Artisan cheese: How one lady turned her favourite food into a hobby, and then a business in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Cheese is serious business for Annisa Iwan and fellow lovers of the dairy product, as she found out how far one customer would go to snatch the last piece of a particular cheese variety she had made.

It was at an artisan market she participated in, and someone had already reserved the very last piece of “Alba”, her take on brie.

Some crowd favourites on display for sampling (clockwise from left) 24-month gouda, Amber Blue, a jar of Milky Whey’s house plum jam, smoked Gouda Melaka, Alba – Milky Whey’s take on brie, and Sarawak pepper-crusted cheese. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

“But another customer came up to my husband, who was manning the till, and claimed it was hers, bought it and went off!”

“When the original customer came back and found her cheese was ‘stolen’, it was everything I could do to placate her. But now, she’s one of my most loyal customers,” the 44-year-old laughingly recalled.

Inside her customised cheese cavern, Anissa Iwan proudly shows off the different varieties of cheese all maturing in a controlled environment. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

More recently, during Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO), Annisa’s inventory was depleted so heavily in the two months of the lockdown implemented to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“By the time we moved into conditional MCO, I only had 20 per cent of my original inventory left, and I got very worried, because cheese isn’t something you can produce immediately. We had to limit our orders to 30 customers a day,” she said.

Even then, some tried to get around the order limit by various means, including combining several people’s orders under one name.

“They put in several varieties in one order, but specified that each cheese has to be packed in separate bags. Please lah,I could tell what was going on,” Annisa chuckled. 

Annisa Iwan sorts through her different packets of lactic starter culture. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

An Indonesian who moved to Malaysia in 2014 because of her husband’s work, Annisa has been making and selling cheese under her Milky Whey Cheese label for nearly four years.

She is well known among the local cheese lovers and the food and beverage (F&B) operators for her variety of cheese, as well as her unique creations spiced up with local ingredients. 

CHEESY BEGINNINGS

Annisa’s love for cheese dated back to her childhood, when relatives would shower her family with cheese, pate and chocolates during their annual visits. 

“My sibling didn’t like pate or cheese, so more for me,” she recounted.

As she travelled and sampled cheese in countries such as France and Italy later in her life, it struck her how much more flavoursome local products tasted, compared to the imported stuff she got back in Jakarta.

So she set out to recreate mozzarella as her earliest experiment, combing the Internet and buying books to research the process.

“It was either beginner’s luck or fluke, but it came out nicely,” she said, adding that it encouraged her to persist with her hobby.

Annisa brought this hobby with her to Malaysia, and as her larder began to fill to the brim from her efforts, she took part in her first bazaar back in 2016 at an international school here to clear some space for new batches she was making.

Instead of a wine-washed hard cheese, Anissa Iwan uses coffee for a halal version. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

Since then, the hobby has grown, and one portion of Annisa’s house is devoted to this artisan business, with one climate-controlled aging space filled with maturing cheese, and a second cavern on the way. 

TRADITIONAL RECIPES, LOCAL INFUSIONS

The morning of the interview with CNA, Annisa had just taken in a shipment of 4,000L of fresh milk from a local dairy which she would be making into a large batch of raclette. 

She recalled another funny anecdote, where her first attempt at making this well-known Swiss cheese resulted in her brother crying due to the bad taste. 

“When I first try to recreate any traditional varieties, I’ll adhere to the original methods or recipes. But given our climate and terroir, we have to tweak the recipe and humidity control,” she said.

Anissa Iwan’s cheese-making operation uses between 3,200 L and 4,000 L of Jersey cows’ milk to produce about 30kg to 40 kg of cheese in one batch. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

But besides her re-creations of popular European variants such as gouda, blue cheese and raclette, Annisa also found success in making cheese infused with local ingredients.  

“Sarawak”, for instance, is encrusted in Sarawak black pepper. As it matures, the fragrant pepper aroma dissipates, but on the inside, each cheese ball has absorbed the pepper taste alongside its own developing flavour, resulting in a slightly garlicky umami bite and gentle waves of piperine (the active compound in pepper) on the tongue. 

Other local varieties Annisa has produced include “Kunyit”, a hard cheese rubbed down with turmeric and Sarawak black pepper, and “Cili Padi Gouda”, which as the name implies, is infused with bird’s eye chili flakes. 

The truffle-looking “Sarawak”, cut open to reveal a semi-hard, brittle interior. The local cheese variety came about as a result of a customer’s request for a Parmesan-like cheese to make pesto. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

“We can’t use normal chilli as there’d be no chilli flavour in the flakes left by the end of the maturation. But cili padi is strong enough you get some flavour once the cheese is ready,” she said.

THE BUSINESS SIDE

While cheese sales have been a major source of income for her, Milky Whey Cheese derived a large part of its revenue from menu consultation with the local F&B industry prior to the pandemic. 

Annisa has also visited Singapore to help restaurants plan their cheese menus.

The social distancing restrictions mean that certain activities, such as her popular cheese-making classes, which she has just resumed, have to change in terms of style and delivery.

Annisa Iwan’s take on brie, which she named “Alba”. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

“It’s not so social anymore, and everyone has to learn by themselves, each participant has their own cheese-making set, but it also means if your cheese doesn’t turn out as expected after the lesson, you can’t blame it on anyone else,” she laughed.

Having successfully turned her hobby into an artisan business, Annisa said she was thankful for her customers’ support.

“Malaysians have been very strong supporters, and many are not afraid to try new varieties,” she said.

By : Vincent Tan – CNA

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