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Alexandrina Cheese

Photo by Dan Wood

Interview with – Rebekah McCaul of Alexandrina Cheese Company

The McCaul family began making cheese in 1902. Third generation Dan McCaul and his family are continuing the tradition of manufacturing premium quality cheeses in the purpose built factory at Mt. Jagged, South Australia. Working with traditional hand-press equipment, they are one of the few Australian cheese companies to exclusively use milk produced by their own herd of Jersey cows to create their products.

“My grandfather George, bought his first business about 30 seconds after stepping onto Australian soil.”

I love telling this story, it gives such an insight into his entrepreneurial spirit. Arriving in Australia from Poland in 1947, my grandfather stepped off the boat at Fremantle and walked up to a man selling watermelons from a wheelbarrow on the wharf. His intention was to buy one watermelon, but after handing over a pound note, the seller gave him the apron he was wearing and walked away from the entire barrow-load of fruit. My grandfather put the apron on and began selling to his fellow passengers, his first business launched!
Always with the ambition of owning his own dairy farm and providing a legacy for the family, he worked towards his goals and with my grandmother Kath, realised the dream. They purchased their first dairy farm and later with my father’s family, grew the business. Our whole family is involved now, our parents, my husband and I, we are all the custodians of this land and business.

“It was a family vision to move from purely dairy farming to making cheese.”

It was discussed around the kitchen table and due to the volatility of the wholesale milk market at the time, we were looking for solutions to grow and bring stability to our business. My father had always expressed his dream of making cheese and building a manufacturing and distribution business. There were many implications that involved gaining a whole new skill set in terms of cheesemaking, marketing and sales. It was a gradual 10 year process and we spent many family holidays travelling Australia looking at cheese factories. In consultation with key marketing, banking and architectural partners, we made the transition to making cheese in 1999. My parents studied cheese making in Queensland and with the already long history of cheese makers on my father’s side, it was a natural progression.

“We have our single herd supplying the milk for our cheeses and each cow has a name.”

We don’t buy any milk in, so we are probably unique here in South Australia because many other companies have external milk suppliers. I think having a single herd and having the ability to maintain their grass, their pasture and their food intake throughout the whole year is so important. We are able to retain quality control and consistency. It means we can guarantee beautiful and rich creamy milk for our cheeses. Our small herd of 80 Jersey cows has been consistent in its production from the beginning. Beyond providing the cows with the best of everything, our secret to success is that we name each one. We have families of cows with great names, like the rockstar family who include Madonna, Whitney and Kylie.

“It’s like a living museum inside the cheesery.”

There are many things we observe in terms of handmade cheese techniques, there are rituals that are quite specific, like clothing the Cheddars or taking the Gouda out of the hoops. Our vats are open cheese vats, so we have complete control over the curds working with our own hands. Some of the equipment is 100 years old. We don’t use a hydraulic press, we use a weighted press that is turned down by hand. It’s these traditions that are dear to us and really very beautiful. 

“We're proudly one of the only Australian producers making these types of cheese.”

We're making a traditional Dutch Edam, a Gouda, Romano, Pepato and have won the most prestigious Australian Grand Dairy Award for our bound, rinded English Cheddar. These Cheddars can take up to two years to mature and look so beautiful with their black rind. We conduct sensory analysis as the cheeses age, to determine the ripeness. We’ll cut at 6 months, then 12 months and release them into the store. In addition to aging, our team recognise the seasonal differences in cheese. That is the variations generated by winter or summer milk used in production. We put real effort into educating visitors when they come too, it’s fun and they’re fascinated by it all. 

“95% of our products are sold in South Australia.”

People living in a city environment don’t really have access to buying food from the person who grows it and gaining that connection to the farmers stories, gives meaning to the food. Our clients enjoy meeting the maker, they want to know exactly the provenance of where their food is sourced. We’ve built relationships over the last 15 years and have customers that have supported us from day one. We don’t sell too much interstate at this stage, we want to keep things contained, sustainable, we’re relatively low key. That said, we have been featured nationally, for example Matt Moran filmed for Paddock to Plate here. We’re the only producers of Edam on the mainland and he spent the day making the cheese here with Dad, that was great.

“I really do thank my grandfather for choosing this farm, it’s wet, muddy, cloudy, foggy and perfect.”

The weather can be really trying, but luckily we are in one of the wettest areas here in the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia. Yes, we’ve had dry years where it’s cost us in feed for the herd, the rainfall is so hard to predict, I guess the key really is our ability to manage through it.

“We proudly employ locally.”

We have fantastic staff, 16 at the last count and all worth their weight. It’s not easy finding and attracting people to such a remote area too, it’s been our biggest challenge.

“To think it all started with some rennet, a dash of culture, some Irish and some Polish.”

The future for us? Well, we have two sons here and although they are not obligated to join the business at all, they are growing up in an enterprise that is pretty magic. We have the cows in the paddock, the manufacturing side, the wholesale distribution business and then retail tourism which is growing and is pretty awesome.