Finest Cheddar, Made Better

Cheese as a metaphor for the New Zealand economy.

Listener: 11 December, 2010.

Keywords: Growth & Innovation; Political Economy & History;

Our first cheese was probably made shortly after Samuel Marsden brought cows to New Zealand. For most of the 19th century, cheese was made on farms for local supply. Before export refrigeration, which began in 1882, a little was sent overseas, mainly to Australia; some was sneaked across the equator in heavily insulated boxes.

Given the British heritage, it was almost all hard cheese – like cheddar – eaten mainly with bread. The cookbooks of the era have few recipes involving cheese, although the better-off had a cheese “savoury” or a cheeseboard towards the end of a main meal.

The cheddar tradition was reinforced by the British market, which took most of our cheese exports. Sold in bulk by auction in London’s Tooley St, the cheese had to be of a standard quality. Cheese-making shifted from farms to factories (although apparently some farm production continued into the 1930s). At first these were run by co-operatives and private enterprises, but the former eventually dominated. The first co-operatives were local farmers banding together to pool their on-farm production.

For most New Zealanders, cheese was cheddar, until well after the World War II. But the world was changing. Soldiers brought back memories of different cheeses they had eaten on the European continent, as did the occasional overseas travellers. Immigrants brought new traditions, too, especially the Dutch.

The first producer of speciality cheeses may have been the rennet factory in Eltham. (New Zealand blue vein was one of its earliest.) A Whanganui friend recalls his father bringing back a tray of them in the late 1950s, and his mother – a champion cook – not being sure what to do with the variety. When a Dutch immigrant persuaded his Whakatane factory to make some soft cheese, they found no market, not even in “sophisticated” Auckland of the early 1960s.

In the late 1960s, import controls were withdrawn on pasteurised cheeses to help create a domestic taste for them, with the expectation they would ultimately be supplied locally – a nice illustration of how interventions can inhibit innovation. Cheese bars featuring imports appeared in upmarket shops in the 1970s. Today supermarkets have them; I counted over 100 varieties in mine.

An important step was the founding in the 1980s of Kapiti Cheeses, which today makes more than 50 varieties of its own. It was established at Lindale, just north of Wellington on a tourist route and close to many people with overseas experience who had already met non-cheddar cheeses. Today we have over 30 specialist cheese-makers; some of the milk they use comes from buffalos, goats and sheep.

Cheese might be a metaphor for the New Zealand economy, developing from subsistence to commercial production and becoming a example of a bulk commodity export based on “processed grass”. Specialty cheeses nicely straddle the divide between those who think our future will be more dependent on farm-sector exports and those who think innovation is the way to go. We export over a billion dollars of wine a year – why not specialty cheeses?

Fonterra, which already exports over $1 billion a year of “ingredient cheese” bound for the processing kettle, says it would like to get closer to consumers, creating more value for them and New Zealand farmers. But overseas markets are usually protected to favour local producers, limiting imports to cheese for processing, and restricting their consumers from having access to our cheese. After 60 years of trade liberalisation, the dairy market remains one of the world’s worst protected disgraces. (Sugar is the other.)

Former French President Charles de Gaulle suggested it was impossible to govern a country that had 246 types of cheese; once a very centralised New Zealand just made cheddar. Does the increasing diversification of cheeses mean New Zealand is becoming ungovernable? Our cheese styles are not regionally based as in France, but we might ponder whether the postwar diversification of lifestyles, which the diversity of cheeses illustrates, suggests a rising social heterogeneity, which is making the traditional form of centralised government in New Zealand increasingly difficult. MMP is one response; the greater use of the market another.