It's the second mouse that gets the cheese . . .

SJ PIENAAR sticks her head out of her ramshackle office that's tacked to the front of her cheese factory like an afterthought and offers an enthusiastic welcome.

SJ bought The Second Mouse Cheese Co 18 months ago and is head cheesemaker.

She's been working at the modest little factory on the outskirts of Orange for five years now.

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Attribution debatable

"It all started when my mum gave me a gift of a one-day cheese-making course for my 26th birthday," she says.

"And here we are today."

So about six years ago SJ became obsessed with making cheese, spending an intensive year at the Artisan Cheese Making Academy in Adelaide after setting aside a career in engineering.

Today there are eight cheeses produced and a secret newcomer known only as "The Italian Job", yet to be released.

There are continental European styles, Mediterranean and Swiss styles.

But what about the Italian addition?

"It's a farmhouse-style cheese, northern Italian style, from an area of Tuscany that's mainly farms, not many tourists go there," she says.

"It's the sort of cheese you serve with salami and gallons of red wine to your burly farm workers."

The cheese-making process begins with a delivery of 1000 litres of raw milk a week from the Little Big Dairy near Dubbo.

Then it is batch pasteurised on site.

"This is a big thing for us," she says.

"We hold it at 63 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes.

"Generally, when pasteurising big processors use heat exchange and hold it at 72C for 15 to 30 seconds.

"That's much harsher on the protein strings in the milk and there's bigger calcium losses."

SJ said there was still some protein loss and microflora loss using the gentler method, but not as much as occurs in large commercial operations.

"You do kill the good with the bad, but pasteuriation is necessary.

"Australians have good attitudes towards pasteurisation, not so the Europeans, they have quite a negative attitude to it," she said.

"For us raw milk is a no go, it's certainly not the future of Second Mouse."

Generally SJ sells her wares via farmer's markets at Orange, Bathurst, Dubbo, Forbes, Blackheath and then there is a range of independent stockists, providores, delis and the like.

She does a roaring trade with Ashcrofts IGA supermarkets in Orange, which has two large outlets in town.

Sweet Spot Bakery manager Ashleigh McLean with an array of The Second Mouse Cheese Co offerings at Ashcroft's Supa IGA store in Orange.

Sweet Spot Bakery manager Ashleigh McLean with an array of The Second Mouse Cheese Co offerings at Ashcroft's Supa IGA store in Orange.

Sweet Spot Bakery manager Ashleigh McLean says the popularity of Second Mouse Cheese is growing all the time.

"We've stocked it for years and the customers love it, people keep asking for the local cheese.

"It comes pre-packed in units and we order weekly, I think now the most popular is the brie."

That's a cheese described by the makers as "a double cream with a fine bloomy rind, ripened to full flavour".

Ashleigh said she had been responsible for ordering for about 18 months now and had watched as the orders grew from about five units of brie a week to now more than 30.

"We stock them all, it just seems the brie moves fastest.

"We do sell out of a lot of them, but that's the great convenience of buying local, if we run short SJ just drops more off for us.

"I spoke with her yesterday and she's coming in this afternoon with more."

That said, the coronavirus has been something of a hiccup for The Second Mouse Cheese Co, but it has led to what SJ says is the "next big move", and that's online ordering.

"There are a lot more transport options now.

"I guess Light n' Easy and Jenny Craig were the pioneers of fresh food delivery, but there's more now such as Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon.

"We're going to use Star Track, which is part of Australia Post, SJ said.

"Five years ago there were really no options for fresh food delivery.

"By the end of winter we think we'll be offering our cheeses online," she said.

Has such expansion taken a toll on her time?

"Gee, I think back to three years ago and I didn't have a care in the world, but now it's getting hectic," she said, obviously pleased with how the business is progressing.

"There's a different level of tourist coming through this district these days.

"People want to know about the product, they want to hear our story, they want to know we're local.

"They're definitely not happy with the amount of foreign ownership of Australia's food story."

SJ said that was why it was great buying single-source milk from The Little Big Dairy Co.

One of the Little Big Dairy herd displays a dairy cow's curiosity. Photo: Rachael Webb

One of the Little Big Dairy herd displays a dairy cow's curiosity. Photo: Rachael Webb

"I respect Little Big, they're intergenerational and they're looking after the land, and c'mon, they're stepping up in the Australian food supply chain.

"Their cows graze grass and crop and that gives it a higher nutritional content and higher volumes of keratin, which makes cheese yellow and gives you a greater protein capture.

"When we make cheese we band the proteins together, so a longer protein strand is good.

"And coming from a single source you definitely get seasonal variations, which we cherish."

At the moment Second Mouse is taking 1000 litres of milk a week and turning it into about 120 kilograms of cheese.

Jim Elliot, at Little Big, says because SJ is licensed, as is the dairy, raw milk can be transported directly to her.

The milk is moved in 1000-litre containers stacked in a refrigerated truck.

Anotheer cheese-maker, High Valley, also uses Little Big's milk.

But there is more to cheese than just cow's milk, which is why SJ is on the hunt for goat or sheep's milk.

What about camel milk?

She ponders a second and you can almost see her thoughts ticking over.

"Camel milk has a really high protein content, yeah . . . "

Watch this space.

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