Ant colonies, that is, as Woodside Cheese Wrights’ Anthill variety is made from green ants from the Northern Territory—deep in Crocodile Dundee country. At A$350 (US$253) a kilo, the insect-encrusted chèvre is one of the most expensive cheeses in Australia.
The company’s head cheesemaker and chief executive, Kris Lloyd, said she has been astonished by Anthill’s reception on the other side of the Pacific.
“It’s incredible. It’s all quite extraordinary what we’ve achieved, actually. I was at the New York Fancy Food show recently, and I had people seeking me out to try the green ant cheese. Some had seen it on social media, or they knew someone who had tasted the cheese and told them about it. Either way, it’s been amazing,” she told DairyReporter.
Having fallen into cheesemaking “by accident” almost 20 years ago, after an early career in marketing, self-taught Lloyd has come to embrace embellishing goat- and buffalo-milk cheeses with local ingredients from the Adelaide Hills, about 30km east of the South Australian capital, where Woodside is based.
She uses milk that is sourced nearby and native flora, such as saltbush, lemon myrtle, native Australian bush tomato and outback chilli. One recently launched range, named Flinders, after the state’s founder, takes a saltbush crust and petals from the callistemon shrub, a plant with brush-like flowers which is endemic in temperate regions of Australia.
“One thing I’ve realized with my cheesemaking is that I’ve moved away from European-style cheese and tried to create cheeses that are telling my story,” she explained.
“Bries and Camemberts are not my story—they’re part of the French story. But the green ant cheese is my story. I’ve been messing around with natural local ingredients for 15 years now.”
To make Anthill, Lloyd takes creamy five-day goat’s cheese and adds some lemon myrtle and crushed green ants. She describes the finished taste of the cheese as having a lemongrass kefir-lime finish from the myrtle while the ants “give a little citrus pop, like eating sherbet.”
“It just comes together beautifully. There’s this great marriage of acid flavors that just work,” she said. “There’s no other cheese in the world that has green ants on it and it tastes amazing.”
The cheese was born on the recommendation of two leading food figures in South Australia. Jock Zonfrillo, the Scottish-born principal of Orana, which was named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants; and Richard Gunner, the meat supplier behind the Simply Wild brand of native Australian produce brand Something Wild, which distributes kangaroo, wallaby and crocodile meat, as well as indigenous greens, fruits and outback seasoning, almost simultaneously approached Lloyd to suggest incorporating green ants into her cheeses.
Incidentally, Something Wild has set up a joint venture to produce an Adelaide Hills gin with green ants as an ingredient.
The culinary pair told her how biting into the eusocial insect’s abdomen produced an acidic zing that was bursting with citrus. Struck by the idea, she began experimenting with a number of cheeses with the green ants but couldn’t get the tastes to meld. Eventually, Lloyd decided to go “back to basics” by sprinkling the ants on a fresh chèvre, “and bing! That was a flavor profile that was incredible,” she said.
“Then we added just a little dusting of Adelaide Hills lemon myrtle to give it a bit of a boom. It just came together as this completely fresh, gorgeous super-creamy cheese, with this zingy finish from the myrtle and the green ants.”
In November 2016, Lloyd, who is also a cheese judge, arrived in San Sebastián in Spain for the World Cheese Awards. Bringing some Woodside cheeses with her, she was astonished that the Anthill progressed through more and more rounds of the contest to eventually be named eleventh out of the 3,021 cheeses that had entered.
At one point, she was forced to relinquish her judge’s duties, to prevent a conflict of interest while the green ant cheese continued its charge. It was at that point that a fellow judge, who is also a distributor for New York-based World’s Best Cheeses, suggested sending Anthill to America.
In its home market, Anthill had been getting some real traction, but the idea of breaking into North America filled Lloyd with surprise. Yet Australians had started to embrace the cheese only once they got to understand it, she said.
“They are a bit skeptical at first about eating ants. They say, there’s no way they are going to eat ants. Anyway, I would persuade them, and when they tried it, they said that it’s such a showstopper.
“People might think it’s gimmicky, but it really does taste divine. It’s a great addition to a cheese platter or to sit on a cheeseboard on its own, with a beautifully sparkling wine or champagne. People will make a special trip to come to us and taste it at our cellar door and buy it,” she added.
The US might not be the first country one recognizes for its preference for niche, speciality cheeses, but Americans have been gaining a taste for natural cheeses. From 2012-17, cheese sales grew by 10%, according to Mintel, to US$23.6bn, with steady growth predicted to 2025, when the market is forecast to have grown by 8%.
“The growth has been driven primarily by the natural cheese segment, which accounts for 70% of sales and is benefiting from growing interest in healthier and more-natural eating and snacking,” the market research firm said in a report.
Another market researcher, Packaged Facts, reported in June that “a growing preference for natural, authentic cheeses and continued demand for convenience are reshaping the cheese industry.”
“While the cheese market remains dominated by large producers, demand for novel and artisanal cheeses has allowed smaller label cheeses to claim their place at the table,” it added.
Back at the cheese contest in San Sebastián, Lloyd’s co-judge, Stephaie Ciano, exclaimed, “I don’t care what I have to do, I just want this cheese in America.”
It took two years to get the product up and running, by addressing all the licensing and regulatory requirements in place for export.
“But it was a good thing to persevere with,” said Lloyd, who did not receive any government support or funding to do so.
“It has really resonated with the American market—the quality of the cheese, and moreover how it is so unique and well-presented with our beautiful packaging. It all comes back to the fact that this is totally Australian, and nobody in Australia is doing this. I would say we are the pioneer of this style of cheesemaking in Australia,” said Lloyd.
Woodside began airfreighting cheese to America in March and has already doubled the size of its fortnightly shipments to several hundred kilograms at a time. The products are being sold in New York, Connecticut, Michigan and California through retailers including Dean & DeLuca.
Now Lloyd is preparing to launch other cheeses in America, alongside Anthill, her “Monet” flower cheese, a lemon myrtle chèvre, saltbush chèvre and an artisan buffalo Persian-style feta among others already in distribution.
In the pipeline is a jet black cheese covered with ash from the aptly-name Australian Blackwood tree, which will be topped with elegant petals. Ever the ambassador for South Australia, Lloyd recommends that this one should be served drizzled with native honey.