We like real cheese


By Gerhardus Geldenhuis

A few years ago I attended a raw milk cheese conference in Cadbury, England.

No, this place has nothing to do with chocolate, the chocolate we know started in Birmingham, England.

I attended the conference more out of curiosity than to take home practical tips and perhaps with the dream of one day making my own cheddar. When I left South Africa my exposure to cheese was limited and I knew three types of cheese; gouda, cheddar and process cheese.

The other attraction to the conference was the raw milk part of the description. I grew up with milk that always had to be pasteurized and generally bacteria was thought to be something to be killed without batting an eye. So the unpasteurized aspect of the milk in the production of cheese was definitely something that caught my attention, even if it was “morbid curiosity” as the English call it, because who wants to risk his life with milk with bacteria in it.

One of the first speakers was a husband and wife from the Yorkshire Dales. They probably talked for an hour about cattle and grass and I began to wonder if I had wasted my time and money, because I had never heard anything about cheese. At some point the puzzle pieces started to come together and when I first understood, it was as if I saw in black and white and all of a sudden I could perceive color.

The concept is simple, they have chosen a breed of cattle that occurs naturally or is adapted to the cold and wet Yorkshire Dales, this means the cattle get sick less, need to be petted less and are better adapted to eating the food that is available. The second aspect of their presentation was about the grass that the cattle eat, their aim was to grow at least ten different species of grass per square meter in their fields, and put a lot of effort into planting more species, and then specifically native species of grass that occur naturally. A greater variety of native grass means less attention, better hardiness and a greater variety of bacteria found in the cow’s milk.

A greater variety of bacteria in the milk means that a much more complex cheese can be produced and it also contributes to the taste of the cheese. They brought a bag of their hay as well as some of the cheese they made and it was fascinating for me to be able to draw such a direct line between the raw and final product. Being able to smell the sweet grass and then taste the cheese and then “experience” the grass was truly special for me.

I also never realized that the season affects the protein and fat content of the cheese and that you therefore make different types of cheese throughout the seasons. This is of course a simplification and difference between climate regions and how far the cow is from weaning. This is one of the challenges of large cheese manufacturers; to get the milk the same so that the product they deliver remains the same and for smaller producers it can actually be an advantage, because the cheese is more seasonal and therefore more unique, or at least has the opportunity to be so.

The conference really got my mind going and being in Europe means my exposure to a wide range and levels of quality is huge. It excited me because it reminded me of the sweet grassy smell of Big Marico, I thought of all our unique cattle breeds and the ability of our farmers to do so much with so little and it excited me about the possibilities of unique cheeses we can make here with the incredible fauna and flora at our disposal. So we have to put a stop to the nonsense of yellow and white cheddar tomorrow. Yellow cheddar has “Annatto” in, which is a yellow dye and this dye is put in so that it looks as if the cow has eaten grass. If the cattle eat grass in England in the spring, the beta-carotene is higher which is a natural dye that turns carrots orange and also gives the cheese made from the milk a yellow glow. So if you milk now “out of season”, then milk is a different color and now the color is “faked” so that we think it is better cheese, but most of us have been so far removed from the process for a long time that the really doesn’t matter.

After my visit to the conference I felt like making my own cheese, but didn’t quite see the chance for the “cheddar” process. The solution was a nice soft cheese.

Shanklish cheese

You need a nice thick yogurt to start with, Greek yogurt is ideal. If you have a kefir plant, you can make your own yogurt with it or otherwise just a regular yogurt plant to make your yogurt with.

1) Take about a liter of yogurt and pour it into a muslin cloth, which you have rinsed out, and hang it somewhere or let the cloth lie in a wire strainer, tied and in a cool place where the flies cannot get to it. After 24 hours, a large amount of water will have drained and the yogurt will then start to become slightly crispy.

2) Mix in 2% of the weight of the drained yogurt’s salt, so if you started with 1,000 g and now have 700 g, then you add 14 g of salt. If you can find salt without iodine or other by-products it is the best, but you have to look further than the regular store for it. The iodine kills bacteria that we want to keep to give flavor to the cheese.

3) Mix in the salt and leave to drain for another 24 hours as before. If you can buy ready-made Za’atar, it saves a little time, but your own is usually tastier.

For the Za’atar: Take sesame seeds that you have toasted a little, sumac and oregano and grind them. You can mix it however you like and there are a hundred other varieties, but 4 parts sesame, 1 part sumac and 1 part oregano is a good start. So you can use, for example, 100 g together with 25 g of sumac and 25 g of oregano.

4) Take the cheese and roll it into balls, slightly smaller than a golf ball, roll them in your Za’atar mixture and then carefully put them in a bottle. When the bottle is almost full, fill it with olive oil so that all the cheese is under the oil and store the bottle in the fridge for a month. If your cheese floats to the top, you should probably not eat it, but otherwise it will be delicious.

5) Enjoy it on a piece of freshly baked sourdough bread.

If you are already making delicious cheese on a scale where you can sell and want to expand your technical knowledge, I would be happy to send my copy of The Microbiology of Raw Milk: Towards a better understanding of the microbial ecosystems of milk and the factors that affect them.

If you already make and sell cheese and raw milk, I would also like to hear from you. I would love to come and taste it and do my part to help raise awareness.

If you would like to experiment with cheese making, then yes The Art of Natural Cheese making by David Asher an excellent book to acquire so that you can begin your journey of discovery.

Why a column about cheese?

Raw milk cheese means that the cow must be looked after better so that the milk is disease-free, so the animals win because now antibiotics do not have to be administered constantly. The cows must eat better and to eat better one must look better at the field. Raw milk cheese is more expensive and good quality cheese is more expensive because it represents the actual cost of the process. The average cheddar you can buy in the stores here doesn’t taste like much, so it’s time we pushed for better cheese. South Africa does not have to back down to European cheeses either and with our unique flora and fauna there is an incredible opportunity to develop new and unique cheeses. After all, our wine doesn’t stand up to anyone, so why should we cheese?

  • Gerhardus lives in England with his heart in South Africa. He regularly prepares large meals for the church, hosts cooking workshops at his home, such as how to make your own miso, and picks more flowers and fruit each year than he can ever eat himself. So he regularly distributes jam, syrup and other tasty things to friends. He learned to bake bread in a German bakery and is actively involved in the Oxford Food Symposium on Food & Cookery. Send Gerhardus an e-mail at gerhardus.geldenhuis@gmail.com.