Dairy products don’t just come from cows. Great cheese can also be made from sheep’s milk – and Blue River Dairy Products has the awards and the growth in customer demand to prove it.
Blue River makes a range of feta, hard and soft cheeses - and soon ice cream as well - from the milk of East Friesian cross sheep farmed on the lush pastures of central Southland. The cheeses, all produced at the company's Invercargill factory, are sold in specialty food shops and have an avid following among foodies throughout New Zealand. Blue River's feta won a gold medal in the 2008 awards of the New Zealand Cheese Association, while its blue and camembert both won silver.
For all that, Blue River marketing manager Felice Andreae says many dairyloving Kiwis are resistant to the idea. "It can be hard to get beyond the prejudice that milk can't come from sheep. New Zealanders are so used to dairy meaning cows only," says Felice. "People think our cheese will somehow taste sheepy, in fact, it is actually beautiful, rich and sweet."
As well as debunking myths about taste, Felice spends much of her time explaining the nutritional benefits of sheep's cheese. It contains up to twice the mineral and vitamin content of cow's milk, she says, and helps in the treatment of asthma and eczema due to the high levels of iron and zinc. "To be honest, I don't know why anyone would still be consuming cow's milk if they have the choice of sheep's milk!"
The Blue River farms, at Brydone and Winton, are like any dairy operation, with the animals milked twice a day through a defined season. The original East Friesian flock was imported from Europe in 1992 and has since been crossed with hardier breeds to thrive in the Southland winter.
Making sheep's cheese is both time consuming and difficult, says Felice. "It's definitely an art. It takes lots of passion and knowledge, and also lots of patience," she says. Meanwhile, the company is about to take its next big step with the first commercial production of ice cream - and hence membership of GS1. Blue River plans to launch this product line over coming months through a major supermarket chain. The distinctive packaging will, of course, have GS1 barcoding.
Felice says demand for Blue River products is rising overall, with New Zealand consumers becoming more aware of the health benefits in sheep's milk and more inclined to try new products.