As Fonterra’s new Lead Cheese Maker at the Co-op’s Bridge Street site in Eltham, Taranaki, Cathy says she’s fascinated by the cheese making process.
“From the interactions between the milk, starter cultures, moulds and enzymes to the magic of maturation. To me it’s the perfect blend of science and creativity,” says Cathy.
Cathy studied microbiology and biology at what was Waikato Polytechnic, and today it’s no exaggeration to say Cathy is a cheese expert. But her cheese journey didn’t begin until 2005, after more than 20 years working in veterinary science labs.
“I wanted to make a change and wanted to do something linked to dairy,” says Cathy. “I’ve always had an interest in cheese so I started researching how to make it. At that time there were no cheese making courses in New Zealand so I went to Australia for a farmhouse cheese making course at Melbourne University.”
Cathy then built her own ‘make’ and maturation rooms at her and husband Peter’s property near Pirongia in the Waikato and, after getting NZ Food Safety Authority approval, her business, Cloudy Mountain Cheese, was born.
Using milk from her next door neighbour’s Jersey and Guernsey cows, Cathy made about 20 different varieties which she sold to restaurants and at farmers’ markets, winning several local and international awards over the seven years she ran the business.
But while she really loved her job, it was a seven day a week operation, which made it difficult for her and Peter to indulge their passion for exploring the world and visit their two children, who live in the Netherlands and Dubai.
So in 2014, Cathy joined Fonterra, starting out in the chemistry lab at Te Rapa before moving into the Cheese & Spreads New Product Development Team. She describes her new role as her ideal job.
As well as trouble shooting, training colleagues, providing technical expertise and trialling new products, she’s in charge of Fonterra’s entries in cheese competitions, making sure Fonterra’s cheeses are in tip top shape before being put to the test.
She’s also involved in fostering the next generation of potential cheese makers, recently partnering with Massey University and Venture Taranaki (part of the Government’s Curious Minds Science Programme) to teach Hawera High School students how to make blue cheese.
“Some of the students were a bit squeamish about seeing their cheese ‘grow’ and many of them didn’t realise that cheese was a ’live’ product. But it’s great to be able to encourage their interest and hopefully those who might pursue a career in food technology will come back to work here in Taranaki.”
Cathy sees a bright future for New Zealand cheese, with our blue cheeses in particular proving to be a big hit in the growing US market. And in her new role, she’s keen to help Fonterra expand its range of cheeses.
“We used to make a lot more varieties in the late 80s and early 90s” she says, “so it would be nice to revisit some of those as well as introduce more unique New Zealand cheeses to our cheese lovers.”