“Making a spectacle of yourself”

12 July 2016, 09:06 am
Cheese Talk by Juliet Harbutt

Until a few weeks ago I was feeling rather smug about my moved to New Zealand, basking in a four month-long near-drought with autumn temperatures rarely falling below 20ºC

But when I saw a tweet showing Charles Campion presenting prizes at the British Cheese Awards in May I realised the enormity of my move. I would never again have over 1,000 cheeses in my care that I could taste at my leisure. 

So I was very grateful to those who realised that after 21 years I was probably feeling a little bereft and sent emails, pictures and anecdotes of the judges, the judging and the dinner. All in all I am glad I was here when they were taking place as it would be a bit like turning up at your ex-husband’s wedding!

Apart from that and a bout of nostalgia and hanky waving brought on by the nativity episode of the Vicar of Dibley, I am loving New Zealand and Hawke’s Bay. It’s like living in Provence without the tourists or Tuscany without the traffic. Cool winters, sea breezes and long, warm summers make it a haven for fruit and vegetables alike. Since I arrived I have attempted to eat my weight in avocados and figs, visit as many of the wineries as possible and climb the highest peak, and have cooked up the biggest quince I have ever seen.

Down country where I am, there aren’t the variety of places to eat as many are only open in summer or at weekends, and oh I miss my village pub and farm shops – they don’t have either in New Zealand! But what they do really well, especially the cafés, bakeries, cake shops and café-delis is to display their food superbly (except cheese and charcuterie). The shop designs, colours and layouts are dynamic and feel very modern compared with the UK. Everything, from muffins to Marmite straws, looks fresh, appealing, elegant and classy, and their signage, though rarely very informative, is fun, funky and tempts you to try new things.

I realised last week what it is about these shops that has this impact: the refrigerated display units. I was doing some research for a client who wants to create a spectacular cheese counter; we were looking at the various possibilities and I was absolutely blown away. They are so sexy, cool and stylish. Some of the best are created in New Zealand but most are made to order in China then shipped around the world. 

I have always struggled with the clumpy, dated serve-over counters in the UK and advised retail clients to look to Europe and French cheese shops for ideas and designs, but most have been very reluctant to change. As a major feature of any deli or farm shop, they should be eye catching and impressive and make a statement about you and what you want to achieve rather than being just a practical way of displaying what you sell. Plus the old-style counters are awkward to clean, difficult to restock and make stock control harder than it needs to be.

So if you are opening a new business or looking at upgrading the design and layout of your shop, please look at some of the amazing refrigeration units now available across Europe. Think of them as a piece of art! They are modern, look sophisticated, look after the product well and come in every shape, size, height and style imaginable. They will completely transform the look of your food and your shop.

But there has to be a downside to cabinets and living in paradise, I guess, and I blame the sexy counters for my gaining not losing weight since I landed in this fresh foodie heaven. Plus, NZ still hasn’t had the anti-plastic grape revolution. But the thing I find hardest to get used to over here is the price of cheese!

The local cheeses are jaw droppingly expensive – I can understand Manchego being £45/kg as it has come a long way, but some locally-produced cheese is almost as expensive as the imported cheeses. I haven’t yet got to the bottom of the real reason but adding 17% “VAT” tax to all food and books certainly doesn’t help. Hopefully that is something our UK government, regardless as to whether we stay in the EU or not, will never introduce. And having campaigned in the UK for five years to raise the profile and understanding of the value and importance of the PDO system, I am at a loss to know how can call cheeses over here Parmesan, Emmental or Gruyère etc. when they are appalling replicates and made with milk that tastes the same from Northland to Bluff, but I am on the case.

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