Say cheese

2008-09-10 00:00

FOURTEEN years ago, the late dairy farmer Jimmy Harris reached a crossroads in his professional life: either he had to increase his milk production or he had to add value to the milk he was producing. He chose the latter. Harris and his wife, Wendy, attended a cheese-making workshop in Pretoria and on their return, started to experiment with the production of cheese.

Today, the happy outcome of Harris’s decision is Indezi River Cheese based at Balgowan. Launched in 2002, it is now one of the biggest producers of pure goats’ milk cheese in South Africa, with customers — mainly in the catering industry — around the country.

“And we can even say we’ve graced the tables of presidents,” says Harris’s daughter Barbara Robertshaw, who oversees cheese production at the farm. “President Thabo Mbeki’s people ordered our cheeses for his inauguration dinner in 2004.”

Indezi is now extending its reach even further, with products from its soft cheese range about to be served to passengers of South African Airways and Emirates. Back at the farm in Balgowan, an airy new factory wing has just been completed to cater for the increase in production in both goats’ milk and cows’ milk cheeses. Over 80% of the milk used to make the cheese is taken from Indezi’s 160 milking goats and 48 Jersey cows.

Unfortunately, Harris’s death as a result of cancer over two months ago meant that he never saw the completed building. But the baton has been safely passed to his daughters — Robertshaw and Derryn Nash — together with their respective husbands Andrew and Paul.

“It’s a passion,” says Robertshaw of the family’s commitment to cheese and other dairy products. Robertshaw is frequently invited to talk to various groups on the cheese-making process and says that between herself and her mother, whom she describes as a “master cheese maker”, they can answer most questions about cheese.

The business is a “legacy” to Harris who, according to his daughter, had the drive and determination to see the venture succeed. For Robertshaw, a large part of the business’s success lies in its “local is lekker” approach, which is reflected in the names given to the cheeses in consultation with Indezi’s Zulu-speaking staff.

Names for the cheeses, which range from soft cheeses to Parmesans “and everything in between”, include Calabash, Nandi and Kwaito. A layered cheese was given the name uMcimbi (meaning celebration in Zulu) in 2004 to commemorate 10 years of democracy.

“We were determined to give our cheeses South African names,” says Robertshaw. “Our sales guys were sceptical. They said cheese buyers only know Cheddar and Gouda, but I had a sense that South Africans were quickly becoming exposed to exotic-type cheeses through festivals and magazines.”

It was also clear to Robertshaw that the quality of South African cheeses was sufficient to justify them standing on their own without using the names of their European counterparts.

“I nearly gave in,” she says of the pressure from her marketers. “But six years on, we have found our place in the exotic cheese market. Our brand is recognised and people are far more comfortable with the idea of South African cheeses with South African names.”

According to Robertshaw, there’s also a growing appreciation of the health benefits of goats’ milk, which is generally more digestible than cows’ milk, is a good source of calcium and contains more natural fluorine, and vitamins B1, A and D than fresh cows’ milk.

Drinking goats’ milk also results in the production of less mucous, says Robertshaw.

“People who put their children onto goats’ milk and goats’ milk products notice a difference, particularly with regard to ailments such as sinusitis, post-nasal drip and phlegm,” she said.

And because the fat globules and protein molecules of goats’ milk are finer than those of cows, she says it tends to produce less colic and intestinal upsets in babies and also seems to help children suffering from asthma, eczema, colitis and migraines.

Adults suffering from hiatus hernias, ulcers and diverticulitis also seem to benefit from drinking goats’ milk, says Robertshaw.

Robertshaw is keen to dispel the notion that goats’ milk is, well … goaty.

“There’s a stigma attached to goats milk — that it’s unpleasant and has a strong taste — but our products are distinctly un-goaty. That’s the result of tight management of the herd and the milking process.”

According to Robertshaw, the strong taste normally associated with goats’ milk products is the result of hormones and is particularly noticeable at breeding time.

“The billy goats are kept separate from the ewes to limit hormone production and in the dairy we pay particular attention to cooling the milk quickly. In this way the strong flavour is reduced.”

During mating season, when hormones are in full flight, Robertshaw adjusts the kinds of cheeses she makes accordingly, and the production of bottled goats’ milk is temporarily put on hold.

Indezi has found a popular market for its bottled milk in the Cape, ironically home to large goat herds. The popularity of the milk lies partly in the fact that, being ultra-pasteurised, it has a shelf life of about six weeks.

“My dad fiddled for two years and was the first to find a way to achieve ultra-pasteurisation,” says Robertshaw. “The shelf life of fresh goats’ milk is very short, so we needed to find some way to make it last. He found it.”

The farm is also playing a role in setting standards for the dairy goats’ milk industry, with Paul Nash representing the farm in a fledgling dairy goats’ milk producers organisation.

• Indezi River Cheese has no retail outlet on the farm, but products are available in Pietermaritzburg at Parklane Spar and at the Hilton Farm Stall.

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