CAMEMBERT FIELDS FOREVER
Happy pasture-fed cows provide quality milk for cheeses worth smiling about
Grazing their Jersey cows on biodynamically grown pastures and carefully bred for optimum health, Rob and Petrina Visser care about and focus on the well-being of their herd.
Wallace and Gromit loved cheese so much they went to the moon for it. In Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, Jesus is misheard – although can anyone be 100% certain? – as saying “blessed are the cheesemakers”. Which is not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products. Even so, a little gratitude in your evening prayers wouldn’t go amiss, if you are so inclined. They do do such a wonderful thing for humanity, after all.
Someone I greatly admired was Anthony Bourdain, who said, “To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.” I take his words a lot more to heart, and to live by. He also said, “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.”
This makes Rob and Petrina Visser, of Dalewood Fromage, the greatest romantics of all.
The Franschhoek farm is home to the cattle, the factory and affinage facility (French word that refers to caring for cheese as it ages), and a small shop filled with glorious hard and soft cheeses as well as other dairy products like butter, feta, milk, buttermilk, cream, crème fraîche and yoghurt, as well as eggs, olives, jams and preserves that go with cheese, and cheese accessories such as knives, boards and girolles.
A what now? In your travels you may have come across those delicate pretty curly cheese “flowers”; the girolle is the tool that creates them. After seeing one in action when I visited Rob and Petrina, my heart yearns for such a gadget. Completely unnecessary of course, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Of course, you have to get the right cheese in the right shape too, so there’s a fair amount of commitment involved.
Our conversation took place in their farmhouse kitchen, where the counter was spread with, obviously, a lot of cheese, as well as bowls of fresh cherries, olives, water biscuits, preserves, biltong and droëwors, and sprigs of fragrant rosemary. There was a carafe of chilled strawberry water, but before anything else, Petrina popped a bottle of bubbly. The reason for this was to celebrate Dalewood’s 21st anniversary, an occasion she said they’d only just remembered about a month ago.
“Our cheese business is 21 years old, and here I sit with the flagship cheese of ours,” she said, holding up the Winelands Camembert, “because this was the very first cheese we launched in 2000. It’s still very much part of our range, and it’s unique in South Africa in terms of the fact it’s the only oval Camembert that you can buy. And people love it for that. The shape sets it apart, and the recipe is also different.”
The Dalewood farm has been in the Visser family for more than 60 years; previously Rob and his father were in the strawberry business.
“When I arrived on the scene, a city slicker from Johannesburg, and saw what was involved in growing strawberries and picking strawberries, I nearly died,” said Petrina. “After three or four years, I looked at this and said to myself there is no way I can handle it. I said to Rob one night, ‘It’s either the strawberries or it’s me.’ I literally forced him to make an overnight decision to stop strawberries and go into cheesemaking.”
The farm had always had a tiny dairy which used to supply the local community, so the milk was there. Plus Rob had qualified at Elsenburg, where he studied dairy technology and animal husbandry. “So that’s where his passion lies,” said Petrina.
“We experimented for a couple of years before we decided to do it properly. We launched with this white mould cheese and we called it Wineland because we were inspired by the romance of the vineyards and all the beautiful wines in our area. And cheese and wine are natural partners. It made so much sense.”
This particular Camembert is special not only because it was named overall cheese champion at the first South African Cheese Festival in 2001 and the Qualité award (the only mark of excellence for dairy products in South Africa) in the SA Dairy Championships, but because the recipe – like all Dalewood recipes, developed by Rob – made it the first cheese in South Africa that was a ready-to-eat Camembert. Rob has won various South African awards including Best Functional Herd Life, Best Herd Genetics and Model Herd.
“It’s very easy, and very versatile, because it doesn’t need ripening. It doesn’t have a chalky centre, or heart, which is a real pain when you’re buying cheese at a supermarket because they’re so paranoid about shelf life,” said Petrina. “It’s very accessible and it appealed to the SA market because they’d never seen anything like it before.”
