Jaala Pulford (centre) Victoria’s Minister of Agriculture, flanked by Arthur Spyrou, Australian Ambassador to the UAE, to the right; and John Butler, Commissioner for Victoria to the MENA region, at the opening of the Australia stand at this year’s Gulfood exhibition Image Credit: Supplied

Victoria has a large dairy industry that dominates milk production in Australia by producing 65 percent (6.19 billion litres) of Australia’s milk in 2016, and manufacturers of dairy products use around 92 percent of Victoria’s raw milk to produce the value-add products that the state is famous for its quality cheese and cream.

Dairy is still a small proportion of Victorian exports into the UAE, but interest in the sector is growing fast. Bulla Dairy Foods is the branded market leader outside the Australian retail chain’s own brands and it has had a well-established position in the UAE through Spinneys but hopes to see 5 percent incremental growth as its looks to wider markets in both retail though groceries and supplying hotels and restaurants through food service.

The company is careful to emphasise that it is an Australian family dairy that has been in business since 1910, using the slogan ‘Clean. Green. Australian’. “Fewer and fewer business are still family owned and run,” Tony Gunnis, International Business Manager at Bulla Dairy Foods, told Gulf News, in the company’s headquarters in Melbourne’s Derrimut suburb. “We use the same technology that has not changed and our values are firmly based on quality and ingredients”.

“Bulla’s largest business is with Australia’s major supermarkets like Woolworths or Coles,” said Gunnis. “We need to mitigate that risk by expanding our food service in Australia to hotels, restaurants and cafes, as well as expanding exports that currently make up about 10 percent of our business.

“Growth is strategically important to Bulla, and our major markets in the 10 percent of exports include Hong Kong and Singapore, which have no dairy industry of their own. Dairy was not common in the Asian markets 15 to 20 years ago, but now is very common. In Asia we compete with all sorts of brands like products from the Lion or Kiran from Japan, and Yoplay or Dairy Farmers that are Australian, but not owned by Australians.

“In the Gulf we are increasingly competing with brands from Germany and Switzerland in Europe, which are also large family dairy companies with strong export aspirations. They often have strong engineering capabilities and more state-of-the-art technology that brings them longer life that obviously helps them. And the Middle East is closer to their home base which is therefore a more natural market for them.

“Our supply chain is long from paddock to fork, but it is vital that by the time the product gets to our customers it is still in quality shape and is ready for consumption. Therefore we need reliable freight partners as all the frozen products go to the Middle East by monthly containers by sea/. All the chilled products are airfreighted weekly at around -2 to -4 degrees centigrade. There is no active refrigeration so we have to rely on enough dry ice being put around the containers,” said Gunnis.

The man who moved the buffalo herd

That’s Amore Cheese is a totally different type of company. Giorgio Linguanti arrived in Melbourne in 2004 from his native Sicily speaking no English and got a job in a cheese factory. He founded his own Italian-style cheese company in 2008 that concentrates solely on mozzarella, and he has not looked back since. He now produces more than 40 varieties of mozzarella, using 5 million litres of milk every year and increasing.

The dynamic Linguanti only uses buffalo milk, which is essential for genuine mozzarella. When he started, Linguanti found a supplier in Northern Australia who had a herd of buffalo in the swampy rivers of the tropical northern coast, but the delivery time was more than five days. As the demand from That’s Amore Cheese got larger and larger, eventually Linguanti was in the position to ask the buffalo herd be moved south across the whole of Australia to take up residence on the banks of a river in north Victoria, where they continue to produce their valuable buffalo milk, but are only a day away from the factory.

Speaking to Gulf News last week, That’s Amore Cheese said that following this year’s Gulfood, the company has a new strategy to establish business across the MENA markets in an efficient and cost effective way, starting with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, then Bahrain before moving into Saudi Arabia and beyond. A lot of the challenge is making the cheese so that it maintains it freshness but is also able to handle the time spent in transport to the Gulf.

“Our best prospects appear to be our fresh Italian style cheese items and premium cheese like Secrets of the Forest, Drunken Buffalo & Lavato (washed rind), and early next year we will offer long life frozen mozzarella and target big volume pizza business,” said John Eberbach, Export Manager at That’s Amore Cheese, who added that while the Gulf is an important part of the company’s new territories, it runs alongside their other expansions in Japan and Hong Kong.

“We exhibited at Foodex Tokyo and just finished Hofex in Hong Kong where we had good reception and promising opportunities. We will enter markets with chilled product initially and introduce frozen in 2018,” said Eberbach.

An important part of their marketing is to make sure that the pizza business understands the value of offering good mozzarella, because pizza houses are important consumers of mozzarella. “I had to fight with the Melbourne restaurants at first,” said Linguanti. “Some of them were offering a wad of plastic on the dough, but Melbourne has a great gourmet culture and slowly more and more came to see the value of a quality product.”

A specific issue they have already solved is to make sure that their cheese is halal, which it might not be if they used rennet from animals. By using vegetarian rennet that issues has been put to rest, and now all their products are approved, and ready with Arabic labelling.

Yarra Valley Dairy

One small company out of many much larger competitors in Victoria’s large dairy industry has a very unusual link to Dubai that it wants to build on. Yarra Valley Dairy in Yerring is surrounded by the famous Yarra Valley wineries. Moet and Chandon are just across the valley and they wanted something solid to offer their guests at tastings so spoke to their neighbours to see if they could offer them something to accompany their famous champagnes.

“Our founder developed a rich and gorgeous feta marinated in thyme, and because of its lush style she wanted a name to match so she called it Persian feta,” said Caroline Evans, General Manager of Yarra Valley Dairy told Gulf News in the 110 year-old converted milling shed that is now the front shop of the dairy.

“We held the trademark for the name for 10 years, but then the authorities changed their ruling and we lost control of the name, and now we have many imitators using the name. “Nonetheless, a senior official from the Dubai government who was also part of Emirates airline was visiting Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival and was so interested in the name and loved the exotic cheese that he asked Emirates Airline to stock the cheese. We have been on the First Class menu ever since. We now want to expand on this, and build on the trickle that we currently have going into the US and the UAE. That’s why we like Gulfood,” said Evans.

Yarra Valley Dairy is an example of how small operators in Victoria build their market positon based on local quality. “We have 360 acres, and we use fresh milk from cows and goats. A cheese is a reflection of its terroir, and our cows and goats eat the grass from our fields with their specific signature, and also every season is slightly different so it is never totally the same.

“But in order to expand we will have to develop a new line,” explained Evans. “The existing brand is Yarra Valley Dairy which is the established artisan brand that we will be offering in the Gulf and which focus on the gourmet market. In order to roll out into the supermarkets we will develop Yarra Valley Cheese, which will be slightly longer lasting, and will not have the full range of some of the cheeses that we can offer here that cannot really travel or last very long.”