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What started as the ‘pipe dream’ of James and Catherine McNamara has grown into a flourishing award-winning cheese business. According to former HR consultant Catherine, it came down to chocolate or cheese, but because she lacked the artistic flair required for making fine chocolates she went with cheese.

“It was just a pipe dream that became a reality when I chucked all the sensible ideas out of the window and said: ‘let’s just go for it!’ It was an unexpected twist in our lives but I’m so pleased we did it,” she says. So are we!

The McNamaras set up their business in the heart of Whangarei. They purchased a run-down old building with ‘good bones’, gutted it and turned it into their award-winning artisan cheese factory. The couple have a small lifestyle block at Whangarei Heads and the Grinning Gecko’s distinctive logo is a tribute to the beautiful little green geckos that live in the manuka and kanuka trees on their property.

They source their milk from a local, certified organic, dairy farm just out of Whangarei. The farm milks Ayrshire cows, a breed that originates from Scotland. Ayrshire milk is known for its good balance of protein and fat, making it perfect for drinking and, of course cheesemaking. The farmers are very passionate about sustainability and organics and grow more than 20 different types of grass for the cows to feast on. Catherine says pasture health is really important to them, and you get hints of the pasture notes coming through in the cheese.

The McNamaras collect milk directly from the farm early in the morning whilst the cows are being milked and it is in their vat within an hour and a half of leaving the cow. They also make goat’s milk cheese sourced from a Kaipara farm and whilst the farm is not certified organic, the farmers don’t use chemicals on the pasture or their animals and they farm on sustainable, biological principles. Grinning Gecko Cheese Co. is careful to treat their milk with the respect it deserves; they batch pasteurise, which is very gentle compared to other methods, and this gives them the best milk to work with from the very start. A slow and gentle approach to their cheese making results in beautiful-tasting cheese.

It is made totally by hand using non-animal rennet. Once formed, the cheese is aged on site. Their trainee cheese maker Zev Kaka-Holtz was awarded the Aspiring Cheesemaker of the year at the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards this year. Just under two years ago he applied for a job washing dishes at the factory. Zev says he couldn’t see himself having a career at anything until he started at Grinning Gecko, and was just looking for someone to give him a chance and see something in him. His natural curiosity and passion was evident and Catherine says: “we knew straight away he was the guy for us.”

He is now the main cheese maker at Grinning Gecko, as Catherine spends more time working on the business. This year Zev single-handedly produced the category champion brie at the New Zealand Champion of Cheese Awards. A great achievement for Zev and the team at Grinning Gecko. Grinning Gecko’s efforts have been recognised both locally and internationally; having won medals at the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards and at the Nantwich International Cheese Awards in the UK. The brie has taken out Soft White Rind Champion of Cheese in New Zealand three years in a row as well as a bronze in the international awards where they were up against European masters of cheese.

A reward they richly deserve for all their hard work. It also gives them the confidence to keep on making, experimenting and growing their business. What do you think is the secret? “We have quite a few secrets, some I’m not going to tell you,” laughs Catherine. “[A] high-quality milk source is top of the list. One that doesn’t contain herbicides, pesticides or other chemicals. You can make bad cheese from good milk but you can’t make good cheese from bad milk,” she says.

“Using milk that has come straight from the farm plays a big part too, it’s not standardised, we adjust to its composition rather than the other way around – this makes it interesting. [And] passion, which sounds so cliché but it is true. If you truly care about the product and understand that each batch of cheese is unique and it is you that must adapt (a bit like being a parent really) you will produce something really special. Catherine says she can’t pick a favourite cheese as it changes from week to week. This week she is ‘hot chilli-ing, next week it might be brie or cumin and garlic…’