Camembert and cabbages at Karkloof Farmers’ Market
Two interlinked journeys converge on Saturday mornings at the Karkloof Farmers’ Market. Don’t just say cheese. Meet Preston Farm’s Grant Warren and relish it.
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A farmers’ market. A farm. Cabbages and cows. Swedish Reds and Jerseys producing milk that is the source of some of the most delicious and authentic artisanal French-style cheeses being made in KwaZulu-Natal. There are other cheeses too. And there is other milk. Like the milk brought in a bucket each week for the busy baristas brewing coffee.
Who Moved My Cheese?, the slim Spencer Johnson business classic about change, could have been the blueprint for this story. Two interlinked journeys, market and farm, that converge on Saturday mornings at the Karkloof Farmers’ Market, an easy 6km drive from Howick.
Meet farmer Grant Warren. The Slow Food Midlands sign and jumbled mounds of La Petite France cheeses stop me mid-step. I have ordered melted Brie on toast with bacon for brekkie at an adjoining counter. The one with the chalked note about ice cream. Which, when I accept their “Try it?” invite, turns out, spectacularly, to be made from the thickest looks-like-clotted cream and caramelised condensed milk. Both sourced from the milk of those Reds and Jerseys.
“Whose market is this?” I ask the man at the table with the rounds of Camembert and Brie in their eye-catching wrappers, not yet knowing his name or that he is the farmer responsible for the cheese.
“This is my party,” Warren replies, gesturing to the whole big-picture scene around him, with merriment and a sparkle in his eye. Tickled, it would seem, both by the comment and the reality.
Meet, also, long-time friends Kim Drennan and Andrea Gibson, who started the Karkloof Farmers’ Market 14 years ago. “Before we had kids”. Three for each of them. A pretty significant measure of time.
“Andrea and I met in Kloof. She and her husband were moving to Howick, where they had bought a property that included an old sawmill. We had the idea of starting a market with a country village atmosphere to support small growers and the community.”
Within three months of their initial conversation, they launched the market in what had previously been the sawmill. “We had 12 stalls in a very big shed close to Howick. We had done some marketing but didn’t know if anyone would come. We had set up to make coffee. Suddenly cars started to arrive. It was chaos,” she laughs.
Two years ago, with a development scheduled for the industrial property where the weekly market was held, “We didn’t know what would happen to the market,” says Drennan.
“Then Grant (Warren) said: ‘Look here!’”
“Here” being Preston Farm, home to the Swedish Reds and Jerseys and also for the last eight years and counting, to La Petite France cheeses.
“We took the shed with us and moved it 3km down the road,” says Drennan. “The previous site was more industrial. It is beautiful to be on a real farm.”
“They dismantled the structure and we re-erected it here,” says Warren. “I’ve added on to the barn. Kim and Andrea only use it on Saturday mornings. Before we erected it here on Preston Farm, we ran a bit of a café near the dairy.”
Now this café has moved into the barn. It is bigger, serving breakfast and lunch and picnic fare and farm fare; his own and that of other growers and producers. The café cum farm stall is open seven days a week.
During Covid when the market was forced to close, the barn became a distribution centre for the Umgeni Relief Network, set up to coordinate and deliver food parcels and to help with feeding schemes. When the café was able to reopen, Warren offered the space to farmers and producers who needed an outlet.
“We tried to get something going online during Covid for our farmers’ market vendors but it didn’t really work,” says Drennan. “It was more beneficial for most people to find other outlets and do drop-offs or meet to share things in fields and carparks.” Or the barn.
The structure, the concept, is a work in progress, says Warren.
“We had our first Saturday afternoon concert here last week, after the farmers’ market. We are opening up regularly on Sundays to people who want to come picnic on the farm and hear local music.”
His café in the barn doesn’t serve coffee during the Saturday market. He and the market team have agreed on protocols so are no clashes with market vendors.
