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Twizel is not exactly where one expects to find top quality artisan cheese, but up Ben Ohau Road, just five minutes from the township, former radio broadcaster Matt Dunnicliff and his wife, Masterchef New Zealand finalist, Tracey Gunn, have launched small regional start-up, Ben Ohau Road Cheese.

Tracey grew up in hydro town and deep down they always knew they would return. After spending time living in Timaru and Dunedin, the pair followed their respective careers to Auckland where they stayed for almost a decade. Matt worked alongside some of the biggest names in radio as a broadcaster for RadioSport, while Tracey ran the histology laboratory at Auckland Hospital. “Auckland is a great place for professional people, but when you add a family to it, it’s not really where we wanted to be,” says Matt.

About fifteen years ago they took advantage of the reasonable land prices and bought some land about five minutes west of Twizel, and figured they would decide what to do with it when the time came. They tossed around several ideas. With a combined passion of food, the decision was easy following Tracey’s final three placing in the inaugural Masterchef New Zealand kitchen. Despite being eliminated from the show, Masterchef gave Tracey the validation in her cooking abilities she had been searching for, giving her the impetus to go out on her own.

“To start with it was a lifestyle change and it was about finding what would allow us to do that. It was a nice place and a nice change. But while a big part of it was the change in career, it was also a huge change in ideas and about having more time to do what we want. We wanted to be completely off the grid; we make our own solar power and have our own water,” says Matt.

When daughter Mackenzie was two, the pair took the plunge, and relocated south to Twizel establishing Ben Ohau Road Cheese, a small artisan cheese factory in a repurposed shipping container, alongside the The Rusty Halo cafe.

With Tracey focusing on producing all the crackers, jellies, chutneys and dressings to accompany the cheese in between her day job running the cafe at the High Country Salmon Farm, Matt took on the role of resident cheese maker.

Matt had been making cheese at home for about six years prior to the move. Initially inspired by an article about cheese making in a magazine, he did a short course in Auckland and then started feverishly making cheese. At the 2008 New Zealand Champion of Cheese Awards, he picked up a silver medal for his soft cheese and a bronze medal for his firm cheese in the amateur section. “I was definitely being drawn in that direction. It’s something I really enjoy. I bought a lot of books and started experimenting more and more,” he says.

From the outset, their goal was to produce new cheeses, rather than simply copying the same old ones. “We wanted to create our own unique cheeses. I didn’t want people to have a certain expectation with a name, so we came up with our own individual names. It’s just a little bit easier than being judged against the world’s best cheeses,” says Matt.

After much trial and error they eventually settled on creating three, very different, signature cheeses — Aorangi Tangi, a soft, sour curd cheese similar to labneh; Ohaulloumi, a softer version of a traditional haloumi; and Waitaki Welsh, a soft and crumbly style of Caerphilly cheese. More recently they have also started making Ben Ohau Blue, a traditional blue cheese, and in time, he’s not ruling out adding others to his repertoire.

Matt buys in pasteurised milk, hand-making small batches at a time. Each cheese is made on different days. Although they’re able to celebrate the subtle differences in the milk during the season because so many of their customers are trying it for the very first time, he says the key has been ensuring he’s able to replicate the same wonderful products despite a host of varying factors which have the potential to affect every batch. With no climate control or automation, everything relies on manual control.

At the start, it was incredibly important to have detailed notes through the entire process, but as time has gone on, Matt’s experience has grown. “Now we can see things going wrong before they happen; we make them the same way every time. I don’t mind the differences. They are always going to taste similar, but there will be small differences all through the season.”

When they were first starting out, Matt and Tracey spent nearly every weekend traipsing off to farmers’ markets in Geraldine and Timaru, as well as attending some in Central Otago, alongside A&P shows and general markets. It was a hard graft.

“Geographically, it’s three hours in any direction. There was a lot of traveling, but even then there wasn’t the people. The travel started to add up, and economically it didn’t add up. You can only say it’s good for promotion for so long when you’re losing money every time you drive out the gate. But on the upside, we met lots of people and many opportunities arose because of it.”

Today, their quirky shipping container-come-cheese room has become a haven for cheese enthusiasts, tourists travelling through and locals alike. If Matt’s at home, chances are the cheese room is open, where you can try one of their delectable cheese boards accompanied by some of Tracey’s divine complementary condiments while soaking in the spectacular mountain views chatting with people from all over the world.

And while visitor numbers remain small, Matt says business is growing all the time. “Just the general numbers of people travelling through the Mackenzie Country is on the rise, meaning there are more and more smaller businesses like us starting up. I think it has kind of snuck up on people. Six years ago that wasn’t really here; no wonder it was hard. We really haven’t had to do anything more, just had to still be here.

“We are not after bus loads of people, but the people who make the effort to come out here are coming here for what we are doing. It’s a much better captive audience [than at the markets]. More than 90 per cent of those that visit, buy something, where you were lucky if it was 5 per cent at the markets,” he explains.

Despite their recent success though, Matt has no desire to take it to the next level running a small herd of dairy cows. “Economically it wouldn’t add up. We could run our own animals, but it would add 100% of the cost for the amount of cheese that we make. We don’t want to be big, but making cheese is time consuming. It still takes the same amount of time to make 100kg as it does to make a tonne.”

Matt has also ruled out moving into supermarkets. “We just don’t want to be part of it. If we sell it in the supermarket it’s all wholesale, whereas tourists are all retail. That’s where the money is.” He estimates probably 95 per cent of their business comes from tourists, while just 5 per cent is through local return customers.

“It’s not about the money,” says Matt. “We don’t necessarily want more people. We just want to make enough to live here and do what we want to do. I had a reasonably successful career, but it just didn’t mean that much to me. I don’t think you need a huge amount as long as you’re happy doing what you’re doing. And we’re really enjoying it. We have not missed it as much as we thought we would.”

Aside from being sold on-site, their cheese is also available at both the HighCountry Salmon and Aoraki Mt Cook Salmon farm shops, is on the menu at a number of restaurants, and is sent all over the country.

Although they have dropped the weekend markets, Matt and Tracey are available for small events and outside catering. In the future they hope to expand into accommodation and possibly offering cheese making courses, but in the meantime, they hope to get started on building their own house as, until now, every cent has been poured into the business. Not that anyone is complaining though.

[ WORDS AND IMAGES Annie Studholme ]