Cheese awards: Craggy Range Sheep Dairy puts Hawke’s Bay on map with gold medal sweep

It’s fair to say James and Kate Clairmont have earned the joint title of “the big cheese” in Hawke’s Bay.

The pecorino pop stars have put the region on the map by sweeping five gold medals, their best result to date, in the prestigious New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards.

“We’re totally blown away, actually. Five Golds is a huge haul, and we certainly didn’t expect it,” James Clairmont told Hawke’s Bay Today.

Judging was conducted at Hamilton’s Wintec Te Pūkenga in early March, with master judge Jason Tarrant guiding 30 judges through an evaluation of 253 New Zealand made cheeses.

One hundred and 87 cheesemakers were awarded medals, including Hōhepa Hawke’s Bay, which won two silver medals and a bronze medal for their cow milk-based products.

“The 72 gold, 71 silver and 44 bronze medals are a testament to their relentless pursuit of perfection, sparing no effort to craft cheeses that rival the finest in the world,” Tarrant said.

The Clairmonts and their two children started Craggy Range Sheep Dairy five years ago on their small farm on the foothills of the Craggy Range in Hastings.

They took inspiration from local landmarks to name their award-winning cheeses.

Maraetotara Manchego, Craggy Range Pecorino, Ocean Beach Feta, Tuki Tuki Farmhouse Danbo and Clive Cumino all won gold medals.

But what makes the couple’s tasty offerings stand out among the crowd?

“I’m going to say it’s the milk. It’s all about the milk,” Clairmont said.

“Sheep milk is superior in every way. It has more fat content, twice the calcium, and twice the protein. It’s also an A2 milk, so it’s really easy to digest.”

There were also added environmental benefits. In terms of an environmental footprint, Clairmont said you had about eight sheep to one cow.

“My wife and I have been in the game for a while, but the long short of it is that if you add to the table, you add to the community. That’s been our byline since day one.”

NZSCA chairman Simon Lamb noted the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards medal announcement was a timely focus on New Zealand cheese, coming in the week after the Government endorsed legislation to allow free trade with the EU.

Cheesemakers across the board have become increasingly concerned this will enable low-cost subsidised cheese to undercut locally made products.

“Like many Kiwis, cheesemakers are finding business conditions tough. Over the past 18 months, several boutique cheese companies have shut down,” he said.

“We’re pleased to host the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards, which provide an opportunity to stop and celebrate cheesemakers’ endeavour.”

The Clairmonts hope their delectable Craggy Range Pecorino will continue to shine at the 2024 NZ Champions of Cheese Awards gala dinner in Hamilton on Thursday, May 2.

“That’s where we’re hedging our bets this year, hoping it will win one of the big trophies.”


First published by Hawke’s Bay Today.