Award-winning goat cheese Cilantro tucked away in the Waikato

Credit: Original article can be found here

Cilantro Cheese operations manager Suli Laomahei, and quality control officer Rehana Ponnal, with their goat cheese.

MARK TAYLOR/Waikato Times

Cilantro Cheese operations manager Suli Laomahei, and quality control officer Rehana Ponnal, with their goat cheese.

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Small is beautiful at Cilantro Cheese, a Hamilton company that is less well-known than some of the bigger names among Waikato cheesemakers.

But open a packet of Cilantro’s fresh chevre and any comparisons of size and profile melt away: the chevre is bright, tangy, creamy, and delicious, with maybe just a hint of lemon. It is Cilantro’s flagship goat’s cheese, made for the past 10 years in a factory tucked into Waikato Innovation Park, the former Ruakura Research campus.

The goat’s milk comes from a farm at Puketaha, just 15km from the factory, and the cheese is handmade by Cilantro operations manage and quality control officer Sulia Laomahei.

Chevre is Cilantro's flagship cheese.

MARK TAYLOR/Waikato Times

Chevre is Cilantro’s flagship cheese.

“It is not a production line here,” Laomahei says, as she talks through the process in the cheese room. “Each step of the way is the old-fashioned way. There is no machinery, it is batch-made and hand-packaged. I like that.”

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Tuesday is cheese-making day at Cilantro. The goat’s milk is collected from the farm, it is pasteurised on site, and it begins its slow passage from milk to curds, and finally to soft, spreadable chevre. It takes two days for the whey to drain from the moulds.

“We love seeing the end result,” Laomahei says.

She and Ponnal enjoy eating it, too. Laomahei uses the chevre on steak, as a creamy alternative to garlic butter, and Ponnal enjoys it best in a fresh salad. Also try it on crackers or toast triangles with a drizzle of honey (my favourite).

In the processing plant, “each step of the way is the old-fashioned way”.

MARK TAYLOR/Waikato Times

In the processing plant, “each step of the way is the old-fashioned way”.

Laomahei and Ponnal are more recent faces at Cilantro. The company was started by friends and colleagues Monica Senna Salerno and Jenny Oldham, then research scientists at AgResearch in Hamilton. They had been making cheese together as a hobby and, in 2011, it became a part-time business.

A few months after forming Cilantro, the pair entered their chevre in the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards. It was named the 2012 Champion Goat Cheese, praised by the judges for its citrus tang and silky texture. It was a huge coup for a fledgling company making goat’s cheese in the Waikato dairy heartland.

Oldham has since moved on from the business, and Rupert Soar, owner of the goat farm that has supplied Cilantro with milk from the start, has stepped into the partnership with Senna Salerno. She is on leave from Cilantro, but has trained her cheesemakers to her meticulous standards.

As well as the chevre, Laomahei and Ponnal make Cilantro’s distinctive cajeta, a caramelised goat’s milk, which is a Mexican specialty, a first cousin to the better known dulce de leche, the South American treat made with cows’ milk.

The company aims to grow off the back of exports.

MARK TAYLOR/Waikato Times

The company aims to grow off the back of exports.

The cajeta was developed by Senna Salerno and Oldham, and it is a sweet and luscious partner for a sharp salty cheese, or a strong blue.

Cilantro has expanded into neighbouring premises, and into other products besides cheese. It bottles and markets goat’s milk under its label, and also does contract bottling for sheep’s milk producers, and for an A3 milk company.

Towards the end of last year, Cilantro gained export certification with a view to selling its cheeses and milk in the United States and Canada. The team is doing shelf-life trials for queso blanco (white cheese), a firmer, feta-style goat’s cheese, marinated in olive oil. There are three flavours – chilli, basil and oregano – and Cilantro hopes to launch this as an export range.

On the home market, it sells through Waikato specialty produce supplier, Bidfresh. Its cheese is also available at Moore Wilson’s and Commonsense Organics in Wellington, and it does some door sales.

Soar says the vision is to grow, but on the back of exports.

“We’d like to grow the dream that was started by Monica and Jenny,” he says.