From a farm in KwaZulu-Natal comes some of the best artisinal ice cream in Africa
Words Andrea Abbott Pictures Andrea Abbott and supplied
Thundering through the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal, we drew stares galore. I suppose we did look a bit bananas, what with Samantha (Sam) Anderson on her 1942 Harley Davidson, a beaut of a beast, throaty and all gleaming chrome and, er… ripe banana yellow, and me cruising alongside in the cow-decorated sidecar, the pair of us whooping in delight.
But who cares what others think when exhilaration consumes you and the freedom of the open road beckons? And anyway, I was at work. Sort of. Sam produces luxury, artisanal ice cream and I’d met up with her to find out more (i.e. taste it).
However, that arresting bike and sidecar had sidetracked me and so there we were hurtling along a dirt road in Monteseel, Camperdown. Anyway, it wasn’t altogether off topic for there’s a connection between the bike and ice cream that goes beyond the Ballina branding on the sidecar. You see, that bike and a few others in the garage embody Sam’s adventurous spirit that led her to perfecting a gourmet, all-natural ice cream that’s arguably among the best in Africa.
“I’ve always been adventurous,” Sam says. An economist by profession, she tells of the golf lessons one boss encouraged her to take and that she cut short. “It was fun but, as I said to the instructor, you can’t die playing golf.” Rather from the excitement of motorcycle riding.
Sam tells me about the gruelling DJ Rally from Durban to Joburg that she rides every March. The event is only for motorbikes manufactured before 1936, the year the original race, inaugurated in the late 1800s, was stopped. “It had become too dangerous,” Sam explains, “some bikes did the trip in six hours.”
The event was resurrected as a rally in the 1970s and Sam is the only woman in its history to have started and finished on the oldest bike. It’s a 1909 Humber that’s more bicycle than motorbike and takes a full two days of solid riding and a lot of pedalling to reach Joburg via Newcastle, Volksrust and Standerton.
What’s more, she’s won that accolade for the past three years. That’s true grit, a trait that has served Sam well in her ice cream adventure.
The ice cream journey began three years ago with Sam exchanging city living in Durban for a country lifestyle in Drummond in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Friends and family were appalled when she bought a 17-acre smallholding that was run down, steep, choked by invasive alien plants, the pool filled with stagnant water and frogs that attracted hosts of snakes. Undaunted, Sam set about restoring it.
Meanwhile, tired of working in a corporate environment, she looked around for a small business to buy that was close to home. “It had to be something that would bring me joy.” She discovered that Ballina Ice Cream – made in a tiny factory on Upington dairy farm next door to her son Eric’s school in Alverstone – was for sale.
A ‘foodie’, Sam assumed it would be a cinch to make ice cream. In partnership with production engineer, Gavin Nimmo, she bought the machinery in July 2013, leased the factory from dairy farmer, Patrick Salmond, and rolled up her sleeves only to find that it takes a lot of know-how to make real dairy ice cream. “I had to start from scratch.”
Her new quest led her, serendipitously, to a friend of a friend who had attended the Ice Cream University in Bologna in Italy, and who taught Sam the considerable complexities of ice-cream making. “You need to know the food science,” Sam says.
A year and a half on, Ballina Ice Cream has changed a lot. It’s still a cottage business but Sam has rebranded it, worked through all the registration processes and acquired the necessary health certificates. She has also expanded the range of flavours, the most unusual perhaps the chilli and dark chocolate. “The most popular is the honey and nougat,” Sam says. “And we make a sugar-free vanilla that’s sweetened with xylitol so is suitable for diabetics and adherents of the Banting and Paleo diets.”
She believes that Ballina can compete favourably with the best, real ice cream anywhere. “I’ll put anyone to a taste test to compare Ballina with top imported brands.” And so I do some serious tasting (honestly, the things a journalist has to do). My verdict? The best bar none.
Something else that sets Ballina apart and that Sam vows will never change is the ethical farming philosophy at the core of the business. “We use only non-homogenised Jersey milk from free-range, well-treated, happy cows whose names we know,” she says. “And they’re not fed hormones to increase their milk yield.”
Currently, that contented Jersey herd on Upington farm supplies all the milk that’s needed. Another unique aspect is that there is no long-distance transportation of the milk. It’s carried straight from the dairy to the factory a hundred or so metres away and poured, still warm, into the pasteuriser. “This reduces our environmental footprint significantly,” Sam says.
She also prides herself on using no artificial additives. “I source only the best natural ingredients such as genuine vanilla paste, organic maple syrup, natural peppermint extract and real strawberries.” Artisanal food is almost always slow food. In Ballina’s case, it takes 72 hours to make a batch of ice cream. “Non-homogenised milk means the ice cream has to be aged,” Sam explains. “That’s the natural way of bonding the protein, fat, sugar and water.”
Having worked hard to perfect the art of making luxury ice cream, and expecting it to take off, Sam was concerned when that didn’t happen. Ballina had stalled. As an economist, she knew about the financial side of business but she’d never run an enterprise. “My weakness was in marketing and sales. I realised I needed a set of different skills to move Ballina forward.”
The book club came to her rescue. “One member is a business coach. She told me she could help me turn things around.” Several months down the line, regular coaching sessions have made “an enormous difference”, such that Sam has received enquiries from beyond KZN’s borders and, at the time of writing, was on the cusp of clinching a sizeable export order into Africa.
“There’s no manufacturer of top quality ice cream anywhere else on the continent, so the potential export market is huge,” she says. If she seals the deal, it’ll mean upping her production from two tons a month to at least ten.
Can she do it? “Yes,” she says, pointing to a large shed undergoing refurbishment. “There’ll be challenges but we’re ready to tackle anything.”
Ballina Ice Cream, 071 226 8032