The residents of Norfolk Island are putting their little slice of paradise on the gourmand’s map, thanks to unique produce and a big dose of enthusiasm. By Tatyana Leonov.
How do two brothers make cheese without any cows? It’s an unusual question, but the folk on Norfolk Island have been dealing with unusual for centuries. Australia’s only self-governed external territory, the pine-dotted subtropical Norfolk Island is a little slice of paradise in the Pacific. today the tiny 8 x 5 kilometre volcanic outcrop is home to some of the best food in the country.
This can primarily be attributed to the unique ecosystem of Norfolk and the people who call it home. About a third of the population is descended from the rebellious Bounty crew and their tahitian partners, a third come from mainland Australia and a third from New Zealand.
Glen and John Christian are direct Bounty descendants, although Glen lived in New Zealand prior to moving back to Norfolk a few years ago. “When I moved here brother John had been milking roy’s [his father-in-law] cows,” he says. “Roy has two cows and the deal is that whoever milks them on that particular day gets to keep the milk. So I told Roy I’d like to learn how to milk a cow.” He pauses to laugh. “For about four months I was milking these cows by hand – it took me hours – three days a week. But we were drinking fresh milk, a rarity here on the island.”
Glen had studied cheesemaking in New Zealand and John is a microbiologist, so they started a boutique cheese business about three years ago. They not only craft cheese (feta, cheddar, haloumi and a cheese the brothers unassumingly call Dars-et, which means ‘that’s it’ in Norfolk), they run tours where guests can sample the hand-made cheeses along with local produce, such as guava jelly, avocados picked straight from the tree, home-made chutneys and honey. “We wanted to come up with a business model where we didn’t have to go out and buy any cows or – even worse – buy land to run the cows on,” John says.
Any island resident can legally own up to 10 licensed walkabout cows, no paddock required (cows get right of way on the roads), however 99% of the cows on the island are raised exclusively for beef.
“To keep the maths simple, let’s say a cow has a lifespan of two years,” John says. “After two years one cow is worth $900, on average. with our model we simply said: ‘If you let us milk your cow it might give us five litres a day. We’ll give you $5 a day. So at the end of the month you’ve got $150 for nothing. And at the end of two years you’ve got $2000 and a cattle animal that you can sell for $900.’” Glen laughs. “Or don’t let us milk it and you can have $900 at the end of two years. We’ve milked as little as two and just recently we’ve been given access to 15.”
The brothers aren’t the only ones taking a novel approach to dairy. Emily Ryves is the island’s only goat-cheese maker. sporting a mane of wavy blond hair and an infectious smile, she doesn’t stop working when she chats. “My parents run a pottery business and I grew up wanting to work for myself too,” she says. “I love food and farming, so I decided to pursue goat farming.”
As goals go, it wasn’t an easy dream to chase given the island’s location and quarantine regulations. “I was trying to source goats from anywhere – Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand – but nobody want to help,” Emily says. Then along came renowned dairy goat owner Noelene Dean. “She was holidaying here and heard about me,” Emily says. “She sourced all my stock for me. And so one Billy goat and four does arrived in March, 2013.” Emily laughs, “She’s my goat guru lady!”
Together with her father, Emily milks the does twice daily and is experimenting with goats’ cheese. She also sells fresh goats’ milk to 13 families and plans to run sustainable farming tours where she can share her produce with guests who want to learn about the process. “It’s more than just about food for me,” she says. “It’s about the best possible food produced in the best possible way!”
Because of the island’s location residents have to grow and produce fresh food and organic is the norm. The island’s finest beef – the unique Norfolk Blue beef – takes pride of place on the menu at Norfolk Blue Restaurant, Grill & Bar.
Donning a well-loved Akubra and a sweet smile, the commanding voice of Robyn Menghetti can be heard over the rustles of her cattle. She moved to Norfolk Island to take a corporate role in 2001, but 14 years on that is a distant memory. “I’m married to a local farmer, breeding a unique heritage breed of cattle and running an award-winning restaurant,” Robyn laughs. “Who would have known?”
It began when Robyn noticed a few blue-tinged cows wandering around. “No-one seemed interested in them,” she says. “They were seen to be mongrels and second-rate to the other cows.” Robyn eventually purchased all of them and organised genetics from the mainland (semen from a Coota Park Blue-E bull), and so the Norfolk Blue beef brand was born. Today she’s the owner of a large herd and is working towards formally registering the breed and perhaps finding someone equally as passionate as herself to work with. “I’ve reached that stage in my life where I want to share this journey and project with someone who loves these cows as much as I do,” she says
Originally from the United Kingdom, Pete Barney visited on holidays and decided to stay. “Norfolk is one of those places where you give yourself three months and you either get back on the plane or you find you’re here for life,” he chuckles. Short in stature with a mop of tight brown curls that he usually hides under a cap, it’s obvious Pete is passionate about gardening. “Everyone has his or her thing,” he says. “Mine has always been gardening. It’s amazing what people have in their backyards here. We can pretty much grow anything!”
He’s employed by Hilli Restaurant & Cafe – the eatery renowned for the freshest and most delicious salads on the island. “The salads taste so good because of how we grow the ingredients,” he says eyeing the vegetable and herb patch on the sprawling grounds that belong to Hilli owners Kim and Stephen Wilson. “When I started work at Hilli the team chatted about really understanding the flavour in a plant and using that as a guide for what will appear on the menu. Taste is nutrition, so ultimately I try and grow a highly nutritious plant – and that all starts with the soil.”
Pete favours picking eggplant when it’s small (“I pick these when they’re tiny, so they’re sweet and not bitter”) and carrots are purple. “The interesting thing about Norfolk Island is that varieties [of vegetables and herbs] can change,” Pete says. “Last year we worked out we went through 52 varieties in one week. It blew me away!”
And perhaps that’s where the secret to Norfolk food lies. The residents focus on flavour and nutrition – and they do so in imaginative and resourceful ways, and always with enthusiasm.