Hunter fromager Sonia Cousins answers all the cheesy questions

BIG WHEEL: Sonia Cousins knows her cheese. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
BIG WHEEL: Sonia Cousins knows her cheese. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

Whether it’s Cracker Barrel cheddar with cabanossi on a toothpick or an oozy square of Brebirousse d’Argental, we’ve all had close encounters of the cheese kind. 

Newcastle-based fromager Sonia Cousins is a cheese judge, educator and lover and lives and breathes the gouda stuff. She was integral in opening GPO Cheese and Wine Room - the first cheese and wine restaurant in Sydney. She has been judging cheese at a national level for over a decade, runs masterclasses and cheese tasting sessions and regularly consults for retail and hospitality. You can find her through the week at Darby Street deli and charcuterie Pork Ewe Deli, helping cheese lovers find new flavours and guiding the less-familiar on a journey of discovery. 

​Weekender sat down to chew the curd with Sonia to find out more about this dairy goodness and how the local industry is ripening and maturing. 

What cheesy things have you been up to lately?

I was judging at the Royal Melbourne Show recently. I’ve been judging at several of the major cheese shows for about 10 years now. It’s great to see what wonderful innovation is happening in the Australian cheese industry. We can see that sometimes there are quality issues across the board because there’s a drought and cheesemakers can’t help that. We are in terrible drought situations at the moment and the dairy industry has been in crisis for a few years. It’s a way for me of getting a snapshot of what the local industry is about. And I suppose the selfish aspect of it is that I really get to hone my skills as a taster by participating in judging, there’s always something new to learn. We judge voluntarily, we don’t get paid to do it, but for me that’s what I get back.

What are you referring to when you mention cheese innovation?

Some products that were never made in Australia are now being made here. A really great example of this is burrata (note: burrata is mozzarella filled with cream and more shredded mozzarella - it’s as good as it sounds). Five years ago most people had never heard of it. When it started appearing in show judging a lot of judges had never come across it because they’re judges from factories in the industry, as opposed to cheese mongers like myself. 

Part of innovation is embracing new products from around the world and recreating them here. The other side of innovation is coming up with products that are unique; they might be inspired by European cheese and in some respects, incorporating native Australian ingredients. I can give you two examples.

There’s the Bruny Island Cheese Company from Tasmania which is pretty iconic. This is not a new product for them, but one of their cheeses (a washed rind called 1792 - the year the French set foot in Tasmania) they mature on a little slab of Huon pine. That is something that is so uniquely Tasmanian. We know how aromatic the pine is and that aroma really comes through to the cheese. There’s this other wonderful producer in Adelaide with a very unromantic name called Section 28. They incorporate crushed Tasmanian pepper berries through their Monte Diavolo cheese. It’s amazing and to have that showcase of an Australian native ingredient, there’s nothing else like it in the world. 

HOW'S THE SERENITY?:  Sonia Cousins at Pork Ewe Deli in Cooks Hill. She's a total cheese geek. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

HOW'S THE SERENITY?: Sonia Cousins at Pork Ewe Deli in Cooks Hill. She's a total cheese geek. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Why visit a specialty cheese store?

You walk in and see a whole lot of strange names and it’s probably why the most common request is for a brie and a cheddar. That’s simply because they’re within people’s comfort zone - of their knowledge, of what they taste like. It’s safe and they don’t have to feel silly trying to pronounce something that they’re going to get wrong. And really what it means is, I want a soft cheese and a hard cheese but they’re the only ones I know the names of. We tend to try and get people to just step sideways from those.

Our job is to make them feel comfortable and satisfied with what they’ve bought. We’re not just cheese mongers, we’re dinner party fixers, we’re often relationship menders, we put a smile on people’s faces. It’s pretty hard not to walk into a cheese shop and not have a smile on your face.

Sonia Cousins, cheese queen, sits down to a plate of three cheeses. What’s on it?

It would be different every single time. I would start with something fresh and tangy, so maybe something made with goat’s milk. I really love firm sheep’s milk cheeses (manchego, pecorino or something from the Basque region). And I really love washed rind cheeses. I have to admit I could probably live my life without urging for a brie or camembert, I’m happy to eat it, but I would probably never choose it. For me the washed rind is where it’s at. Something about the complexity, the pungency and those rich umami flavours. 

You’ve been known to pair cheese with beer - sacre blergh! Is that legal?

Seriously, wine and cheese is so last century. I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. There is absolutely still a place for cheese and wine pairing, but I think it’s not that the cheese has changed over the last decade, it’s that we now have incredible craft beers. We’ve now got so much more to play with and it’s the bubbles in beer as well as the flavour that gives it that extra dimension. Cheese is very rich, with high fat and high protein that often leaves your mouth quite coated, and so a beverage with bubbles cleanses your palate and it almost refreshes it and makes you want to enjoy more. It applies also to sparkling wine or water for non-drinkers.

