Woman who changed NZ's cheese culture

JAMIE SMALL
Last updated 11:15 18/05/2014
Sue Arthur
Nick Reed/Fairfax NZ

BIG CHEESE: Sue Arthur has reformed her life and led a revolution in New Zealand artisan cheesemaking.

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People have been making cheese for longer than they have been recording history. It is a food surrounded by tradition, brought to New Zealand from England, Holland, France, Italy and further afield.

But at Over The Moon Dairy Company, it's all about breaking traditions and bringing something new to the world of cheese.

The company is on State Highway 1 in Putaruru, and in its six-year history it has picked up 75 medals and 13 trophies at national and international cheesemaking competitions, many for new types of cheese.

"The thing that really sets us apart I think is our innovation. And our huge interest in having a play in the factory and seeing what we can come up with," says director Sue Arthur.

As well as a factory and deli, the company has in-house training facilities, the New Zealand Cheese School, which attracts cheesemakers from all over the world.

Arthur always liked cheese, but it wasn't until she travelled to Europe in the 70s that her eyes were opened to the hundreds of varieties available.

She couldn't understand how New Zealand could call itself a dairying nation when the supermarket's cheese supply didn't extend much beyond 1kg blocks of cheddar and colby.

"Even way back then when I wasn't even thinking that I'd have a cheesemaking business, I was thinking ‘where's New Zealand in all of this? Come on, what are we doing?'."

In 1998 Arthur, then a local-body administrator, got divorced and started thinking about a lifestyle change.

"I thought ‘well if I don't get this business up and running now I'm never going to'. So, at the age of 52, I bought this building and I gutted it."

The business opened in January 2008. Arthur says her biggest achievement so far has been surviving the recession.

"Honestly, two months after I started, the recession happened in New Zealand, and the first few years were really challenging. I think a lot of people would have just walked away."

But Over The Moon kept trucking on, and won an award at the end of the first year.

Soon, the awards were rolling in, including two trophies for best in class at the World Champion Cheese Contest in Wisconsin in 2010.

But awards don't make a successful business. Arthur says a combination of good business and good customers got her through the global financial crisis.

"The first thing is that the locals are really supportive, but you could never run a business like this just on the local business. The reason I'm here on the highway is because you get passing traffic. Most of our visitors to the deli are actually visitors passing through the town."

Most of the company's sales are wholesale to deli chains and restaurants.

Arthur was frustrated at first by the lack of education and information for cheesemakers. She needed to upgrade her technical skills but couldn't find anywhere in the country that provided the training.

So she went to Australia to get educated. It was there that she met Neil Willman, the man who trained most of Australia's cheesemakers.

Willman helped out with the cheese school, and went back and forth to Australia several times.

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"Then Sue and I got together personally. I had the choice of commuting back and forth or change the focus of my work and life over here, and just go back to Australia from time to time to work."

He's now a partner in the cheese school business, which trains around 20 students in its professional courses each year.

Arthur says the company's advantage is its freedom from tradition. Over the Moon's cheesemakers are constantly developing new types of cheese. At one stage they produced 35 different cheeses.

"I can get up one day and go ‘Why don't we mix up buffalo and goat's milk and see what happens?' Whereas in Europe, it would be difficult for them to be able to even think that way."

This innovative approach to cheese - and business - is what sets Over the Moon apart as a top artisan producer.

- Waikato

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