Trevor Hart resembles a wizard concocting a spell as he stirs buffalo milk curds in a large stainless steel bowl of hot water. He can already tell it’s going to be a good mozzarella by the way the curds are beginning to stick as they swirl around each other, magically morphing into a mass of soft, fresh, delectable cheese. He pulls and stretches it out to the length of his arm and admires it like a proud father.
“Mozzarella is a transformational cheese,” he says. “That stretch – it’s a rare and beautiful thing. The moment between being a curd and a cheese is really small. I judge this by the glow on it,” he says, holding up a shining white ball to the light. “You could almost call it zen and the art of mozzarella making.”
But he’s not stopping there. Today the award-winning Maleny cheesemaker – whose Cedar Street Cheeserie buffalo haloumi was declared Australia’s best haloumi by MasterChef judge George Calombaris on May 7 – is making 50 balls of burrata for the Noosa Food and Wine Festival. This means strong coffee, loud jazz and eight hours of hard yakka in the cheeserie beneath his Maleny cottage, where he’s working with assistant Tim Dashiell, a fellow musician.
“Burrata is the holy grail of cheese,” Hart says.
“It’s high-pressure; we’re under the pump. It will fail if I don’t work fast, if I don’t get every stage of the process exactly right. You have to be attentive every step of the way. When you go to stretch it, you have a small window of time when the acidity is at the right spot. Too acidic and you can’t stretch it, not enough acid and it just falls to bits.”
Hart deftly works the balls of mozzarella into the shape of a calla lily with a deep well, into which Dahshiell pours buffalo cream, before Hart ties it off underneath the water, creating a discreet seam at the back.
“I love the buffalo milk,” Hart says. “The way it tastes and behaves, and the cream is insane. I started out buying 20 litres a week when I began making cheese about 10 years ago, and this week I ordered 400 litres.”
The buffalo milk hails from Maleny dairy farmers Mal and Margaret Thompson and it’s the farm-fresh quality of the milk that’s one of the keys to Hart’s success. Another key is his creative talent, which saw him become a jazz musician and composer at an early age. He plays trumpet in the well-known Trevor Hart Quartet and on a Saturday morning in Maleny, you might catch him busking in the street with other seasoned musos, while his daughters Daphne, 12 and Pearl, 10 watch on.
“It’s a challenge doing the busking because I haven’t got a stage between me and the audience,” he says. “It’s great because sometimes people are dancing in the street. It’s that type of music, that early jazz and ragtime really suits the whole street thing.”
Hart had a steady job as a high school music teacher when he decided to take a risk and follow his fascination for handmade artisan cheese, a passion that has seen him win a Churchill Fellowship to explore traditional cheesemaking in Europe, become a Slow Food ambassador and win two Delicious magazine awards. It was a creative yearning his partner, ceramicist Shannon Garson, fully understood and Pearl and Daphne have gained much from – least of all brownie points with friends.
“Kids come around in summer and say, ‘we want haloumi and watermelon’,” Hart says proudly. “One of Daphne’s friends requested some haloumi for her birthday present.”
Hart’s daughters accompany him to Noosa Farmers’ Market, the only commercial outlet for the public to buy Hart’s cheese other than Maleny IGA, the only Australian supermarket to stock it. Owner Rob Outridge says people drive up from Brisbane on the hunt for it, while the rest goes to restaurants in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. While Daphne and Pearl are keen to eat the cheese, they’re not fussed on making it.
“They want to make pottery with Shannon,” he says.
“I’m just the lowly cheesemaker in this household.
“I just wanted to try something new – I wanted a challenge,” he says, of his decision to quit his day job 10 years ago and hang out with musos making cheese.
“I love a challenge. Living here with three girls, that’s a challenge!
“Sure, it was an incredible learning curve but I like a good project. It focuses my scattered mind. I always want to make something the best I can and try new things. To try to do burrata, to get this right, took me four or five years, but I have got it right now.”
While Hart’s cheeses have captured the attention of the nation’s top chefs, creating huge demand for his product, it wasn’t always that way.
“In the beginning I faced a lot of resistance from people in markets,” he says. “Everybody thought a cheese had to be like cheddar, not fresh. It took me about two years to start to convince people that fresh cheeses are legitimate cheeses. I remember standing at markets and selling almost nothing for about a year.”
As a self-taught cheesemaker, he’s learnt the hard way – by trial and error.
“I once lost about 150 litres and I got very upset,” he says. “I went next door to bewail my fate to Shannon and she said it is a living thing and you must appreciate it is a living thing. Sometimes living things just don’t work out and this is the nature of what you do. She was right. It was deeply upsetting, not so much the loss of the milk, but the failure.
“I like that it’s like music in that you never stop learning. You learn subtle things all the time. I have the ability to focus my mind and I think that comes from being a professional musician. I was a composer and had to compose to deadlines, so I learnt to focus my mind. I’m a failed lazy person, I’d love to be lazy but it’s just not within me.”