Down at Poly right now, there’s a dish on the menu so special and so limited that diners are calling ahead to check it’s availability, and if possible, pre-pay for a serve to be there waiting on Saturday night? Please? No can do, folks. Chef Colin Wood’s handmade, soft and luxurious jersey milk cheese, its crust burnished to a crème brûlée-esque crunch over the glowing coals of Poly’s hearth, waits for no one.
“We can’t take any credit for Colin’s cheese,” says Poly’s Mat Lindsay and it’s true. This dish, the golden glow of which draws likes in the thousands to the venue’s Instagram (need help with that? Email us), took Wood three months of solid R&D to perfect before finding a place on the menu. As is the nature of handmade things, some weeks there’s more to sell, sometimes less, but “if every table doesn’t order it, it’s a weird time,” says Lindsay. “If we do have the cheese, it’s gone by the end of the week.” Wood starts with 50 litres of fresh milk on Monday morning and usually ends up with around 6.5kg of cheese, or around 80 portions a week for the menu from Tuesday until it sells out. (As of right now you can order it online to cook at home, thanks lockdown.)
Wood’s career in curds and whey began at Andrew McConnell’s Cutler & Co in Melbourne, where he ran with an opportunity to craft a cheese-making program from scratch, completely reworking the way the cheese course is considered in the venue. Next, it was off to NYC, where his own camembert washed in sour ale aged quietly in the basement of his East Harlem and Park Slope rentals. Now that he’s settled in Sydney, Perth-born Wood is relishing in the “simple yet complex journey from milk to cheese.” He’s slowing down, concentrating on doing one thing and doing it well. Judging by the phone lines running hot, it’s paying off.
If you’re looking to compare Wood’s cheese at Poly to something already in your fridge, let’s just say it’s halloumi-adjacent. Halloumi as it’s traditionally made, much like Parmigiano and Gorgonzola, is now registered by the EU as a “Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)”, meaning unless it’s made in Cyprus from at least 51% sheep and goat’s milk, it ain’t “halloumi”. Wood is in Sydney, not Cyprus (poor guy, poor all of us!) and sources his milk from Gelato Messina’s own herd of Jersey cows on their patch of lush green land in Numurkah, Vic, resulting in a cheese that is “very different” to the Cypriot original. Wood “started with the process of making halloumi and made quite a few adjustments to get a softer, creamier and moreish texture.” He also played around with the seasoning and brining of the cheese, to bring a pleasing floral saltiness. “Halloumi made with cow’s milk usually has a squeak to it, a chalkier texture and is quite heavily seasoned,” says the chef. “This grilled cheese is all about the milk, and the way it's made and cooked allows that to come through.”
So, how is it cooked and served? For Wood, it “was always a dream to have it cooked over coals. The team [at Poly] starts it in a non-stick pan to build a crust, then grills it hard over the fire while brushing it with garlic oil that gives it an amazing smokey, garlic flavour. We then salt it and pepper it with Aleppo pepper, slosh a generous amount of good olive and serve with a lemon cheek.” For Lindsay, it’s sometimes the most simple dishes that are hardest to execute; there’s nowhere to hide. “Everyone has eaten grilled halloumi at a cafe or in a sandwich,” he says. “This is nothing like that. It’s just something very special, made right here in Sydney, within hours of collecting the fresh milk. It’s really exciting to see how something so simple can be so good, every day we’re getting calls about it.”
First in, first served.
Try Colin Wood’s handmade grilled jersey milk cheese at Poly, 74-76 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. Follow his cheese dreams on his Instagram.
It's now also available to order to cook at home for the people of inner Sydney, till July 9.
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