Food Producers: Pioneering spirit

Jan 9, 2011 12:00 AM | By Hilary Biller
A Franschhoek cheese, the Dalewood Huguenot, won a super gold medal at the recent World Cheese Awards in Birmingham. Hilary Biller spoke to its maker, Rob Visser
HEARD THE MOOS TODAY: Rob Visser with his Dalewood cows Were you at the event in Birmingham? Unfortunately not – dairy farming and cheese making are highly intensive and time-consuming. We were up against the best cheeses in the world and never anticipated this huge win. Kobus Mulder of Agri-Expo was there to represent us and he is South Africa’s greatest cheese ambassador. You entered in the category “farms producing less than two tons a week”. How long have you been making cheese and how did it start?Officially for 10 years. I always dreamed of making cheese. Our farm, Dalewood, has been in the Visser family for over 40 years. When I took over from my dad 18 years ago it had a small jersey herd, which provided milk for the local farming community. My particular interest is genetics and I started focusing on upgrading the herd with the intention of achieving stud status. After countless cheese tastings in France and Germany, we started experimenting in 1997. In 2000 we launched our original cheese, the Wineland Camembert. What inspired you to make the Huguenot? I am particularly fond of the French mountain cheeses. I spent some time visiting French cheeseries in the Haute-Savoie region and sniffed out a few traditional cheese-making secrets. They inspired me to make a semi-hard, mature cheese from a grass-fed herd that would be uniquely South African. I wanted to create a cheese for a “South African sandwich”, as the French do with their baguette. How would you describe a Huguenot? It is a semi-hard, brushed-rind style of cheese, slow matured for at least six months. You might say it tastes something like a cousin to gruyère, medium-full in character with sweet, nutty overtones. It is produced in a huge, “golden cartwheel” and is, as far as I am aware, the largest head of cheese made in South Africa. You pride yourself on your herd of grass-fed jersey cows. Does all the milk they produce go into making cheese? Almost all of the daily production. We do also supply Zandam a small percentage for their cheese production. Huguenot is great used in cooking. What is your favourite way of using the cheese? My absolute favourite is Huguenot soufflé served with a green salad – great for a light meal on a summer’s evening. And then the ultimate is a decadent Huguenot fondue around the fire in winter. Because of its complexity, elasticity and melting capabilities, one can get away with using this one cheese only. When you started out there were only a handful of small producers of farm cheeses in the country. This has changed dramatically in the past few years. Why? There has been a huge shift towards “food consciousness”, particularly in the past five years in South Africa. The consumer has become more discerning. People have become aware of and interested in the origin and authenticity of their food. I think the SA Cheese Festival has done a great job educating the South African public and creating awareness around cheese. This in turn has challenged potential and existing cheese-makers to launch new products or extend their ranges. Speciality cheese shops such as Cheese Gourmet in Linden, Johannesburg, have also done a tremendous amount to spread the good news. What five different SA cheeses make for an excellent cheeseboard selection? It is impossible to choose, but if I have to obviously Huguenot, Fairview Royden, Dalewood Brie Superlatif, Foxenburg Chevre or Chabris and Fairview Blue Rock.