Say cheese and smile

EDUCATOR: Michael Matsis at his cheesemaking business, Zany Zeus, in Lower Hutt.
EDUCATOR: Michael Matsis at his cheesemaking business, Zany Zeus, in Lower Hutt.

Parmesan, gouda and chevre. Gruyere, cheddar and stilton. Roquefort, ricotta, camembert, provolone. Velvety paneer. Crumbly feta. Buttery emmenthal. A yielding, musty brie. Who'd have thought a lump of coagulated milk fat could be so delicious, in such a marvellous multiplicity of ways?

Cheese is my favourite food in the world. No matter what the question, it's entirely possible that a tasty morsel of cheese is the answer, though cheese raises a few new questions of its own.

For example, why isn't more of a fuss made of cheese, given the boundless pleasure it affords the wider community? Why aren't fetching bronze statues erected in public squares throughout the land, immortalising the noble cheesemakers behind such indigenous culinary marvels as Mahoe Farmhouse old edam, Clevedon Valley buffalo mozzarella, Karikaas leyden, Kapiti kikorangi blue or Zany Zeus halloumi?

Where are the enduring representations of dairy products in contemporary literature? As British poet and novelist G K. Chesterton once wrote, "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." He was dead right; after all, what better subject for poetic reveries than a slice of pear topped with glorious blue-veined Gorgonzola, or a few chalky slivers of aged ewe's milk pecorino scattered with walnuts and drizzled with manuka honey?

At least cheese gets its due in my household. I eat it, cook with it, dream about it, rhapsodise it to the rafters. I said to my daughter the other day that I loved cheese so much, I wanted to marry it. She replied that I was already married to her mother, and besides, "marrying food would be weird."

She's right, of course. But a life without cheese would surely be a wasted life. No man-made food is as emotionally satisfying, as protein-packed, as pungent and toothsome, as historically fascinating and deliciously diverse.

Consequently, it seemed Christmas had come early when I was contacted two weeks ago by Zany Zeus, a family business of Cypriot artisan cheesemakers based in Wellington.

With humble beginnings 12 years ago in a run-down old garage in inner-city Hataitai, the company now has a flash dairy operation in Lower Hutt, supplying stores and restaurants around the country with products made from organic milk and cream.

Astutely discerning from my tubby column pic that I was a man with an affection for cheese, some bright spark from Zany Zeus emailed me, getting straight to the point. Could I write a little something about them if they sent out a gift basket to some lucky reader?

The cheek of it. What an outrageous suggestion! Bugger the readers, I said. Send that cheese to me! Two days later, a chilled polystyrene box arrived by courier and for the past two weeks I have been working my way through a world of cheese.

I can confirm that the Zany Zeus "classic feta" is bracingly briney and perfect for a punchy spanakopita, while their "creamy feta" has the kind of silky mouth-feel I've been craving ever since I was forcibly separated from the maternal breast. There's also a version with added chilli that I used to add a little wallop to a Greek salad.

I almost cried with joy as I stuffed my face with their famous halloumi, a traditional brined cheese garnished with fresh mint leaves and folded back on itself in the Cypriot style. With its faint lemony tang, this can't be beaten raw with slices of fresh watermelon or tomato.

Better still, lightly pan-fry, lay on a slice of crusty sourdough then squeeze over a wedge of lemon. Consume immediately. Die with pleasure. Repeat.

At Zany Zeus, they also like to set fire to things.

Where lesser cheesemakers merely paint on a chemical flavouring, these guys built a smokehouse out the back of their factory where they labour away over smouldering manuka chips to lend an authentically nutty, wood-cured flavour to smoked ricotta, smoked paneer, smoked brinza, and an oddly addictive smoked yoghurt that's superb with a little crashed garlic stirred through it as a sauce for lamb kofta.

When I emailed the company back to say how much I'd enjoyed their generous dairy bribe, they wrote back saying they were still keen to dispatch a wee pre-Christmas gift basket to one lucky reader of this column.

I suggested they just send another one my way, but no; they were adamant the next cheese parcel had to go to a member of the public. So, whoever sends the most entertaining cheese-related poem, anecdote or love letter to my email address over the coming week will get the prize.

Sunday Star Times