The early awards for the Wineland Camembert confirmed for the Vissers that they should go into the cheese business seriously. And that’s when the journey really began in earnest. The strawberry fields slowly started to be replanted and replaced with pastures. “We have about 55 hectares where we feed our cows. That’s when Rob decided he was going to focus on the genetics and the breeding of the herd, which has been recognised with stud status, and most importantly it’s 100% Jersey,” explained Petrina. “It’s a tightly controlled herd. We don’t buy in any milk whatsoever. And Rob is the genetic specialist. He chooses which semen to import from all the best bulls around the world so that has been part of his journey.”
The happy lifestyle of the cows is of the utmost importance to ensure the cheese produced from their milk is of the best possible quality. “Growing our own pastures means we have control over the milk,” said Petrina.
Dalewood has a regenerative approach to farming and the rotationally grazed herd spends each day on green pastures, which are precisely managed, beginning with the gentle nurturing of the biological life in the soil. No artificial fertilisers, insecticides or weed killers are used to boost these pastures. The cows never receive growth or milk production increasing hormones, neither do they receive any unnecessary antibiotics.
Ultimately, these benefits are passed along to us, the end consumers of the cheese and other dairy products from Dalewood.
Rob entered the conversation at this point, and we began tasting the cheeses Petrina had set out. The soft cheeses had been out of the fridge for a few hours, but the hard ones were still chilling. “Temperature is very important,” said Rob. “I always say 10 to 12 degrees is fine for hard, soft white milk cheeses should be aiming for 18 degrees.” This is important to get the best possible flavour from the cheese, and parallels can be drawn particularly with wine, but with most foods. Like tomatoes. Please can we stop keeping them cold and tasteless?
“When hard cheeses warm up they become oily,” added Petrina.
We begin with the signature Brie Superlatif™, the largest wheel of Brie produced in South Africa in the classic French style. It does require ripening time. It’s described as “soft and pillowy to the touch with a velvety white rind. The flavour is buttery, earthy and ‘mushroomy’.” This is a statement cheese, for special occasions when you need to impress. You could decorate with nuts and fruit and stuff. Rob is not a fan. “People drizzle it with all sorts of crap and I’m thinking no man,” he said, unaware the interview was being recorded. He grinned. “Really? Do you want to take a video of me as well?” As it happened, I did exactly that and you can see it on my Instagram account. What I didn’t capture on “film” though was his face when I asked about his thoughts on people eating a Brie like a hamburger, holding it with two hands and taking a bite out of it.
“I’m a bit of a purist and Petrina says I’m pedantic,” he said. “I don’t mind if you combine stuff but don’t spoil the whole cheese. Taste the cheese first. The French are very pedantic. They eat it with a special knife and fork, they never cut the nose off…” That’s the pointy end of the wedge and it’s important because it’s also the heart of the cheese, which ripens from the outside in.
A lot of people don’t realise, said Rob, that Camembert and Brie are generally the same methodology, it’s just that the ratio of the pate (a word used to refer to the actual inside of the cheese – what’s inside the rind or crust. It’s only used in the context of cheeses that do develop a surface rind) of Camembert, compared to the rind on the outside, is less than Brie. The smaller you go, the more rind in relation to pate, so Camembert ripens quicker and becomes more piquant (power to whet the appetite or interest through tartness or mild pungency). Therefore Camembert is usually sharper than Brie, which is milder.
Size definitely matters. “The smaller you go is great for the catering business, 60g, pop it into phyllo pastry with hot relish, or in a salad,” said Rob. “If you’re a cheese connoisseur you should be looking at 250g, I almost would like to take a stab at it and say a Brie should be in a grande wheel.”
Like the Superlatif. Retailers sell smaller wedges but you can get the big wheel at Dalewood, and be a big cheese (sorry not sorry). “A wedge is fine but it comes down to the affinage or ripening of cheeses, it’s quite a delicate process to get it right,” said Rob. “As we’re sitting here, the cheese is ripening, the bacteria is active, the mould on the outside is what’s ripening the cheese, it’s putting its little roots in and creating the yummy gooey changes that release all the flavours you’re looking for.”
