This story was first published on 7 March 2018 and was updated on 15 January 2019 by Leigh Hermon
Andrea Abbott discovers three unique, family-owned creameries in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands that certainly know how to say it with cheese
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If you’re a turophile you’ll know your Gorgonzola from your Stilton and your Coverdale from your Wensleydale. You’ll also know that, in our country, the days of tasteless cheese are gone thanks to a growing league of artisan cheese makers whose products can hold their own on cheeseboards anywhere in the world.
The tour begins at The Gourmet Greek, where Dimitri and Rosemary Dimitriades started their cheese adventure in 2012 as an antidote to retirement. “We’d sold our Zululand sugar-cane farm and retired to our dream home at the coast,” says Rosemary.
Ever enterprising, Dimitri soon grew bored and looked around for something to do. That turned out to be a smallholding in Lion’s River, where the couple decided to make authentic Greek dairy products using recipes handed down through generations.
Before long, they were rushed off their feet as orders poured in from near and far. Daughter Filia stepped in to help the ex-retirees. She gave up her teaching job, moved to the farm, and became a master cheese maker even though, she says, “I vowed I wouldn’t make cheese.”
Demand for the handcrafted cheeses and award-winning double-thick yogurt grew so much that son Iakovos and his wife Megan returned from London a couple of years ago, set up home on the farm, and pitched in their expertise. “As we grow and expand, we’re exploring ways of doing things more efficiently,” says business-savvy Iakovos. “Our products though, will always be handcrafted.”
Not content to rest on their cheese laurels, this go-getting family now also farms free-range pigs and cultivates vegetables, lemons, avos, grapes and olives according to organic principles. “Our goal is to build a lifestyle where everything used here is produced here,” says Iakovos.
And while it all appears so easy, the effort that goes into producing these top-quality products is Herculean. As if the farming and dairy production aren’t enough to keep everyone busy, the family recently opened the Blue Cow Deli on the farm.
A not-to-be-missed Midlands Meander destination, it stocks the full, delicious range of Gourmet Greek products, while also serving authentic Greek dishes like souvlaki, moussaka, spanakopita, and mezze boards that bear a tantalizing array of Hellenic treats such as deep-fried zucchini in batter, keftedes, fried haloumi fingers, tsatziki, dolmathes and fasolia. While all this might sound like Greek to you, be assured all of it is food of the gods.
Savouring an Aegean-infused lunch on the shaded terrace of the Blue Cow Deli, in the warm company of this ebullient family, I suddenly have a hankering to travel to Greece. And then I realise I’m already there, on a little Greek Island in the KZN Midlands.
From Greece, my tour takes me to France. La Petite France is on Preston Farm not far from Howick along the less-travelled Karkloof Road. Out of this tucked-away creamery comes Camembert and Brie so magnifique that even the most discerning French gourmand would struggle to believe they’re not made in France.
To be sure, La Petite France’s flagship cheeses are as Gallic as can be for they were developed by French cheese maker, Hubert Verbizier who moved to South Africa and started making Camembert in Hilton, which is not far from Preston Farm. “Hubert chose our milk because it matched his style of cheese,” says owner of Preston, Grant Warren who bought La Petite France in 2013.
What made that perfect fit is Grant’s farming philosophy. “Our free-range cows feed exclusively on grass – rye grass in winter, kikuyu in summer. We never feed them grains.” A grass diet, I learn, makes all the difference to the taste and quality of milk.
And it’s quality not quantity that’s at the heart of Preston Farm. Grant, who grew up on the farm and has a BSc in Horticulture, adds that most grain crops are genetically modified and sprayed with herbicide. That, to him, is anathema.
We stroll across the rich pastures to meet some of the herd. They’re restingin a lush field, picnicking on kikuyu and clover. There are Jerseys, Swedish Reds and a mix of the two. “Our cows produce 1 000 litres of milk a day,” Grant says. Some is sold to The Gourmet Greek, and the rest goes into the La Petite France products, the milk going from cow to cheese-making process in one morning.
“I’ve stayed true to the original Brie and Camembert,” Grant says. “And added other varieties – Hilton Blue, Tilsiter, and three varieties of feta preserved in olive oil.” The cheeses, along with yogurt, butter, and decadently thick cream, are stocked at The Cheese Café that’s the domain of Grant’s sister, Carolyn Burchell. It’s a charmingly unpretentious café where you can bank on farm-style food made slowly from locally sourced ingredients. Even the pottery used for baking Brie is made in Dargle by potter, Lindsay Scott.
Carolyn insists too that every dish on the menu must contain at least one ingredient from the farm. The home-baked scones, for example, are served with that cream to beat all creams. ‘From pasture to plate’ is how Carolyn describes the fare she serves. “This is, after all, a working farm. The Cheese Café allows visitors to experience a real farm ambience.”
My dairy jaunt ends at another Midlands Meander destination – Indezi River Creamery in Balgowan. Indezi is Zulu for flying water, a reference to the river that flows through the farm where this now famous creamery was born. Owner Barbara Robertshaw learnt the art of cheese making from her parents, Jimmy and Wendy Harris. “They were among the pioneers of the artisan cheese movement that began in South Africa about 20 years ago.”
When Barbara took over the little cottage industry in 2002, she changed the name from Bellevigne to Indezi, relocated the factory to a site up the road from the farm, and resolved that all her cheeses would have African names. “Although the recipes are from, say Germany or France, our cheeses are truly out of Africa.” Amabutho, Kwaito, Pantsula, Incembi and Nandi are among the names chosen by the women who handcraft the cheeses.
Like the river, Indezi is flying. The cheeses travel throughout the country and grace cheeseboards on Rovos Rail, in airport lounges, and in first class on aircraft. To add to the prestige, Indezi is one of few establishments in the country to have gained the second-highest food safety certification in the world.
It’s a feather in Barbara’s cap but, that aside, what she’s most passionate about is her line of goat’s milk products. “I have cow’s milk intolerance myself and I empathise with others in the same boat, especially mothers desperate to find alternatives for sick children.” Those alternatives include yogurt, butter and both soft and hard cheeses all made from the milk of Barbara’s herd of Saanen goats.
I confess that I dislike goat’s milk, and Barbara challenges me to try the yogurt. Reluctantly, I do and… well, it is good and doesn’t taste at all like how goats smell. Later, I meet the goats on the family farm. They’re as gentle as lambs, and actually don’t smell at all like goats.
All Indezi’s products are available at wholesale prices at the Dairy Shoppe that adjoins the factory. There you can also enjoy a light meal – try the three-cheese toasted cheese – and a cup of excellent coffee or, better still, a double-thick milkshake.
If, like me, you’re not just a turophile but a chocaholic (all good foods start with ch…), you’ll want the Belgian chocolate milkshake. It’s out of this world.
Words Andrea Abbott