During the week, though, the café is open daily with local fresh farm produce for sale and of course the cheeses and dairy products produced courtesy the cows and sustainable farming methods that are pivotal to life on Preston Farm.
“It’s important to know where the food we consume is grown,” says Drennan. “Our market offers a place for personal interaction between producer and consumer. It is as much about shopping as it is about community.”
Not only has the location of the market changed. Times and trends have too. “When we first opened, it was us who approached people.” They kind of knocked on farm doors. “Now, people come to us. If someone leaves the market, there are others waiting to step in.”
From the start, she says, she and Gibson knew coffee and pancakes were the two key market essentials. Now, samoosas are an option at the brekkie pancake stall. Back then, they made and served the coffee and were both there every Saturday.
Now, Drennan and Gibson take alternate Saturday turns and run two coffee outlets, manned by their tried and trusted baristas. They serve Terbodore coffee roasted at nearby Curry’s Post at one entrance. Lineage coffee from Nottingham Road at another. “We wanted to cater both for the demand and for people’s different taste preferences,” Drennan explains.
Their mushroom man has been with them from the start. That’s 14 years. Then there are the passionate Beauvallet Farm chicken people who drive from Creighton near Ixopo with their free range fowls, sometimes ducks too, to attend to their large fan base.
There’s the Farm 2 You stand selling fresh milk in – visions of an ancient memory – glass bottles. Bottles people return when they return. So the bottles can be washed, sterilized, recycled; refilled with fresh milk. And “they bring us milk in buckets – beautiful milk – for our coffee on Saturdays.”
The Just Cheese traditional Dutch cheese people from Greytown are regulars. There’s the young pastry chef who makes cakes, tarts, crunchies. “Barbs” at Simply Suzanne’s gluten-free rusks and baked goods counter. There’s Manna Bakehouse for sourdough artisan breads. And “Gilly Walters and her (Howick-based) Wedgewood Nougat has been with us since the start.” Not necessarily in person. But her family’s thriving home-grown business has long used the market to “unofficially” test new products and sometimes sell “seconds”, which does not mean second-class, but offcuts that are perhaps a little too big or a little too small.
Then there’s what is dubbed “cholesterol corner” with its Banting brekkies. The “Italian ladies” doing their jaffles and crispy potato rostis. And Gillian Milne, who grows beautiful veggies in plentiful supply.
Oh yes. And “food for the mind”, which is how Colin Hudson-Reed with his Huddy’s treasure chest of collectable and readable books introduced himself to Drennan. Food for thought: he’s a market favourite.
“Yes, you could do your weekly shop here and get just about everything,” Drennan says when I ponder this delightful option. “A lot of our regulars do. And some of our vendors too.”
And she loves that success stories have kicked off from here. People who have tested the market at the market. Then forged ahead and open something bigger and more permanent, be it in Howick or the nearby developing Old Mushroom Farm.
Probably because I have just seen the film Minari – a sweeping farm-and-family story of roots and resilience with a universal message and appeal (nominated for six Oscars and named one of the 10 best movies of 2020 by the American Film Institute) – it somersaults to mind when Warren recounts his farm story.
Preston Farm was established in 1972 by his late dad. “It was a smallholding back then. Half the area. About 20 Jersey cows. A messed-up old tractor. He tried various things pretty unsuccessfully.”
After his dad had a heart attack and considered selling, Warren made “a lifestyle decision” to do a BSc Agric majoring in horticulture and to join his old man, which he did in 1990. “I tried, first, to grow vegetables but the weeds were better than the cabbages. Then I borrowed equipment and tried again. Cabbage prices were higher and I made enough to buy potato seeds.”
The potatoes grew well. But after harvesting them “in rain and mud — so much mud that even my teeth were black” there was no shed to store the potatoes in. But he loaded them in a small bakkie and managed to get them to various outlets, where they sold. The money earned went towards constructing a small shed.
He also borrowed money. To plant more veggies. To buy more land. He paid off the debts. Kept his late dad’s small dairy going. “Talking about it makes me tired,” he sighs, sounding more amused than despondent.
