It all started with three cows, two kids and no cash. Now Gay’s Guernsey Dairy in this Karoo town is famous for its milk, yoghurt and award-winning cheese…
Words and Pictures: Sue Adams
It’s not easy to deliver milk when you’re doing it solo. So the best is to load it into your bakkie, put the vehicle in neutral and the handbrake on just enough to cruise slowly down the road, and dash in and out delivering orders at each house.
This is how Gay van Hasselt managed in the early years of running a dairy, when she did everything from milking to deliveries. “But it’s best to do it really early when there’s no traffic on the road,” she says with a smile. Gay is about the size of a pint of milk but she more than makes up for it in energy and drive, and gives new meaning to the phrase ’n boer maak ’n plan.
“My husband, Clive, was a young farmer beginning with Angora goats here in the Karoo,” says Gay. “I had two small children, and three cows in a kraal, and needed to do something to earn some money.” And so, in 1990, she began selling one litre of raw milk for R1, from her back door.
When someone reported her for selling without a licence she decided to do the dairy properly, got herself a licence and fixed up one of the oldest farm buildings (built in 1762) in Prince Albert. She used to milk by hand and it could get chaotic trying to milk, sieve milk and sell milk at the same time.
“I remember an old tannie would come to buy milk and, if she saw I wasn’t coping, she’d start to milk the cows herself while I sold to customers,” says Gay. Often, weekends without staff would turn into a nightmare, so Gay automated the milking in 1994.
Gay found herself in a pickle when a farmer who was making cheese cancelled his enormous milk order. “I had to make a quick choice – throw away the milk and kill the cows for meat, or make the cheese myself,” Gay explains. In her indomitable style she had already gone off to Elsenburg in Stellenbosch to learn how to make feta. “I made it in a very ad hoc way in the beginning, in a cold box, but very few people had heard about feta back then so I decided to make hard cheese. It sold like hotcakes,” she says. “I drilled holes in buckets and used them as cheese presses. You make mistakes along the way but you make a plan.”
Gay expanded the dairy and built a cheese room. “But when I expanded I found some of the walls were too hot for the ripening process. I had to make a quick plan to insulate them with bales of lucerne that the Angora goats kept eating.” Later she used the old reservoir to make a cheese maturation room which is still in use today – a beautiful curved room stacked with golden rounds of cheese all maturing slowly.
‘We don’t eat vrot milk’, was the local community’s announcement when Gay first made yoghurt. “To make yoghurt I tried to use the surplus milk that the school hostel did not need in the holidays, but no-one would taste it so I had to get clever.” She began to give it away at Prince Albert functions and donate it as prizes. Once people tasted it they were convinced and came in droves to buy yoghurt. Now every week she makes 240 litres of yoghurt and the same of drinking yoghurt, some of it plain and some in delicious flavours like Black Cherry and Vanilla and Toffee.
Twenty six years down the line and Gay is now also famous for her cheeses, some award-winning. Her range includes a creamy mozzarella, and a mild Gouda and a mild cheddar (this has won international awards) both called called Prince Albert Royal. Her Prince Albert Regal, a strong cheddar, has also won world awards. Gay also produces Parma Prince (another big award winner), a hard Parmesan-type cheese, and her delicious feta.
But these golden rounds that win gold medals have not gone to her head. She loves her cows. “I’ve always had an affinity for Guernseys. Friends of ours had them where I grew up in the Adelaide/Winterberg area of the Eastern Cape. They also produce the healthiest milk, which is great what with our stringent health and cleanliness routines. I have 30 to 40 cows that I milk and that is quite big enough for me. I will not compromise on quality so I prefer to stay this size,” says Gay.
It might be called Gay’s Dairy but she says her staff are crucial to her success. Abraham Martins has worked for Gay for 20 years and is both a dairyman and cheese maker. He not only keeps a close eye on the milking process but is in charge of making the cheese and yoghurt.
Elizabeth Mienies who has been there for 10 years knows each cow’s family history and even the genetics of their grandparents. She is also able to do everything from the milking to stock taking, cheese making and sales. Aubin Martins, Abraham’s nephew, is fairly new to the dairy but is quickly making himself indispensable and is keen to learn.
“We know each cow by name and we pride ourselves on our happy healthy cows,” says Gay. If the quality of this milk, cheese and yoghurt depends on happy cows, then the cows are at the top end of the happy scale.
Gay’s Guernsey Dairy
- The dairy is almost in the middle of town. Ask anyone in Prince Albert where it is – it’s famous.
- Open 7 days a week morning and evening.
- Cheese tasting on request – well worth it.