From Cheese to Trees

Sophie Classon believes she has found her dream, of raising a family where her children can ride bikes for miles and swing from trees. Three years ago, she and her family left busy North Fitzroy, and an equally busy career as an Affineur (cheese expert) and cafe manager, for Healesville.Within two days of moving into their new home, a friend introduced her to, what would become, a close circle of friends. She soon found time to join a book club and pick up a tennis racket, things that her previous life seldom allowed.

Healesville was one of two options for the tree change to regional Victoria. Red Hill was the other.  But it was in Healesville that Sophie and her husband Michael found the home they live in today with their children Gideon and Zoe. The beautiful, gabled abode was built in 1917 and is set on four acres of gentle rolling hillside. It was originally built as a holiday house for a Balwyn family. A circular driveway sweeps around the entry to the home that was once a carriageway to the front door. Over time the home has been extended and renovated and has an unusual mix of architectural styles. Sophie initially viewed the home’s unique make up with trepidation. But, her love of a challenge, boundless energy and appreciation for open space, the mature trees and the prospect of owning ducks and chickens, soon saw the contract signed. “I thought, oh what am I going to do with this? But as I say, I do like a challenge. I barrel up to things and then go, oh god I’m here.”

Sophie had some previous experience in home renovation and with a keen eye for detail and aesthetics she has created a modern home which can stack up to all that a young family can dish out. Although some parts, such as the kitchen, are now gleaming examples of contemporary style, she has managed to delicately preserve the character elements of the home, paying homage to its history.  The garden also showed signs of various tastes and era’s.“It was no Edna Walling who put that planting in here,” she laughs. Big changes were also to occur in the garden, with Sophie being rather relentless when it came to clearing out some plants, she was more considered with others. New features of her garden are the outdoor wood-fired oven and the two large veggie gardens where Sophie and her family regularly gather home grown produce for the table. Moving to the country took a certain amount of adjustment. Sophie recalled on one freezing October night when her brother was visiting from the city that he asked, ‘What is the white stuff on the mountain?” It was then that she realised how far they had come to be able to see snow from the yard.

“I had walked around with a dirty great city sign on my head, for so long.” But the family was keen to throw themselves knee deep into a new lifestyle. Another incident Sophie remembered from those early days was a mission into the middle of the paddock at night, to sit around a campfire with marshmallows, or another time when the couple again found themselves outside in the middle of the night, but this time using blankets to trying to shepherd the chickens back into the chook run. “We’ve done the silliest things,” she said.

Despite the slight culture shock there have been many high points to the tree-change. “There was a moment when my daughter Zoe rode past on her pony Balty, with saddle and bridle and smiled. I thought, there it is, living the dream. It’s better than I could have possible imagined.”

Two years on and the honeymoon period is yet to fade. As Sophie wanders around her property her enjoyment is palpable. She picks lemons and is followed by a gaggle of individually named ducks. “There are those little things giving rays of joy, like when ducks come belting up to you, with their legs flying, quacking loudly, saying, can you give me some food.”

The landscape also continues to surprise and astonish Sophie. “A girlfriend rang me on her way to work one day and told me to go out into the street and look down. So I did and the whole hillside was an insane colour of pink and everything just had this clarity. I could just feel the lump in my throat. So I stood for a while, thinking that’s just pretty gorgeous.” Speaking of her past city life Sophie said, “I don’t miss a thing, I really don’t. I know every shop, every cafe and every place to buy shoes and I don’t want it anymore. People can get lost in the city.” As we move around the garden Sophie speaks and moves quickly and there is rarely an idle moment in her day. Sophie’s successful career as a highly respected cheese expert began in the early 1990’s. At the time she was working in a gourmet pizza shop in Fitzroy with friend Ricci, who many may know from Ricci’s Bikkies. One of the owners of the shop was Will Studd, a highly acclaimed cheese expert this association led Sophie to have exposure to amazing cheeses and fine food in the restaurants of Melbourne, and it was the cheese that took her fancy.

She became something of a protégé and was sent on trips around Australia in a Volkswagen Transporter, to learn all there was to know about cheese. It was an integral part of building a solid knowledge base. “I was learning on my feet.” Will reinvigorated the now famous Calendar Cheese Company, where Sophie went to work. The next project was the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder and Will asked Sophie to come on board. She managed around $80,000 worth of cheese and the delicate process to make sure the integrity of the cheese remained, just as the cheese maker had intended. Sophie worked for 11 years, 60 hours a week, on and off, in amongst having her two children.

Balance is now offered in her new lifestyle and by husband Michael, who Sophie says, is her antithesis. Not leaving her passion and knowledge of cheese behind, Sophie now consults for Kitchen and Butcher in Healesville and is often called upon, to advise for national and international companies, requesting her expertise to open cheese rooms. She has another dream, to see that all good food stores have purpose built cheese cabinets, with the right temperature, right humidity and trained staff. She looks forward to, in time, the opportunity to consult more regularly and perhaps even have a little market stall or cheese shop.  In country life, Sophie has found the healthy outdoor life she’d hoped to create for her children, people around her she loves and the ability to combine it all with her love of cheese.

Sophie’s thoughts on cheese   

Sophie Classon imparts some of her extensive cheese knowledge and thoughts about cheese, and it seems that there is more to cheese than mere butter and cream. According to Sophie the language of cheese needs to be used carefully. If it genuinely speaks of something, then it is ok to say so, but it is sometimes ok to just say, ‘This is just bloody yummy.’ Some local cheeses are better than their imported equivalent and her cabinet is filled with quality, tasty cheeses, not necessarily based on where they are from, and she does like to support local cheese. There is no simple answer to storing cheese, so educate yourself and trust your instincts. She has written a guide, K&B – guide to cheese care, available at Kitchen and Butcher in Healesville. Raw milk cheese is on the horizon for the industry, but many are apprehensive. Sophie thinks only a select few cheese makers should be given the responsibility, as it is more volatile and much more complex characters come through in the cheese, making the process more difficult.Sophie doesn’t really have favourites, but enjoys traditionally made, quality cheeses made from great milk and technique, from companies, which don’t try and do too much. She will often source new cheeses, gather a group of girlfriends around her big table eating cheese and perhaps, have a little chat about the new things on the scene.

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