Mount Eliza Cheese Katikati cheese makers Chris and Jill Whalley firmly believe the magic happens at night after they have finished work. Elaine Fisher reports.

Chris and Jill Whalley of Mount Eliza Cheese Katikati, may spend up to 10 hours making a batch of raw milk cheese to their exact standards, but they believe the real magic happens when they turn out the lights at night.

“The cheese wheels look like they are just sitting on the shelf. We don’t really know exactly what goes on when we shut the cheese storeroom door, but we do know it’s pure magic,” Jill says.

That “magic” continues for at least three months for raw milk Mount Eliza Red Leicester and six to 12 months for its cheddar. Mount Eliza also makes the Stilton-style Blue Monkey cheese, from pasteurised milk. All are sold online, at local Farmers Markets and throughout New Zealand to specialist deli and cheese shops.

Chris and Jill Whalley of Mount Eliza Cheese.

The wheels resting supposedly quietly on the shelves in the storeroom are “alive” with beneficial bacteria converting the milk lactose to lactic acid and breaking down proteins, improving the flavour and shelf life of the cheese.

“The milk we use is not heated as heat drives off the aromatic enzymes,” says Chris. And aromatic is exactly what Mount Eliza Cheeses are as evidenced when they are cut, and by the rich floral aroma emanating from the storeroom where they mature.

“Traditionally cheese making was how milk was preserved as an important source of protein over winter in the days before refrigeration. Hard cheeses are designed to mature slowly and last a long time. We use traditional recipes sourced from cheese makers in the UK,” says Chris.


Key to making cheese is the controlled removal of water from milk which concentrates the milk’s protein, fat and other nutrients and increases its shelf life. Like all cheese makers, Chris and Jill’s process involves coagulating the casein protein in milk and then separating the milk into solid curds and liquid whey. The liquid whey is drained off, and the curds are salted, shaped and left to ripen in a controlled environment.

Microorganisms are used in each step of this process and determine the flavour and texture of the final cheese. As Chris says, it is a biotechnology which dates back centuries.

The wheels resting supposedly quietly on the shelves in the storeroom are “alive” with beneficial bacteria converting the milk lactose to lactic acid . . .’

Much about cheese making is scientific and carefully measured, but much is not. It’s the blend of art and science which appeals to Chris, formerly an industrial chemist, and Jill, formerly an occupational therapist.

They’ve taken the art form a step further by making cheeses from unpasteurised milk; one of just three cheese makers in NZ licensed to do so. The others are Aroha Organic Goat Cheese of Te Aroha and Kervella Cheese in Takaka.

To meet Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) super strict quality standards, they needed milk from a dairy farmer prepared to go above and beyond normal industry requirements. They found their man in Carl Williams, a third-generation farmer just a few kilometres away.

Carl supplies Chris and Jill with 1000 litres of milk once a week. In order to do so he and his staff have doubled their record keeping and testing protocols and further increased hygiene standards. It’s a lot of work for a relatively small amount of milk but for Carl it’s about more than money or volume.

“I want to produce the best product we can, which is why I decided to align with Chris and Jill. I’m also old school in that I like to see small local businesses help each other out. There’s a sense of pride in seeing and eating Mount Eliza Cheeses as the end product. It’s a kind of hunter/gatherer thing I guess, sharing what you have produced with others.”

As well as sharing with family and friends, Carl takes some of the cheese Chris leaves him after weekly milk collections, to enjoy with tennis club mates at Waihi Beach.


“Everything we would normally do around food safety and milk quality has doubled. Record keeping is much more detailed, and filters are changed more frequently. We take extra care in washing the cows’ udders and audits have increased from one to two annually. To meet the requirements for Mount Eliza Cheese, somatic cell counts have to be under 200,000, but we are at those levels anyway.”

To reassure him of milk quality, Carl has given Chris access to his Fonterra app so he can see the lab results from milk samples taken each time the tanker does a pickup.

Chris Whalley overseeing the curding process.

“We also let Chris know when we are about to start feeding silage, which usually happens in the summer. He often decides to pick up more milk before then, as he can’t make raw milk cheeses from milk from cows fed silage.”

New farm manager Jay Harvey, intrigued with the idea of producing milk for locally made cheese, is going to find out how it’s done when Chris and Jill invite him into their cheese making factory.

“I can’t wait. I’ve been milking cows for 14 years but never seen the end product that I have had a hand in producing, and I’ve never made cheese before.”

Jay is happy to commit to the extra record keeping and strict hygiene protocols. “I can see why it’s important and you have to have all that information for end of year records anyway.”

Chris and Jill were not only lucky to find a farmer willing to put in the effort to produce milk to higher standards, but also to find one close by at all. The 298 herd of cross bred cows on the 102 ha (effective) Williams’ farm are almost a novelty in the Katikati district where horticulture is now the dominant land use.

“I often have approaches from people wanting to buy the farm for horticulture but I’m just its caretaker for future generations,” says Carl. While some of the farm has been converted to an avocado orchard, there are no current plans to change the rest of the land use from dairying.

That’s good news for Chris and Jill, who five years ago, were finally granted permission to produce raw milk cheeses. “We are proud of the milk Carl supplies,” says Jill. “It is of the highest standards from healthy, happy cows.”


Even though raw milk cheeses are imported into NZ, gaining certification to make cheeses from unpasteurised milk in this country wasn’t easy. So determined were the couple to make the highest quality, best tasting cheeses they could, in 2014, Jill took their argument to a Parliamentary select committee.

“It was pretty daunting to be in such a formal setting. We presented our supplementary evidence as two platters of cheese, one imported raw milk cheese and one of our own Mount Eliza Cheese, each labelled to show the different regulations which applied to imported and locally produced cheeses. It certainly got committee members’ attention.”

Also making submissions were Anna Tait-Jamieson, a former food manufacturer, freelance writer and the food editor at NZ Life & Leisure magazine and the late cheese maker Biddy Fraser-Davies of Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese.

Following those submissions, MPI invited Mount Eliza Cheese and other small cheese makers to a workshop in Wellington to design a food safety template for cheese making.

“The result was a basic food safety template for cheesemakers which was a good start and a show of good faith from the regulators that it was going to be possible to make raw milk cheese.

“We felt we were breaking new ground and instead of butting heads, there was a willingness to work together and draw on the expertise of small cheese makers,” says Jill.

Pleased as they were with the food safety template for cheesemakers which resulted from that workshop, it lacked the detail that they wanted for their own quality standards, so Chris and Jill went even further, developing a risk management programme for their own cheese making.

They worked closely with their MPI auditor, drawing on her expertise to finalise their risk management programme. “We had real traction from that point and instead of fighting, we got on with producing our cheeses.

At the end of the day, we and the regulators have the same aim which is to produce safe food. The requirements we have to operate under are still more onerous than those for cheese makers overseas. However, we have managed to work within them,” says Chris.


Under those requirements, Carl William’s farm is audited twice a year and the cheese factory once a year and the cost of those inspections is significant.

“We have to take routine tests of the milk and cheese, with the samples sent to a recognised lab. The required NZ standards demand far lower limits of bacteria than those for European cheese makers.

That’s not to say the European cheeses are not safe, but their regulations are nowhere near as onerous. I’ve spoken to cheese makers in the UK who say they could only dream of achieving the low microbiological results we meet,” says Chris.

It might have been easier to make cheese from pasteurised milk but easy was not what Chris and Jill wanted.

“Our mission is to make the best quality cheese in New Zealand and to do that we need to use raw milk. That enhances the quality and the flavour of the cheese – you can’t compare raw milk cheese with mass produced cheese.”