand full of sheep to keep the lawn trimmed soon evolved into something much bigger.
As we exit the bus we join the happily grazing sheep in the paddock where a festive, yet simple feast has is being prepared. In a setting of hay bails, Norwegian candles, and spit roasted lamb, you can’t help but get the feeling that you might have time travelled back to the historic time of the vikings. The chef of the day is no other than Biota’s James Villes who has been a keen supporter of Pecoras cheese since the start.
As we are all getting familiar with one another there are a selection of snacks going around highlighting the produce of this land. We are served rolled up pear filled with Jambaroo Mountain Blue cheese, crispy dark rye with a smoked goats yoghurt, lard and local honey. Yabbies served with Pepe Saya’s butter and spring peas with fresh curd on a disk of puff pastry.
For beverages we are welcomed with a surprisingly good and refreshing Pear, walnut and whey juice before being presented with a choice of locally brewed beer from Southern Highlands Brewery and wine from the near by Tertini vineyard.
Michael and Cressinda are introduced to us by Joanne Savill, who has also been a great supporter and advocate for Pecora . It was Joanne that invited them to join the Pyrmount Markets and introduced them to chefs like Giovanni from Pilu at Freshwater, who has since regularly used their products on his menu.
We are then served a hearty lamb roll, the meat freshly carved from the spit and served in a fresh brioche bun with a heavenly sauce that I was too excited about to actually enquire as to what was in it, well done team James.
Then came the star of the show, carried out on a beautiful wooden board hand crafted by Colin Munrow, is a wonderful selection of cheeses from the farm. There are hard and soft, blue and raw and of course their newcomer, a raw sheep’s milk feta. As Michael explains “our cheese is always delicate and ready to eat young and now in the spring there is a lovely floral and earthy flavour to it. As food standards have now changed, we are looking into producing more of the raw milk cheese and this is a teaser of what’s to come. It’s important for us that our cheese reflects a time, a place and a season. That’s why we wanted to invite you here today so that you can see the fields where our sheep are grazing, smell the air and taste the produce of this land.”
As the creme on top of a beautiful lunch, we are also served a deliciously light sheep milk yoghurt soft serve.
As the sun is moving over the farm lands and the Norwegian candles are burning out, our day on the farm continues. It’s time for the milking of the ewes.
Cressinda and Michael head on out to call back their sheep, who are all more than happy to come in for milking. There is a genuine spring in their step and it’s a bit like watching kids running in for supper after a day playing outside.
The enthusiasm suprises me, these are some seriously happy sheep! As we get invited into the shed to watch the milking process I can’t help thinking back to being a kid at the amusement park, waiting in line for the rollercoaster. That’s the same excitement and anticipation that you can see in the sheep, as they line up to be milked and eagerly waiting for their turn. Even a couple of small lambs are lining up with their mothers as if they where longing for the day that they are big enough to be part of the process.
Michael and Cressinda have a very patient and humble approach to their animals and treating them with nothing other than respect and love. The sheep are only milked once a day and the pregnant ewes are left alone to give them a much needed break during this time. The little lambs are not separated from their mothers but instead left with them until they are naturally rejected.
Once again I have had the honour to be part of something beautiful and to get an insight of what real produce should be about: the nurturing of our lands and animals, and the patience, passion and care of the people who create it.
What a great day, what a great operation and what great produce! And of course, what great company of chefs and hospitality professionals to share it with.
Pecoras cheese can be found at some local farmers markets, like
Everleigh Markets – 1st and 3rd Saturday each month + any 5th
Pyrmont Growers – 1st Saturday of each month
Northside Produce – 3rd Saturday each month
Kiama Produce Markets- 4th Saturday each month
And at restaurants like Pilu at Fresh Water, One Bent Street and of course Biota.