Since 1981, a pioneering Dutch immigrant has been developing a distinctive New Zealand style of cheese, and now the world is starting to sit up and take notice. But for Albert Alferink, he’s just doing what he’s good at: working.
Waikato: home of the Tron, the mighty river, Hobbiton, Waikato Draught and Jacinda Ardern.
The region is also home, of course, to acre upon acre of lush green grass that’s munched by cows who produce milk that is, or so we’re told, the backbone of the nation.
Yes, dairying. But put Fonterra and Big Dairy out of your mind for a minute. Instead, meet a 67-year-old Dutchman named Albert, who for 37 years has been turning small amounts of Waikato milk into world-class cheese. From the humble factory he built himself at his home in Onewhero, south of Tuakau, Albert Alferink makes Dutch-style cheese with milk from the cows at the neighbouring farm. He and his wife Ineke sell that cheese at their shop in Mercer, which gives the business its name, Mercer Cheese.
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The most lauded of Alferink’s cheese was until recently known as vintage gouda. Gouda, of course, is a style of hard cheese that the Dutch have been making for a thousand years or so (and FYI, it’s pronounced closer to gow-da than goo-da). New Zealand cheesemakers produce very good gouda by adapting the Dutch recipe to our environment.
But the thing is, New Zealand gouda is quite different to its Dutch counterpart. Some even dare say better. It all comes down to that wonderful milk, which in turn comes down to the cows and all that lovely grass they eat. (In the Netherlands, cows spend much of their time in barns rather than on pasture.)
James Thomas, a former cheesemaker who now sells the stuff through his company New Zealand Cheese, says Kiwi gouda is cleaner tasting than the Dutch variety. “What Albert has done has helped to define what a group of Dutch cheesemakers now produce in New Zealand. This category of gouda-style cheeses are world class and have become internationally unique,” he says.
Alferink was, as far as he knows, the first Dutch cheesemaker in Aotearoa, starting out in 1981. A few years later he was joined in the Waikato by Ben Meyer, who, despite being an experienced cheesemaker at home in Holland, initially struggled with the very different New Zealand milk. Alferink was happy to offer advice and Meyer Cheese is now as highly regarded as Mercer. Around the same time came the likes of Karikaas in the south and Mahoe in the north, all making excellent Dutch-style cheese in New Zealand.
Since late last year, Thomas has been exporting Alferink’s cheese to Australia, where it’s distributed by a big company that sells $50 million worth of cheese a year. When he first approached the Aussies with the Mercer Vintage Gouda, they loved the cheese but not the name. Why buy a Dutch cheese made in New Zealand, of all places?
They had a point. So the name was changed to, quite simply, Waikato. “For Australia it will be an excellent name, Waikato cheese. It probably sounds New Zealand,” says Alferink. “And it is Waikato, we are in the Waikato. It’s quite true.”
Thomas wants other cheesemakers in the region to adopt the Waikato name, and for it eventually to become as recognisable as comté, camembert or, indeed, gouda (which, incidentally, is named for the city where it was first traded, rather than made), and protected in a similar way to cheeses under the French AOC system.
“We should be showing the world the product that Albert makes, because what you’re really showing the world is how good our milk is,” says Thomas. “We’ve made fantastic milk, that’s the only way to make good cheese. Try our good cheese – surely that enhances the $15 billion worth of dairy we sell to the world.”
Now the world, or at least some of it, is discovering how good Albert’s cheese is. The first shipment of the addictive, caramelly Mercer Vintage Waikato, packed with those amazing crunchy crystals that characterise long-aged hard cheeses, went to Australia in November. In that same month, the cheese was awarded a bronze medal at the World Cheese Awards held in Norway, among a field of 3500 cheeses from around the globe. Two more shipments have since gone to Australia, adding up to more than a tonne in total, and the cheese has been very well received, says Thomas.
Mercer Cheese produces around 15-20 varieties but when The Spinoff visited late last year, it was all about the Vintage Waikato. The three-year-aged cheese is made from around September-October until December, when the milk has less fat in it than later in the season, which means it matures well.
It’s a difficult cheese to produce. “The longer you age it, the more precise it has to be made,” explains Alferink.
These days, most of the hard labour is done by his right-hand man, Thomas Fredrickson, under Alferink’s watchful eye. When we arrive, the curd is being cut and stirred in a 50-year-old vat imported from Holland. It formed after the milk was heat-treated, using water heated by a furnace, and then bacteria and rennet was added. Next up the whey will be drained off and the curd pressed and put into moulds. The resulting wheels will be salted in brine and then go onto racks to mature. For the flavoured cheeses, additions like cumin, nettle or truffle are added to the vat.
Alferink converted a shed into the cheese factory in 1993, building most of it himself. “With a little business like this, you do whatever you can yourself,” he says in typical humble fashion. “At one stage I thought I would learn refrigeration but that’s too complicated, like electricity. I’m not good at electricity. Carpentry, I’m OK.” He’s a man of few words, but opens up a little once he gets to know you.
Albert Alferink first came to New Zealand in 1973. He trained as a forest ranger in the Netherlands, but says he’d wanted to move away since he was 14. He was initially thinking about Canada, but met a New Zealander who told him there were plenty of forestry jobs going over here. Before he left he’d secured a job at the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua but had to do his military service first. “I loved the forestry study – it’s nature, so much in the bush. Now I know it was more that I wanted to be on my own, I didn’t want to be in big groups of people.”
Alferink came out under the assisted immigration scheme, meaning the government paid for his travel. “I arrived at the airport at 10 o’clock at night and they gave me $10 and a ticket for a motel.”