Where is that sweet spot with ripening though? There can be few things sadder than forgetting your cheese in the fridge and opening it to discover it’s turned sharp and bitter and reeking of ammonia. The Wineland range takes the guesswork out of it so that’s helpful. It still has a best by date, however, which is a fairly wide window – about five weeks – from when you buy it, but it’s also a guideline so don’t panic if you miss it by a day or six.
Then we come to the Lanquedoc™: Made in rounds of approximately 300g, this is a semi-soft, washed-rind, surface-ripened cheese, with subtle bacon-and-egg like flavours and milky-meaty notes. Bacon and egg in my cheese! Get in my mouth right now. Petrina has a wonderful story behind the name, which honours the valley, but it’s based a lot on pronunciation so it’s complicated to write. When you visit be sure to ask her about it.
This is quite a serious cheese, she said, and Rob snorted with laughter. “You’re not supposed to say that, how can we blow our own trumpet like that? If you’re the cheesemaker you’ve got to be more humble.”
“Well, I’m not the cheesemaker so I can say whatever,” retorted Petrina.
“I always make excuses for the cheese, and I never think it’s good enough. So I cannot sell cheese,” said Rob.
And that there is why these two make such a great team. He creates delicious cheese, she does the selling (she has a marketing background).
“This type of cheese appeals to Europeans, that they eat for breakfast, especially the Germans, they love it. So it’s great to make a cheese they approve of, it’s a big deal for us,” said Petrina.
Where is this one in its ripening process? I wanted to know. “You ask very good questions!” said Rob. “Yes, that’s what Samuel L Jackson told me too,” I replied. I can’t remember what the question was though. True story.
Not looking at the dates, Rob said the temperature is a little bit warm, and he would like it maybe slightly cooler. “I’d say it has another two weeks.” He is correct of course.
Moving on to the hard cheeses, out came the massive Huguenot – not a Cheddar as so many have tried to pigeonhole it over the years – and a round for the girolle. It was young because all the mature ones had sold out. It was still delicious, but the promise of what lies ahead for this cheese when it gets to be a year old are toffee and caramel, nuttiness and depth of flavour. It’s no surprise the Huguenot is the most highly awarded cheese in SA, and the largest head made in this country. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to put in an order now for a chunk of this at 18 months old.
Other hard cheeses in the Dalewood range are the Boland™ (four month matured, semi-hard cheese with a hard rind made in the style of a Port Salut, with a relatively mild flavour, savoury and slightly sweet, velvety in the mouth), and Simond™, developed during lockdown.
“Once again we are honouring the history of the valley,” said Petrina. “Pierre Simond was a pastor at a church in Simondium, a French Huguenot. Boland is named for the mountains you see when you drive out the farm. All of our names have got relevance.
“This was the only cheese we developed in lockdown, and we call it a ‘lekker easy eating kaas’. It’s matured for two months then it’s available. It’s not a serious cheese, it’s a fun cheese.”
Petrina said she always tries to keep it simple and double up with cheese for dessert. “For a reasonable gathering, our Wineland Brie (1.25kg) or the Brie Petit (650g) – there is nothing to beat a whole wheel of cheese which always makes a great statement with some fresh fruit (whatever is in season). Cherries are great right now.
“A Brie Petit with a nice chunk of either Huguenot or Boland makes that perfect statement. Green fig preserve is my go-to classic accompaniment, always a winner with a lovely selection of home-made water biscuits and various crackers. Caramelised nuts too, and dried fig slices also work.”
I agree – those water biscuits are just the right hint of saltiness to allow the cheese to shine. As for the Huguenot wafers, well I inhaled an entire packet of those with my wine last night so that should tell you all you need to know.
“For a smaller, more intimate group of people I would select a combination of the following,” said Petrina.
“Brie Superlatif (substantial wedge), either Wineland Chef’s Camembert or Lanquedoc, Wineland Blue Camembert 150g Tower and a hard cheese – either Huguenot or Boland semi hard (preferably a substantial chunk). Orange twirls work beautifully here or a Berry & Lavender Jelly or even a Purple Fig & Port Preserve. Always a selection of fresh fruit, water biscuits, crackers, and melba toast.”
Of course, you don’t need guests to have cheese. Pile that platter and have at it. DM/TGIFood
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The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.
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