At some point a French man, Hubert Berbizier, arrived at Preston Farm to ask if he could buy milk. “We were farming New Zealand-style: almost exclusively grazing. He was making Camembert cheese at his father’s place along the Hilton College road. It was the perfect milk he needed for the cheese. But he was pretty erratic. I’d say, ‘Where have you been?’ He’d say something like (French accent): ‘I ’ave this girlfriend’.”
While production remained small, Berbizier had forged the La Petite France brand.
“Then one day he arrived with another person, who he told me had bought his business. I was disappointed he hadn’t told me he was selling; that the buyer wasn’t me.”
Over the next four to five years the new owner, a South African, took the brand to another level. “He grew it using the same French production methods and recipe and continued to buy milk from me.”
Warren meanwhile, by then married to Inma, his Spanish wife he met in Paris and who teaches French (the couple have three sons all of whom speak fluent French and Spanish), was growing his herd of cows and had put in avocados.
Around 2008 disaster struck by way of a fire that burned down the shed and took out all the avocado trees. A hailstorm wiped out the cabbage crop. Fuel and fertiliser prices shot up. Minari moments, you might agree if you’ve watched the film.
They struggled on, as farmers seem to do. Then in 2013 the owners of La Petite France sold Warren their brand – the techniques and recipes being part of the intellectual property – and “I converted myself into a cheesemaker. I had done biochemistry so had some idea of how bugs worked. Learning about the milk, the cheese, the sustainability, I found it all so incredibly interesting.”
While he now has a “formal” cheesemaker, production has increased, and there are more cheeses plus yoghurts, the cream, the condensed milk and ice cream referred to previously – and they’ve won a number of awards, recently for a noir (black) Camembert, dusted with activated charcoal on the outside, which the mould grows through – the cheeses are made the same way now as they were from the start. “As nature intended,” is the farming and cheese-making philosophy, never pushing the cows to produce more milk, and quality not quantity being key.
Namusa Zondi, who started on the farm in the potato fields, now heads the Camembert section of the cheese-making team. It is a careful process that in the early stages involves stirring the curds gently after she has cut them into blocks.
That the cheese is hand-made creates variations, something that does not happen with industrial and mechanical production. “Doing it the traditional way as we do means each Camembert is like a little baby out of a family, so even within the same day and same batch you’ll have different shapes,” says Warren. “And each one will perform slightly differently, which is interesting. And also the weather and seasons and the daily fluctuations affect how the cheese comes out. So from day to day within the batch there are variations. And day to day and week to week there are variations. And then the seasonal variations.”
All this inconsistency presents challenges at the marketing level. Challenging for the traditional artisanal cheesemaker, when the expectation is for mechanised uniformity. “Creating consistency is quite a difficult thing to try and perfect and Namusa has done a very good job of it.”
Warren has endured many changes linked to Covid. When lockdown and shutdown happened, many of his commercial – catering and service, airline and restaurant – markets dried up. He had to sell off quite a few cows. “Milking hundreds of cows is pointless when we can’t use the milk to make cheese.”
The first three weeks most orders were for cheap Cheddar. “But as people started cooking at home, retail orders and orders for Camembert started climbing. Things are coming back now. And we’ll be calving soon. We may soon be back up to 120 cows.”
Drennan, meanwhile, has noted some positives. After being closed for six months, “On reopening we worked with the health department. We’ve focused on being on good terms. Compliant. We moved the seating outside. It actually works better as this is a real farm.
“Thing is, all the stallholders employ staff. A lot more than the individual stallholders are supported by the market and depend on the market so we want to avoid having to shut down again.”
She says people seem to have changed. “I’d say while a lot was expected and taken for granted before, now there is more of a sense of appreciation. Gratitude for the support. Every sale and gesture is appreciated. What we find ourselves in is a kinder environment.” And so, on Preston Farm and on Saturday mornings, the journey continues. DM/TGIFood