He stayed for a year before returning to the Netherlands, but came back to New Zealand in 1977, this time to work as a share milker. It didn’t work out – he says people wanted either someone they knew or a married couple to live on and work their farms – so he went back home again in 1979. This time he worked for a year in a cheese factory, learning what would become his lifeblood.
The wanderlust wasn’t out of his system, and he yearned to return to New Zealand. He wrote a letter to the authorities to inquire about making cheese here. “I’ve still got the letter back from MAF. It said yes, it would be possible, but extremely expensive to do so. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s typical bureaucracy’,” he recalls. “I wasn’t really thinking of starting a cheese business here, all I was thinking of was getting a job as a cook on a sheep farm. I thought they would have some cows for the milk and, ‘oh, they might have too much milk, I can make cheese with that’.”
He did end up working on a farm but found it a lonely existence, and figured if he made cheese instead, he could open a shop to sell it and meet people.
“I leased some land in 1981 and got two cows. I had a little vat. I milked them once a day and made the cheese after milking.” That was the beginning of Mercer Cheese. For the first couple of years, Alferink had a van which he drove around the district, plying his wares.
Over time he expanded to 10 cows, then 20, then moved to another farm and was soon making 100kg of cheese a day. “I left home at 5 o’clock in the morning and went to the factory to get things ready. I loved working. By that time I had opened a shop and at 3 o’clock, I met people to sell my own products. It was very exciting.”
Alferink had been making his cheese how it had always been done in the Netherlands: with raw, unpasteurised milk. The ageing process means it’s nigh on impossible for any bacteria to survive by the time the cheese is eaten – this kind of cheese was invented for that very reason, to preserve milk safely. MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) knew what he was doing – they were buying a sample each month to test, he says. But MAF controlled only the manufacture of cheese. The sale of it was under the auspices of what was then the Department of Health and its area health boards.
He got away with it for five years, surviving a visit from a health inspector in 1983. “He asked what I was doing. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I learnt it in Holland’. But the same inspector returned in 1986. “He said, ‘You’re doing it as you should do it, aren’t you Mr Alferink?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m making it from raw milk because it’s better’. Then he said you have to close the factory. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to close the factory.’ He said then you’ll come with the police. He said they’ll be there in six weeks.”
Exactly six weeks later, the police turned up with the medical officer of health for the region and told him to close the shop. The TV news cameras came too. “I said ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Orders from Wellington’. I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do. I’m not going to fight the police’. I let him go in and they took my cheese away. They stored it for six weeks in a cool room in Manukau and then I got a letter that I had to go to court in Huntly to pay $6000 storage costs for those cheeses. They took it to the dump later on – it was about four tonnes of cheese.”
As it turned out, the judge at court in Huntly let him off with a $250 fine for obstructing the health department. “At the end, the judge said ‘I don’t understand this case at all. After all, I buy my cheese there every week.’ After a month or two he came into the shop and said, ‘Didn’t I do well!’”
It took Alferink six months to get back on his feet, this time having invested in a pasteuriser. Dealing with the authorities has continued to cause headaches, however. “In 1990 I had to go under the regulations [Food Safety Act 1990] and things became harder and harder… I’ve got to pay thousands of dollars a year to get inspected.
“It’s so much stress for me.”
The costly struggles small-scale cheesemakers face in order to comply with New Zealand’s stringent food safety regulations have been well-documented, and in response to the the campaign spear-headed by the late Biddy Fraser-Davies of Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese, the government launched a new template for cheesemakers in May last year with the promise it would make things easier.
Alferink and Thomas believe it’s a step in the right direction, but will make more of a difference for cheesemakers starting out than those who have been in the business for years. “It’s crazy, Albert’s still jumping through these hoops 37 years into a career,” says Thomas. “No one knows more about producing gouda in this country than Albert. What sort of system doesn’t reward experience and track record?”
Both believe a lack of education for aspiring cheesemakers in New Zealand is a problem. The New Zealand Cheese School in Putaruru offers a range of short courses but it’s not enough, they say. “There’s nothing, really,” says Thomas, who started out as a cheesemaker in Europe before working with Alferink for two seasons. “You can get lucky and get a job with someone who knows what they’re doing – that’s your only education, doing it. Whereas in France they have universities where you just go and learn everything.”
After 37 years, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s not much else Alferink could learn, but he continues to challenge himself. While hard Dutch-style cheeses are his specialty, he dabbles in other varieties, and in 2000 studied how to make blue vein.
“I like doing new things. I’ve just been doing bacteria testing with plates, like they do in the laboratory. Anything I can develop and use. I think I just love making things with my hands. We’re always making things a little bit better.”
It’s about problem solving, he says. “When there’s a problem, when everything blows up or whatever, Albert comes alive,” agrees Ineke, his wife.
Ineke immigrated to New Zealand in 1990. “I wanted to be away from Holland for a year and my brother said why don’t you come to New Zealand, and I said OK,” she recalls. “I asked my brother if he knew of something I could do and he said yeah, I’ve got a friend who has a cheese shop and a cheese factory, maybe you can do something there.
“So I wrote Albert a letter very officially asking if he had work for me and yes, he did.”
She’s now a linchpin of the business, running the shop and acting as an affable foil to the more reserved Albert. They have two children, 25-year-old Inge, a teacher, and Henry, 26, who’s in scientific engineering.
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“We sometimes think, ‘What shall we do?’” says Alferink. “Our children might still want to do this but they have good careers as it is, so why not maybe sell it? But then our whole lives get really upset, what’s going to happen then?
“But the thing is I’m really lucky with Thomas [Fredrickson, his cheesemaker], otherwise we couldn’t do it. I love working with Thomas, and he loves making cheese here.”
He needs to keep a hand in to expend his energy, however, Alferink says. “I enjoy being good at getting my job done, and what comes out is the flavour.”
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.