Australian cheesemaker brings Anthill cheese to the U.S.
A few years ago, Kris Lloyd’s friend, chef Jock Zonfrillo, brought her a bucket of ants. The creative cheesemaker felt challenged to incorporate this unusual ingredient—indigenous to her native Australia—into a cheese recipe. Excuse the pun, says Lloyd, but “Jock understands how I like to step outside the mold.”
Zonfrillo, a Scottish-born, Australian transplant and chef, owns Restaurant Orana in Adelaide. He is also the founder of the not-for-profit Orana Foundation, a database celebrating native ingredients. He offered Lloyd a “crazy ingredient” as inspiration. Lloyd, who owns Woodside Cheese Wrights and Kris Lloyd Artisan in Adelaide Hills, Australia, attempted to stuff the ants into the center of a soft bloomy rind cheese. It was “dreadful.”
Then she realized she could achieve complexity through simplicity. She decided to put the ants on top and allow their red-brown bodies and bulbous green behinds to decorate the pretty little cake of goat cheese, while providing a burst of flavor and texture on its first bite.
Cheese incorporating Australia’s native flora is as delicious as it is beautiful.
Anthill—the name reflects the clumped shape of the ants’ nest—is enhanced by Weaver Ants (Oecophylla Smaragdina) found in Australia. It took Lloyd about four months to get the product just right.
“It’s a sexy, dynamic cheese with great flavor,” says Cathy Strange, vice president of Specialty, Product Innovation and Development for Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market. She had the opportunity to try Anthill at its debut when she was a judge at the Guild of Fine Food’s 2016 World Cheese Awards in San Sebastian, Spain. It was her first time eating an ant, although she had eaten other insects. Now she is a fan.
Whole Foods’ policy prohibits the sale of insects, but Strange says she hopes to one day sell Anthill in the chain’s cheese department. “What was surprising was how much I really, really loved the flavor of the ants. There was a wonderful citrus explosion in your mouth. It’s highlighted by the creaminess of the cheese itself and the texture. That product is really darn good.”
Look closely at the decorative top of Anthill and you will see whole ants, which lend a bit of texture, says Lloyd. “The flavor of the ants is bright and fresh. It tastes like kaffir lime and lemongrass—a perfect complement to the Chèvre, which is highly acidic. That is further enhanced by lemon myrtle, which is also grown and dried in Adelaide Hills. There has to be the right combination of lemon myrtle to ants. You don’t want the lemon myrtle to overpower the ants.”
Harvested or foraged under license, the ants are found in a specific region in the north part of the country. The indigenous people of Australia do the farming of the gulgulk (the ants’ native name). “They have been eating these ants for thousands of years,” says Lloyd. “I was the first person who thought about putting them on cheese.”
The ants have a spider’s thread, which allows them to pull the leaves together and make a nest, says Lloyd. The ants curl leaves over to create a cavity where they live and lay eggs. The harvester takes the entire nest from the tree—there are hundreds of thousands of these nests in the bush—and ships the ants alive to Lloyd, who has to be careful not to get bitten. “They bite really hard,” she says.
If the ants arrive dead, “the flavor is gone,” says Lloyd. “The bugs are then snap frozen (a process of rapidly cooling) and that is where they retain their lovely flavor. Eating the abdomen is like having a little caviar pearl pop in your mouth.”
While Anthill is a novelty and conversation starter, Lloyd says the most important part is the base cheese. Aged five days, “the Chèvre is creamy and seasoned just perfectly—not too salty. It’s about a really bloody good cheese. It is the hero, with some friends along for the ride. The secondary ingredients are complementary, but if the cheese is substandard, I have nothing.”
From Wine to Cheese
Lloyd’s background is in marketing and corporate development. Twenty-five years ago, she was working with her husband Paul in his family’s Coriole Vineyard in McLaren Vale, a wine region of Adelaide. She made gift baskets by combining wines with accoutrements that were also made on the vineyard—vinegar, olives and olive oil. What was missing? Cheese.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to make cheese here?” Lloyd’s winemaker at the time said, ‘Woodside Cheese factory up in Adelaide Hills is up for sale. I thought ‘Wow, the timing is really interesting.’ So, we had a look at it.”
Despite being ahead of their time—making goat cheese and cloth-wrapped Cheddars—and having an entrepreneurial spirit, the young, British couple who opened the factory were lacking in business skills, says Lloyd. In 1998, she bought Woodside Cheese Wrights.
“I knew I could make it work, because I had business and creative marketing skills,” says Lloyd, who had no interest in making cheese. “I thought, I’ll just steer the business in a better direction, and it will all be fine.”
About a year after buying Woodside, Lloyd realized that no one working in the factory had a real understanding of cheesemaking. No one knew what made it good or what to do if the cheese is too soft. “It was more like, ‘let’s follow the recipe and keep our fingers crossed.”
One day, when most of the staff was out sick, Lloyd was forced to make the cheese. “I put on whites and a head cap. I was so taken with the process. One minute I have milk and about three hours later I have cheese. It was so cool. I realized that this is really amazing.”
