We’re bouncing along a farm track beside the dark Goukamma River, the sun slanting through fresh spring growth on the trees and, if Chris Metelerkamp’s ancient Land Rover wasn’t growling so loudly, I swear we’d hear the lush grass growing.
It looks like paradise.
Rich and creamy
I’ve come to meet the Jersey girls responsible for the rich, creamy Goukambert, a Camembert cheese I’d tasted at the Wild Oats Market in Sedgefield last Saturday morning, at the stall run by Chris’ wife Jenny and daughter Heather. Their pedigree dairy herd is relatively small – just 24 milch kine (cows in milk) on the family farm in a pretty valley between the N2 west of Knysna and the Goukamma Nature Reserve.
“I couldn’t expand the herd any further, so I looked at how to add value.” Chris explains how he got into making cheese and rich, full-cream yogurt in 2003. He started with Cheddar, but his Ganzvlei Vastrap Mature Cheddar took 11 months to mature and he needed something that would be ready to sell sooner, so started making Camembert. The Blue Moon Roquefort cheese came later, as he had to build a separate shed for it so the blue mould wouldn’t mix with the other cheeses.
The Jersey girls are grazing in a far field today, but they come strolling up the track when they hear Chris’ vehicle, wondering why their favourite human is paying them an unscheduled visit. They saw him at the regular morning milking time of 3.30am and don’t expect to see the quietly spoken farmer with twinkling blue eyes again until the afternoon milking at 3.30pm.
In demand among breeders
As soon as Chris alights from the Land Rover, they crowd around him, nuzzling him affectionately. “They’re just curious,” shrugs Chris, reeling off names as he introduces me to the Jersey girls in his vicinity – Rosie, Roberta, Nasturtium, Gossamer, Rio, Jinks and Noluvuyo.
“How do you know which is which?” I ask, and realise immediately it’s a stupid question to ask a man whose every day is centred around his pedigreed cows, which have on occasion won the coveted ribbon for best dairy cow at agricultural shows.
Jerseys are generally the beauty queens of the bovine world, and these have soft coats almost as if they’ve been groomed. Contented doesn’t fully describe these lovely girls and it’s no surprise that Chris’ herd, registered as pure-bred Goosemarsh Jerseys, is in demand among breeders.
Chris and his late dad David have farmed here since 1978. David was one of the large Metelerkamp clan descended from a curator of the Knysna forests and, as a boy, he fell in love with this farm at first sight, a place of still waters, pastures, willow trees, honking Egyptian Geese and wild arum lilies. “This is where I want to live,” he told his father when they visited cousins who owned Ganzvlei at the time.
David finally realised his dream when he was 50. Having struggled to farm in the sandveld near Cullinan and in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, he saw Ganzvlei was up for sale during a visit to Knysna. The original house where his Aunt Mimmie had taught school was dilapidated, having been used as a hay shed, but he was determined to buy the property. It was a complicated sale and it was almost a year before the farm was finally his.
Surviving the Knysna fire
They chose to farm with nature, going the organic route long before it became trendy, and harnessed the power of earthworms to enrich the soil, making two blades of grass grow where only one grew before. Their Jerseys, already a breed renowned for high butter fat and protein content, provided milk that became even richer and their Aberdeen Angus beef was as succulent as Scotland’s best.
Chris studied at Cedara College of Agriculture in KwaZulu-Natal and still believes in doing things the old-school way. “I’m not prepared to skimp on certain things,” he says pragmatically. “One does things for commercial reasons at the end of the day, and the health and happiness of animals are important.” He follows organic principles but his cheeses are not certified organic. “I reserve the right to treat a sick cow with antibiotics if necessary,” he says.
The well-being of his animals is paramount. During the big Knysna fire last year, Ganzvlei was engulfed in smoke as the blaze surrounded the farm. Chris and his family were ordered to evacuate, but he was back two hours later to check on his animals.
His prize Aberdeen Angus stud bulls had a narrow escape. “I expected to find them charred and dead on the hillside, but they were on a bald patch, looking shocked.” Thankfully he didn’t lose any animals as only the upper parts of the farm burnt, but he had to sell many of his cattle as grazing was scarce and feed costly, “if you could get it”.
Back in the dairy, which Chris built soon after joining his father on the farm, he shows me the rounds of Goukamberts draining after being made the previous day, ready to be salted by hand. “The white mould only starts to grow on the outside after about a week. It must be relatively humid for the mould to grow,” explains Chris.
The Cheddar is made the old-fashioned way with cheesecloth in a plastic mould. “As the whey seeps out, it develops its own rind.” Black wax is applied before it goes into the cool room. After 11 months, the Ganzvlei Vastrap Mature Cheddar is sliced up and vacuum-packed ready for sale.
On the way to the building where Ganzvlei’s Blue Moon cheese is cultured, we pass some rather large pigs. “They’re an important adjunct to our operation – they consume all the whey and spoilt cheese and yogurt,” says Chris. They in turn become Ganzvlei’s smoked pork products.
In the cool room, Chris shows me how the salted cheeses are pierced to leave passages for the blue mould to grow into as they age over two to three months. “They look quite ugly but taste better than they look,” he says with a grin.
For a given volume of milk, Jerseys yield more cheese due to higher solids percentages. Chris admits cheese-making can be tricky and likens it to baking bread, “The recipe is simple and the ingredients few, but the end product doesn’t always turn out exactly the same.”
He doesn’t believe that there are any real secrets to the process, but the freshness of ingredients is important. “One must closely monitor temperature and acidity and a good-quality cheese can only be made from good-quality milk.”
He’s clearly doing something right as the Ganzvlei Vastrap Mature Cheddar was placed third in the country three years in a row at the South African Dairy Championships, soon after he started making it. “I guess the highlight of the awards we’ve won was a silver medal for my Ganzvlei Blue Moon in the 2014 World Jersey Championships,” he says modestly. It certainly pays to keep these Jersey girls happy.
Ganzvlei cheese and yoghurt is sold directly from the dairy door and at Wild Oats Farmers’ Market in Sedgefield every Saturday morning. It’s also available at selected Garden Route delis and at the Cheese Gourmet in Linden, Johannesburg,
The Real Cheese in Cape Town, The Bakery and Fine Cheese Shop in Kenton-on-Sea, and Fusion Foods in Grahamstown.
Ganzvlei 083 373 3889, www.ganzvlei.co.za
Guests at Ganzvlei’s self-catering cabin for two are supplied with fresh farm eggs and milk. Bookings via Air B&B. www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/17732098