A generation ago, there were just two types of cheese made in South Africa: factory-made Gouda and cheddar. Up until 1991, strict regulations dictated that all cow’s milk produced must be sold to the government, which significantly limited cheese production. But deregulation saw a newfound freedom for dairy farmers and cheesemakers, who set about crafting local interpretations of European-style cheeses. Examples include Francine Isaac of Swissland Cheese, who, with her herd of Saanen goats, sought to recreate her Swiss homeland in the rolling hills of the Natal Midlands in 1992; and Annelies van Gaalen, who emigrated from the Netherlands and turned the notion of Gouda on its head when she started producing traditional Boerenkaas at Van Gaalen Kaasmakerij in 1994. There are now hundreds of specialty cheeses, from the milk of cows, goats, sheep, and buffalo, made across the Rainbow Nation, with production clustered along the country’s green coastal fringe.
The Western Cape is home to the world-renowned Winelands, where more than half of South Africa’s cheese is produced. If you time your visit for late April, be sure to checkout the annual South African Cheese Festival in Stellenbosch, which showcases small cheesemakers and other food and beverage artisans. From Cape Town, head northeast toward Paarl to Dalewood Fromage, where Rob and Petrina Visser produce farmstead cheeses from the milk of their own Jersey herd. Their “signature range” includes the multi-award-winning Huguenot, a hulking raw milk Alpine-style, and Boland, which resembles Tête-de-Moine. Also nearby is Fairview Wine and Cheese, one of the pioneering goat’s milk producers from the 1980s, which now makes over 40 styles (including some from cow’s milk). Or travel southeast through Somerset West, stopping at Healey’s for their raw milk farmstead cheddar, then continue to Klein River Cheese, a family-run operation with a focus on sustainable methods and land regeneration. Cheesemaker Jacko van Beulen crafts washed-curd, smear-ripened, and hard styles (such as Gouda, Gruyère, and Grana), which can be purchased from the on-site Picnic Shed.
If a visit to the Eastern Cape game reserves is more your style, stock up on provisions at Fusion Foods in Grahamstown. As a qualified cheesemaker, co-owner Virginia David-Engelbrecht is both passionate and knowledgeable, and sources cheeses from allover South Africa (she maintains a policy of only stocking imported cheeses when a local equivalent is unavailable).
The other main concentration of artisanal cheesemakers is in the Gauteng Province surrounding Johannesburg, South Africa’s most populous city. Considered by many to be the country’s leading artisan producer, Belnori Boutique Cheesery is nestled on a rocky ridge, ideally suited to goats, northeast of Joburg. Rina and Norman Belcher transform the milk of their Saanen goats, and locally-sourced cow’s milk, into cheeses with uniquely African names, such as Kabaka (the Ugandan term for “monarch”), Amboseli (from a Maasai word meaning “salty dust”) and Kilimanjaro (named for the famous mountain in Tanzania). The beautiful labels, depicting nomadic scenes, have an African flavor too.