With a glass of wine in your hand on a balmy beach, anything can seem possible – just ask Shelley Blew.
One sunny day 12 years ago, the Sabah resident was entertaining guests from her native Australia at the Langkah Syabas Beach Resort in Kinarut, near the capital of Kota Kinabalu, where she worked as the manager.
The guests were cheesemakers who had their own dairy farm and boutique cheese business on Australia’s Kangaroo Island. They were sure good cheese could be made in the tropical Malaysian state.
It seemed outlandish, but Blew’s response was: why don’t we give it a go?
“At that time, there weren’t many choices [of cheese] here other than the processed slices,” recalled Blew, who moved to Sabah over 30 years ago.
Her guests flew back to Australia and returned with equipment like drying racks and moulds, and under there tutelage Blew dived headfirst into the world of cheese. Blew commandeered part of the boathouse on the beach for her cheesemaking experiments. Kinarut Beach Cheese – now known as Kinarut Cheese – was soon born.
Beach cheese is born
So, how do you make good cheese on a beach in Sabah? The same as you do anywhere else: by using good quality milk with high-fat content, observing the strictest hygiene and temperature controls, and keeping a close, loving eye on the cheeses as they ripen.
And it turned out that Sabah does have the right ingredients for a cheese business. It has dairy farms in its cool highlands producing creamy, high-quality milk, many locals with cosmopolitan tastes and a large expatriate population in love with cheese.
Blew initially bought milk from private dairy farms, but now gets her milk from the government’s milk collection centre, which is able to supply large quantities.
“We have always been able to obtain the milk here, and never had to import,” says Blew who is in her 50s.
The milk is first pasteurised and rested before cultures are added at a precise temperature ( cultures die in high heat but won’t grow in the cold). The milk is left to rest again before rennet is added to help it set. Curds emerge and are cut into blocks, and rested yet again. “There’s a lot of resting with cheese!” Blew says.
After all that resting, the curds are stirred gently for up to an hour to release the whey. The curds are then poured into moulds, turned at intervals, and left to drain before getting a salt bath and a long rest in the mould room to acquire their distinctive white covering.
To ripen, the cheese goes into different chillers with different temperatures at different times. It takes around a month to ripen the cheese to the flavour that’s preferred in Sabah, which is milder than typical European cheeses.
“Making cheese is all about the temperature,” says Blew. If it’s rainy and the ambient temperature falls, or if it’s a sunny day and the mercury rises, they need to adjust the chillers.
Kinarut: A Sabah favourite
It didn’t take long for Sabah to discover Blew’s cheeses. Not long after she started, she took a block to a friend’s dinner party, and among the guests was the wife of the then-head chef of the upscale Shangri-La Resort. The resort placed an order and soon other luxury hotels followed suit.
Kinarut Cheese is now served at many plush Sabah resorts and is also sold at several supermarkets and the occasional artisan fair.
Needless to say, the cheese quickly pushed the boats out of the boathouse.
“We took over more and more of it, and soon, there was no more boat shed. It was all cheese!” says Blew, who devotes herself full-time to Kinarut Cheese.
Kinarut has since moved to purpose-built premises in town, from where it produces more than 80 kilograms a week of Camembert, Brie and feta, and occasionally cheddar.
Blew focuses on experimenting with new products, and leaves the cheesemaking to a Sabahan woman who has been working with her since day one.
Blew has been testing smoked cheddar and an onion cheddar that takes at least six months to ripen to its best flavour.
With its rich and lush flavours, Kinarut Cheese has won many fans, including vegetarians and Muslims.
Blew didn’t set out to make a vegetarian-friendly or halal cheese, but it was easier to import plant-based rennet than the animal-based version because the latter needed an import permit.
Using plant-based rennet helped Kinarut Cheese earn a halal rating, which enabled it to supply halal-rated hotel kitchens. The halal rating denotes suitability for Muslims and covers issues such as permissible foods and hygiene standards.
It has been 12 years since the first block of Kinarut cheese emerged from the boathouse. Despite now having machines to stir, digital thermometers to measure and timers to keep watch, cheesemaking remains an art, Blew says.
No two people can produce the same cheese; the human touch makes all the difference. Blew says her cheeses tend to be firmer while the distinctive, rich-yet-soft texture of Kinarut Cheese can be credited to her cheesemaker.
“Even if we do exactly the same thing,” Blew says, “the taste will still be different.”