Dairy Australia asserts that the first commercial cheese factory in Australia was that of the Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) Company in Tasmania in the 1820s. However, although the company was founded in 1825 there is no record of their cheese until 1830. Cheese-makers in Bathurst, NSW, were certainly producing commercial quantities of cheese, including the famous Rankin’s cheese, by 1826, establishing the area as Australia’s first cheese region.
While it is impossible to say who made Australia’s first cheese, we can say with some certainty that Australia’s first cheese brand bore the name of its maker, Mrs Rankin. Rankin’s cheese is mentioned in accounts of the colonies and in newspapers from the 1820s to the 1840s.
An account of the establishment and history of Bathurst read to the Australian Historical Society in 1905 recounts that:
In 1826, Bathurst appeared to be in a flourishing condition, and the district had acquired fame for its cheese. Amongst the makers were Captain Piper, Mr. Innes and Mrs. Rankin. The latter’s cheese bore her name, and was sold wholesale at 9d. and 1/- per lb. Cheeses were sent to Sydney in many hundredweights at a time.
The first land grants in Bathurst had been made just 12 years earlier. George and Janet Ranken (also called Rankin) arrived in the district in 1822, having first emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land the previous year aboard the Lusitania. They were from Ayrshire in Scotland. The Rankens had a grant of 2000 acres with a mile frontage to the Macquarie River, and George planted vineyards, grew tobacco and established a dairy herd which eventually grew to more than 150 milking shorthorns.
Contemporary accounts sometimes refer to Mr. Rankin’s cheese. In 1830, the Sydney Gazette enthused:
So great is the repute of Mr. Rankin’s cheese, that he cannot keep pace with the demand.
He has teams constantly employed in carrying it from Bathurst to Sydney. To this gentleman the Colony is indebted for the excellence which its cheese has attained, to the exclusion of the foreign cheesemonger. Before he arrived in the Colony (about 8 years ago we think), it was wretched stuff, scarcely fit to put upon a decent table, He deserves, and we hope he will make, a handsome fortune.
Most accounts, however, attribute the cheese to Mrs Rankin, “a lady from the borders of Ayrshire”. The cheese was said to be “a good imitation of the celebrated Dunlop cheese from that county, but having some of the qualities of the Cheshire ingrafted upon it.”
Dunlop cheese is a mild, sweet, buttery-tasting cheese made from whole cow’s milk. It matures over six to twelve months to have a light, elegant flavour and originated in Ayrshire where it was often eaten roasted on an oat cake as a substantial breakfast. It was popular in the early 19th century but is now not much made. Cheshire cheese is milder than cheddar, but is dense and semi-hard with a moist, crumbly texture and mild, salty taste. We can surmise that Rankin’s cheese was somewhere in between.
Much of the cheese was shipped to Sydney and some was even exported to Van Diemen’s Land where, according to an 1833 account ” very little butter or cheese is yet made”. It seems that Rankin’s (or Ranken’s) cheese was produced at Bathurst at least until the 1840s, when a new factory was established.
The dairy herd was eventually dispersed and it is believed much of the stock went to the New South Wales south coast, where it contributed to the genetics of the Illawarra Milking Shorthorns.