Out-of-the-ordinary cheeses produced on a KwaZulu-Natal Midlands farm reflect a quirky creativity. There’s even one called Rainbow Nation…
Words and Pictures: Andrea Abbott
“I’d always vowed I’d make cheese,” Chrissie Briscoe tells me. It’s a pledge that goes back to when she was a little girl in Kenya and her mother was making Swedish Whey cheese. “The smell was like peanut butter & fudge combined – it was heavenly.” Chrissie is showing me round her cheese factory on the family farm, Galtee More in rural Eston in the KZN Midlands.
It’s a short tour: there are just two rooms, the first the size of a single garage. It houses cheese and dairy equipment including a milk cooler that at the flick of a switch doubles up as a pasteuriser. This squeaky clean contraption modified by Chrissie herself minimises the chance of contamination because it reduces the number of times milk is transferred.
“Cheese making is hugely risky,” she says. “It depends on the quality of milk down to the last drop. If any milk is compromised, one gets vrot cheese, period.” We move into the cold room, also Chrissie’s work – “I built it myself, by hand.” There in the cool darkness, rounds of cheeses of many types sit upon shelves, maturing slowly inside their crusts, and being turned regularly until they’re ready to go out into the world.
And such cheeses! There are, to name a few: Smoked Paprika Cheese; Herbed Brie; Sage Derby (“My flagship variety,” says Chrissie); Stilton type truckles (“Authentic Stiltons are made in only Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire.”); Natal Beetroot – a salmon coloured red cheddar; and Natal Red Sage (“My most popular,”) also called Rainbow Nation on account of its bands of red and green.
These, like all the others in that cold room are out-of-the-ordinary cheeses that reflect their maker’s quirky creativity. “I love colour,” says Chrissie who wears purple that day. “Making just a prolific cheese, with nothing significant about it, seemed dull so I began to introduce herbs from my garden, especially sage. I was the first person in the country to introduce herbs and pepper into Feta.”
Wielding a mighty knife, she opens a round of Green Sage and slices off a sliver for tasting. My verdict? Yum! Chrissie is delighted; chefs once rejected the now famous cheese saying it was too blue. (What a colour conscious nation we are!) This was after Chrissie struggled to get hold of her usual natural green food dye and resorted to a different brand. It meant a sizeable loss of income and the batch having to be sold off cheaply elsewhere.
“I used a new line for this one,” she says, beaming. Immediately, she’s on the phone to Cape Town cheese broker, Valerie Elder of The Real Cheese who’s distributed Chrissie’s creations on the Cape Peninsula for the past 25 years. “I have with me a journalist. She’s going to give you her assessment of the Green Sage.” Crumbs, Chrissie – I’m just a journo; not a cheese fundi.
What started Chrissie on her cheese-making journey, aside from that childhood vow? “Our youngest son was diagnosed with cancer at the age of four. The prognosis was bleak but he miraculously pulled through,” she recounts. “After that stressful chapter, I had to find a means of normalising my own life. My husband, Peter suggested that since the ban on making boutique cheeses had been lifted, I should learn to make cheese.”
Chrissie went on two courses, one in Plettenberg Bay and the other at Irene Dairy Sciences Institute in Pretoria. “None of my teachers thought I would make cheese, but I haven’t stopped making it for 25 years.”
Initially, the milk was from the farm’s herd of Afrikander cows whose bloodlines, Chrissie says, go back to cattle that Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius brought from Zululand in the 1840’s. Cheese aside, Chrissie’s great passion is history and suddenly we’re off at a tangent and I’m being told absorbing tales about KZN’s past, Chrissie’s family connections to the famous D’Isgney Cheese makers of Normandy (“Cheesemaking’s in my blood!”) and Peter’s royal ancestry – but that’s for another story!
We get back on the cheese track, and I hear about the small herd of free-ranging Ayrshire cows Peter bought when the business took off. “Ayrshire milk, along with Swiss Brown, is the best for making cheese since it contains small globules of evenly-dispersed fat which don’t collect on the surface in large fat globules.”
The combination of perfect ingredients and the maker’s panache resulted in exceptional cheeses – award-winners among them – that were soon in demand as far afield as Mauritius and wine estates and restaurants around the Cape Peninsular. “My focus has always been to create a ‘cheeseboard’ – a selection of cheeses to suit all palates,” Chrissie explains. Eschewing commercialism in favour of retaining the ‘creative joy’ of making cheese, she has kept her operation at a micro level. Nevertheless, fame has spread and some unusual people have arrived out of the blue at Galtee More. Among them were a ‘very pukka’ Englishwoman and her husband. “They’d heard about my enterprise via a mutual friend in England, and were inviting themselves in for tea.”
The woman was world renowned cheese maker, Olivia Mills who was to become one of Chrissie’s mentors. It was probably through Olivia that the organisers of the prestigious Nantwich Show Cheese Festival in England got to hear about Chrissie, subsequently inviting her to be a judge at the 2013 show.
“I went there expecting to learn so much,” she says, “but I came away with almost no new ideas. Instead, people wanted to hear about cheese making in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Who better as an ambassador for South African cheese than the ebullient maker of Rainbow Nation.
- Chrissie’s popular ‘shop window’ is at Shongweni Farmer’s Market outside Durban. It’s also her platform for introducing her experiments and new varieties to the public. 082 558 6049