By Tony Stickley
Despite his growing reputation in the field, Whenuakite’s Eric Wise is uncomfortable being called a “cheesemaker”.
“It’s really just a hobby,” he insists. “Absolutely amateur. Calling me a cheesemaker is not right. I would be really embarrassed to even talk to a real cheesemaker about making cheese.”
Nevertheless, people who have tasted his diverse range of eight to 10 varieties have been impressed with their taste and texture. Eric, 77, who emigrated to New Zealand via Australia eight years ago from his native South Africa, first started to develop his love of cheese (turophilia, according to an online dictionary) 10 years ago when he and wife Sheryl were living in Perth. With retirement beckoning, Eric decided that he was going to keep himself busy rather than just lazing around. Whatever the current fad, Eric said he decided to have a go, whether it was macramé, wood carving or lead glass making. Then he tried his hand at making cheese, and he was hooked.
While his other pastimes fell by the wayside, his cheese-making flourished. Whether a science or an art, it is a hobby that Eric obviously excels at and one that friends, and family are only too glad to encourage. “I suppose the main reason I have a bit of a reputation is because we include my cheese as part of our Christmas gifts to friends and family, and they seem to enjoy it,” said Eric. “But it is not just the taste but the fact that, instead of just going out and buying a present, you can give something a bit more personal. It takes a bit of time to make the cheese, so I am giving a bit - my time and a bit of myself, in a sense,” he said.
Before leaving South Africa, Eric was the head of Road Safety in that country. (Apart from the condition of New Zealand roads, he says as an aside that his impression is that people’s driving has got worse over the past eight years that he and Sheryl have been here.)
The couple, along with daughter Lianne and son-in-law Jan, who now live in the US, have planted literally thousands of trees and plants on their 17-hectare homestead at Silverstream Row. “I always said that I wanted to retire as close as possible to heaven and I believe that I am just about there,” he said, looking out at the marvelous views from his porch.
Eric makes the cheese from raw milk, sourced from a farm near Thames, a previous supplier near Whitianga being no longer available. “Raw milk is cheaper, and you get a better product,” he said. “Often, when people are going past, I get them to pick up a couple of gallons of raw milk for me”. His cheeses are made in the household kitchen which Eric says is spotless, thanks to Sheryl. “Washing up is crucial for cheesemaking,” Eric says, adding that a bit of unwanted bacteria can destroy a batch. The cheese-making hobby fits in nicely with the couple’s lifestyle, growing their own food and vegetables and rearing their own poultry. “You can’t eat wood carvings, but you can eat cheese,” Eric said, adding that he produced whatever variety members of his entourage preferred. Among the cheeses he dabbles in are camembert, brie, gouda, feta, and haloumi. He steers away from some of the harder cheeses, such as cheddar, as they can take at least six months to mature and some, up to two or three years.
At his age, he says he doesn’t want to take the chance that he might not be around to enjoy the fruits of his labour by the time the cheeses are ready. In the past, Eric and Sheryl, would sell quail eggs at the Whitianga and Thames markets, but he has no intention of doing the same with his cheeses. “We loved meeting people at the markets but the minute you start selling, the hobby part goes out and it becomes commercial,” Eric said. “You start looking at ‘numbers’ and then there are all the regulations. Commercial is not something I want to do. As I say, this is a hobby as opposed to a commercial venture. It is the way we live…and it is also a way of keeping the family in cheese.”