From Sumer to Vredendal, two Thursdays more than seven centuries apart play a serendipitous role in the emergence of South Africa’s cheese industry.
On the second Wednesday of the third month of the year 5546 BCE, Aradegi, a Sumerian engineer, told his wife, the ever patient and beautiful Anrum, to pack the camels for a two-day trip. They were to go to the town of Al Diwaniyah, where he was to design an agricultural irrigation scheme. Because McDonalds and Wimpy had not yet arrived in Sumer, Anrum had to take food for the road, including some milk for Aradegi’s breakfast the following morning.
In those days people carried water in the air-dried stomach of a goat, so she filled a newly dried one with fresh sheep’s milk and packed it among cool eggplants to hang on the shady side of the packing camel. Anrum was looking forward to the two-day trip to an area where she’d not been before and to camp under the stars for a night – alone with her husband. But the trouble started the first morning when Anrum wanted to pour some milk on Aradegi’s breakfast dish of roasted wheat and millet. Instead of milk, she found a soft solid white ball floating in a greenish liquid. Although she did not realise it then, Anrum had just made the first cheese – ever! Soon the clever Sumerians worked out that rennet, the milk-clotting enzyme found in the fourth stomach of most ruminants, had simply coagulated the milk and, with the help of the desert heat, made fresh cheese.
And so the first cheese was made on the second Thursday of the third month of the year 5546 BCE in Sumer, known today as Iraq.
You can’t keep a good idea down, so soon the arty Greeks were also making cheese, using the same method of milk coagulation. Most Greek homes had a small room next to the kitchen, called the caseus, where cheese was made a few times a week. Of course, the roaming Romans, who were not really known for inventing things but rather for perfecting them, did the same with cheese. They developed cheeses that could last for longer periods – think Parmesan – and, more importantly, spread the idea along with the not-really-peaceful-at-all Pax Romana as Julius and his soldiers invaded surrounding territories. Of course, the French, Germans, Spaniards, Dutch and English will deny it, but it was the Romans who taught them to make cheese while colonising them. Later, during the many bloody wars that took place on the continent of Europe, it was the monks who preserved the art of making cheese – mostly high up in the Alps and Pyrenees. During this time, and for many years to come, cheese making remained a cottage industry like baking bread, making wine and curing meat. During the early 18th century, French restaurants began to understand the gourmet value of cheese, and literally brought it from the peasant table to the fine restaurants of Paris and Lyon. At about the same time, large cheese factories massproduced affordable cheese that provided a relatively cheap nutritious food for the increasing army of factory workers that fuelled the industrial revolution.
By the early 20th century, cheese had spread from its birthplace in the Middle East and its nursery in Europe. It was served on ocean liners, and introduced as a new and exciting flavour sensation in the 1920s. By the middle of the century, it had become a staple in many places, including South Africa. But there is cheese, and then there is cheese, and in South Africa in the mid-20th century there were basically two types of cheese – sweetmilk and cheddar – and both were bright yellow, rubbery and pretty bland, really. But then another Thursday rolled by. (There had actually been lots of Thursdays in the preceding seven centuries, but none of them was really important.)
The 10th of July 1952 was a Thursday in the town where I grew up, and my parents had invited a visiting minister of religion for supper. This kind gentleman had brought with him, from Cape Town, a portion of cheese to be enjoyed after the meal. It was a blue cheese that had been made in the then province of Natal. Although yellow sweetmilk cheese was enjoyed in our home, blue mould was a no-no on food in our house, so my parents politely declined to taste the mouldy cheese. Out of curiosity, I accepted a slice on a cracker from the dominee. My parents were watching me closely, probably to see if I was going to faint, and perhaps to resuscitate me if I did. Well, I didn’t faint, but the resulting flavour burst in my mouth changed my life forever, setting me on a path of ever greater and greater involvement with cheese – my life, my job, my passion. Today, some 67 years later, and after 50 years in the cheese industry, I can still remember the flavour of that blue cheese.
Being part of the industrial cheese-making scenario for many years was exciting but, in the mid-1990s, small-scale artisanal cheesemakers the world over reversed the trend and brought cheese making back to the caseus – that little room off the kitchen. This brought a whole a new dimension to cheese making throughout the world and, in South Africa, we started seeing unique cheeses made by enthusiastic amateurs in just about every province of the country. Hardly surprisingly, I fell in love with cheese all over again, and revelled in every aspect. The colour of their rinds – orange, brown, yellow and black. The creamy, vegetal, buttery and earthy aromas awoke my senses, and I could not wait to taste each new cheese as it emerged from a kitchen, a shed, a garage, or a small, specially built cheesery on some tiny plot of land. I started to see cheese as so much more than a mere promise of gastronomic pleasure. Each cheese represented a small universe, maybe a family living on a farm with their own dreams and circumstances.
Come and celebrate, taste, share, enjoy
By the early 21st century, South Africa had such a wonderful offering of new boutique cheeses that they had to be showcased – and so the Cheese Festival was born. Starting small in the Cape Winelands, it was a hit from the beginning because South Africans were hungry for new cheese flavours and textures. Today, nearly 20 years later, cheese lovers still stream to the Cheese Festival to taste cheese – but also other related foods and, of course, wine. It’s held on Sandringham Farm near Stellenbosch, and this year it’s on from 26 to 28 April, booking through Computicket. Look out for me – I will be the one walking from stall to stall with a big smile on my face.
Kobus Mulder, who studied dairy science when cows could still jump over the moon, has been the chief judge of the annual SA Dairy Championships for 50 years, and regularly judges in the USA, UK, France, Spain and Italy.