Franck Beaurain remembers his grandparents’ farm in Normandy, and his mother’s cooking. He was always extremely interested in what went on in the kitchen. He says, in his strong French accent, “Making cheese requires the cheesemaker to be extremely meticulous, very precise, yes? Fifteen degrees is not thirteen degrees. But you know, you also have to have that passion, the love of the soul of the food, to make it really work.”
Franck has both. His microbiology background, specialising in milk science, has stood him in good stead: for 30 years, he’s made award-winning cheeses in France, in Tasmania and Victoria, and of course in Puhoi. Interestingly for a Frenchman, he’s passionately committed to ensuring that the best cheeses in the world do not have to come from France. And now that the Puhoi Valley cheese team, under Franck’s lead, has officially created the best cheese in NZ, they are “discussing the possibility” that Puhoi Valley could take it to the world.
If they do, it won’t be the first time Franck has been on a world stage. A cheese he created in Gippsland, Australia, was named best blue on the planet at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Wisconsin in 2010. He seems reasonably keen to repeat the experience. But for the moment he’s content with Puhoi Valley’s record haul of awards this year: 11 gold medals, 16 silver, and five bronze, with category Champion awards for their Fresh Goat and Washed Rind – and the Champion of Champions award for their Kawau Blue.
Puhoi Valley is operated by between 70-90 employees, and most of them live in or near Puhoi. Some of them are descendants of original Bohemian families. The land the café and factory stands on today was a goat farm, making goat cheese, many decades ago. It feels like a family-run business. However, it’s no secret that Puhoi Valley Cheese is owned by Goodman Fielder NZ Ltd. And they’re in a global market now, as a major player.
It’d be cute if it was a cosy little family company, but Franck says that the awards the team has won this year would probably not have been possible within one of those. “It’s about the management, the structure, and definitely about consistent quality assurance. All of this gives me the freedom to experiment and come up with the best cheeses,” he says. “And the team I work with daily is fantastic, it couldn’t happen without them.”
It’s clear that Franck loves it here. “In France the industry is so big,” he says. “As a cheesemaker, often the best you can hope for is a job making the same camembert every day of your life. Here I can work with this huge range of different cheeses. It’s much better for me – it’s very exciting!”
Franck’s favourite cheese? “Well, it’s like asking which of your children is your favourite, really – impossible!” But his decision would probably be based on what the weather was like at the time. Hot summer day? Maybe a light camembert, or fresh goat feta in a Greek salad. Winter evening? A punchy blue with a glass of red by the fire.
A tasting platter arrives. “Every platter should have at least four cheeses from different cheese families,” instructs Franck. (There are eight families: fresh unripened, white mould, blue, washed rind, semi hard, hard, goat, and processed.) He continues. “And like the French and NZ flags, there should be three colours – red, white and blue.” The red is represented by a washed rind cheese, the white by a soft brie or camembert, the blue – well, here of course, it’s Puhoi Valley Kawau Blue, and it is indeed extremely delectable.
Washed rind cheeses are much misunderstood here, says Franck, whereas in France, they’re a cheeseboard staple. The soft cheese is washed with a saltwater solution (or sometimes wine) to encourage the growth of a specific bacteria. This envelops the cheese in an orange/red rind which is delicious, and has a robust aroma. Puhoi Valley Washed Rind has an aroma of caramelised cauliflower, according to Franck, and the creamy texture is exceptional.
But we go back to the blue. This cheese has two different names – sold as Kawau Blue to restaurants, it’s marketed to the public under the name of Puhoi Valley Gorgonzola Style Blue. The company has other high-end vs supermarket cheeses – there are ‘Cellar’ versions of some that are available exclusively at the Puhoi Valley Café or supplied direct to restaurants.
Puhoi Valley have added ranges of yoghurts, custards, icecreams and milks in recent years. Their Chai Latte ice cream won best in show last year, but it’s still made on site at the café in small batches – four litres at a time. Now that’s cute. But there’s no mistaking the fact that this company is on a big roll. As Franck would say, they seem to have a certain “je ne sais quoi”.