Most of us love a good piece of brie, but you will be hard pushed to find someone more passionate about cheese than Julienne Harbutt. Over the last 30 years, she has built herself a reputation as one of the world’s foremost cheese experts. Having finally moved back to New Zealand, she is finding success once more running food tours through Hawkes Bay. Verve chatted with her about her new venture, running a deli business, and travelling the world to spread the knowledge of cheese.
After spending over 30 years in the UK, what was it that made you decide to return to your native New Zealand?
I really missed the beaches, the long summers and I really wanted to see my nephews and nieces grow up, so I felt it was time to move back to the other side of the world. One of the main reasons I chose Hawkes Bay was because I wanted to feel like I had come somewhere new rather just than going back to where I had come from. Either way, I’m much closer to my friends than I was in Europe! I absolutely love being here.
What was it that inspired you to start running food tours in Hawkes Bay?
Great weather, wonderful wine, fresh produce, and some really good cheesemakers! It’s a real destination for people to visit. I had figured coming back that I would probably make my living doing cheese seminars, but there is a relatively small market in NZ. I realized I needed to do something which involved tourism because it’s such a huge industry down here. I take people out to pick wild produce and edible flowers and bring it all together in a lovely lunch at my house. I’m a real foodie, and one of the things I love most while travelling is finding out about local foods. The best thing is being able to visit somebody’s home and see how they live, and get a sense of what it’s like to live in that country.
Your World Cheese Book first published in 2012 and a second updated edition in 2015. Have you noticed a growth in the New Zealand cheese industry during that period?
Yes, but I’m surprised there hasn’t been more growth. It’s very difficult to meet regulations and actually set up a cheese business, but on the other hand there is enormous scope to create something really original; yet most NZ cheeses are still copies of European cheeses. The difficulty is that because 90% of cheese is sold through the supermarket, it is treated more as a commodity or something really expensive. There isn’t really much of a middle ground, but I think the potential for smaller production is huge. I’d love to help create something which is a bit different and unusual.
What would your biggest piece of advice be to someone wanting to start their own deli or cheese shop?
The first thing I would say to anyone is to talk to an expert who has done it. I run one-to-one courses which do exactly that, and help answer the questions people don’t even know to ask. In the years I had my cheese shop, customers were always saying how they would love to give it a go themselves. I invited them to work with me for a week, and after finding out how hard the work was 90% really weren’t interested! I spent the next 20 years persuading people about to open a shop to go and work for one first, because It will save tens of thousands of dollars and lot of heartache!
What would an average day in your life be like?
I’ll let you know when I have one! If I’m out doing one of my hunter-gatherer tours that means I’m out most of the day and then cooking. I could be writing an article, which I still do quite a bit for specialty food magazines. Then there are also my trips abroad as well; I’m doing a cruise soon from Ecuador to Santiago, Chile with Silversea Cruises to talk about cheese. That’s one of the things I love most about my life; no two days are ever the same.