She immersed herself into finding out everything about cheesemaking, including going around the world to learn from the masters. She practiced at Woodside, and “for about two years, we threw out a lot of cheese.”
More than 20 years later, Lloyd says everything is still made by hand using local milk. She still feels the same passion and pride while making cow, goat and buffalo cheeses. “There’s a science to it, but there’s also room for a lot of creativity. It gives me great joy to see the cheeses. They’re like my little babies. Some have a wrinkly rind or a geotrichum (mold), and they are individuals in many respects.”
Lloyd is promoting the terroir of South Adelaide’s cheese. “The flavors are like no others found in the world and are very specific to South Australia,” says Stephanie Ciano, vice president of international purchasing at Armonk, NY-based World’s Best Cheese, who imports the cheese to the United States.
“We are very lucky here that the milk we use is the top quality,” says Lloyd. “It is some of the finest milk in the world. You can’t get it any better than starting off with this milk. It’s like making wine. Great grapes produce great wine.”
Milk is a real representation of place for Lloyd. “Each farm is located in a slightly different location, so each milk will have a slightly different nuance. Our animals are pasture-fed, grazing on paddocks, then moved around to creek beds that grow different flora, wildflowers and grasses. Our milk has distinctive flavors because of the different geographical locations.”
Works of Art
Lloyd makes 25 cheeses. Cheese made from buffalo milk sits within the Kris Lloyd Artisan range, while Woodside’s cheeses are made from cow and goat’s milk.
“My cheesemaking is a bit unorthodox in many respects,” says Lloyd. “I don’t want to make Brie and Camembert because that’s the French story. I want to make a cheese that tells a story about my country. Only one person in the whole world is making Anthill, and that’s me. It’s my story and a story about an Australian, an Australian cheesemaker, Australian milk. This has all led me to be mindful about the cheeses I’m producing now.”
Golden Blossom and Blackwood cheeses are both ecorated with local flowers, yet Golden Blossom is adorned with 23K-gold foil and the Australian acacia bloom. Both cheeses come with a little vial of native honey. “These cheeses are like art and in a class by themselves,” says Ciano.
Covered in colorful petals, Woodside’s Monet resembles a cake. “When I made it in 2006, people said you won’t ever commercialize that. I thought ‘Yeah? Wanna bet?’ The cheese is now the only Australian cheese featured in Madison Square Garden’s luxury boxes.”
Anthill sells wholesale for about $12.44 per unit; retail for $24.99 per unit of 100g roughly. The expense is the ants, which cost $600 Australian dollars per kilo (or $195.96 USD per pound).
Decad-ant But Worth It
“I believe it is the most expensive cheese exported from Australia,” says Ciano.
Anthill is marketed as a luxury product. Australian airline Qantas serves it as part of its cheese platter to those in business and first class.
Lloyd suggests pairing it with champagne. “The combination of ingredients come together to sing a beautiful song in your mouth.”
At this year’s Brazilian Cheese Awards in August, Anthill came in second among 1,000 entrants. “I was not expecting that. The competition was amazing,” says Lloyd. Anthill received a 20 out of 20.
At the World Cheese Awards in Spain, Anthill won a Super Gold Medal in 2016. Adrian Boswell, a cheese buyer at Selfridges in the UK, was the judge that championed it to the final sitting of judge’s jury.
“That’s where it all started. Adrian was taken by its uniqueness. Aside from the flavor profile, he also considered it to be so innovative and different. He thought that needed to be recognized,” says Lloyd.
Ciano says Americans have embraced the idea of eating ants on cheese, beyond the novelty of it.
Americans had their first sampling of Anthill at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City in 2018. “People were really, really interested and surprised to find there were actually ants on the cheese,” says Lloyd. “It’s a curious thing when they taste it, they say ‘that’s amazing.’ It has been really well-received in the United States. Americans have adventurous palates.”
Lloyd said less than one out of every 10 American foodies at the show refused to try it. Some say, “Oh no, no I can’t do that.” But those who tried it, liked it.
Anthill is now FDA approved and available in the United States. The cheese is also popular with chefs, retailers and distributors across various countries like Australia, Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore.
There is no other cheese like Anthill, so bringing it in with insects “was unchartered territory,” says Ciano. “It took a lot of work to get the Anthill here and I was very proud to have been able to pioneer it.”
As anyone who has tried to enjoy a sandwich al fresco on a hot day can attest, insects exist in abundance. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bugs, according to Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, who believes the global food supply may soon rely on creepy crawlies.
“As we look to the future and sustainability, we also begin exploring other food and nutrient sources, such as insects, as a source of protein,” says Ciano.
Entomophagy, the human consumption of insects, has been practiced by societies around the world. The Mopane Worm is considered a delicacy in Zimbabwe, while Colombians pop fried “big-butt” ants into their mouths like peanuts.
Inspired by a new and challenging ingredient, restaurateurs and chefs have jumped on board—from four-time James Beard Award finalist Hugo Ortega’s tomatillo grasshoppers (chapulines in Spanish) to Rick Bayless’ margarita rimmed with spicy worm salt.
For Lloyd, it’s about fun and flavor.