We’ve cracked the neck on a big red wine on a cold night. What would go well with it? 

A fairly bold cheese - a vintage cheddar. Quince paste has its place, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. With a vintage cheddar, I really love muscatels. With hard cheese I generally don’t have crackers or bread, I just eat a wedge on its own. I believe cheese needs nothing but a knife to serve it with. However I do concede that it can be uncouth to lick a soft cheese off a knife, so you might want to have some other vehicle for that; bread always being the preference because it’s very neutral and often the yeasty characters will really complement the flavours of the cheese. You want to let the cheese shine.

What’s the Grange equivalent in the cheese world?

There are your classics. There are proper camembert from Normandy - it is almost extinct now because they just loosened the regulations. There is Rocquefort (pronounced rock-fore) of course, there’s Parmegiano-Reggiano, there’s Stilton from the UK. These are the cheese royalty and they are absolutely benchmarks and absolutely unique. You know it’s going to be of a particular standard every single time you buy it. 

So Italy and France have their classics, but have we created any curd gold in Australia?

We have! There are two cheeses that are uniquely Australian. One is club cheese. The first example of it was Mersey Valley cheese, created in the 1960s in Tasmania. It’s basically cheddar, and often Swiss cheese or gouda or edam that is shredded and milled and recombined. It’s not processed, it’s just a secondary stage in the production. It’s what gives it that incredibly smooth melt-in-your-mouth texture and that tangy flavour. That is an Australian invention and there is club-style cheese everywhere now. 

The other is marinated feta or Persian-style feta. It was created in Victoria in the late 1980s. There are two iconic brands - Yarra Valley Dairy Persian feta. They were the first to call it that. And then there’s Meredith marinated goat’s cheese in the little jar that’s really popular. It’s a style that’s being copied around the world.

Any Hunter heroes we should be trying?

All local producers are doing really good things. A standout includes the goat’s milk log from Binnorie Dairy. It’s best in spring and autumn, as is all goats cheese. 

It’s time for a toasted cheese sanger. What’s the best cheese for flavour and the mandatory melted stretch?

The best for flavour is a vintage cheddar. You don’t have to splurge on something from a specialty cheese shop, you can get fantastic vintage cheddars in the supermarket, such as Bega Strong and Bitey. It is always in my fridge. You get a lovely bitey tang. For stretch you want to go with Emmental or provolone or even mozzarella. They don’t have a lot of flavour, but they do stretch. Then you want to add something else in there, add a gruyere. A gruyere or Comte brings a roundness and nuttiness and it’s halfway between flavoursome and melting. It’s the bridge between to two other extremes. Here’s another tip: grate the cheeses, don’t slice them. You get a much more even melt and stretch. And always put your butter on the outside for crunch.

We all love our Tupperware, but what’s the ideal way to store your cheese? 

Definitely in a plastic container with a lid, preferably a loose fitting lid. What you’re trying to do is create a little humidicrib for the cheese. If you take your cheese home and it is in a piece of plastic, unwrap it and re-wrap it in baking paper. Pop it in the container with the lid, but not totally airtight. 

How long will that last in our fridge?

If it’s a whole cheese, say a camembert, keep it until it’s best before date, because that’s when it’s actually at its best. It should really mean ‘best on’. If it’s cut it’s not going to mature any further. If it’s a cut piece of soft cheese or blue cheese, you definitely want to eat it within a week. The harder the cheese, the longer it lasts. But you really want to eat cheese as quickly as possible. 

You say if it’s uncut it keeps maturing. What’s happening in our fridge behind closed doors?

With your whole camembert, the proteins are continuing to break down to reach that ooey-gooey texture that we want. We don’t want it to be chalky and hard inside. It is still a living breathing product. That fluffy white mould on the outside is doing all the breaking down of the protein. That best before date is an indication of when it will reach peak ripeness. Eat it on that date. Notoriously, supermarkets sell cheese about six weeks before it’s best before date. When it’s two days before the best before date, not only is it perfectly, ripe, it’s usually half the price. Don’t feel like you’re getting a dud cheese, you’re actually getting a bargain. 

What’s the weirdest cheese you’ve ever eaten?

I was at a rare cheese festival in Italy in 2009 and I tasted this Bulgarian sheep’s cheese that is matured inside a sheep’s carcass for a year. I did taste it and I don’t ever need to taste it again but I can tick that off my list. It was extremely piquant, very spicy, very ammoniated, pretty extreme. There was another one I tried to taste. It was a Sardinian sheep’s cheese matured with fly larvae in it, but I couldn’t find it. It’s on the bucket list of every serious cheese geek.