Sometimes cheese is the byproduct of a mistake and when Belnori Boutique Cheesery started everything was the wrong way round. The first goat they had was an unmilkable billy goat, a gift from a friend, only afterwards did they decided that perhaps they should get some girls.
“When we started you couldn’t get help,” explains owner Rina Belcher. “You would ask people about goats and they would say they haven’t got any but you could hear them bleating in the background.”
After working for years in the retirement fund industry, Belcher realized that most South African’s would outlive their income. When things changed from defined benefit to defined contribution fund people were found wanting. So she and her husband Norman decided they had to do something to keep themselves in the black in their old age and looked into sinking whatever funds they had into something that would support them. After looking unsuccessfully into proteas and olives her husband Norman came across an article in the Farmers Weekly about goats.
“Mind you, he idly says this while you’re chopping beans!” Belcher explains. “I said, oh, well you want animals and I always fancied making cheese. About 10 days later somebody in Springs offered a course on goat animal husbandry and how to make goat feta and he went.”
They started making cheese in what Belcher calls “a very primitive fashion” over the weekends with a 15 liter pot and a homemade double boiler in an industrial dustbin. They would go on to have three of these dustbin double boiler set ups with 4 pots each before switching to industrial double boilers and eventually hacking a small 500 liter per hour pasteurizer, well, small in terms of the cow milk trade.
“We are little people, we want a little machine to do little things. And that changed our lives.”
It’s thanks to this little machine that they are able to heat many small batches of milk at different temperatures throughout the day and freely make as many cheese as they like or at least whatever time and milk will provide as goats only produce milk for 2 and half months a year.
“I couldn’t make just one cheese, I think I would slit my wrists. We made a decision right in the beginning that I wanted to be a boutique cheesery and make lots of things in little bits. I don’t want to be the worlds cheddar maker or feta maker. No, I want little bits.”
The first little bits of cheese they made was an old fashion goat gouda now call Tanglewood. The cheese is made with a washed curd that gets scald when some of the whey is replaced with hot water. It’s this scalding that made it the fairly strong cheese and apparently not everyone up north loved its flavour.
“I actually had to make something a little milder,” she scoffs. “We actually called it the sissy cheese - but you can’t sell a cheese called sissy. Since it was for all the people in the Highveld we called it the Highvelder Classic, for all the highvelders who couldn’t cut it.”
A lot of their cheeses have imaginative names like this. There is the moldy activated charcoal ashed logs called Forest Phantom named after the heavy mist that rolls through the wattle forest on a cold day.
“It’s a little phantom that lives in the forest and comes out.”
And then there is the East African range; Serengeti, Amboseli, Colembe, Kampala and Kilimanjaro, covered in decoupage images of Maasai, sunsets and elephants from serviettes. These names are inspired from Belchers childhood.
Belcher was born in Zambia and would go on to live in Uganda and Kenya before living in Zimbabwe with her husband and her four children. They came down to South Africa in 1979, because Norman missed the country where he was born and they have been here ever since.
“Ten years ago I was fortunate to go back and it was so nice. I flew to Kampala, went to Jinja so I could dip my fingers in the Nile in lake Victoria. I was heartbreakingly beautiful.”
Now they have a small farm in Bapsfontein lined with the phantom’s wattle forest along with 13 workers, an old stately American bell tower, a few dogs, 240 goats and 25 East Friesian sheep.
It’s with those sheep that they made their Benedictus sheep’s cheese which took a super gold at last years World Cheese awards – only 4 SA cheeses have ever fallen in that category - and even snatched the trophy for South Africa’s best cheese from Parmalat. Not a stranger to awards their goat’s yogurt also took first and third place at the championships and they were awarded Farmer of the Year for Gauteng by the agricultural board. The also got a citation for what they add to the cheese industry from Slow Food Cape Town and a hero’s award from the Joburg Affiliate, of which they are a proud member.
“I don’t have mechanical stirrers, here’s my stirrer,” Belcher says and holds up her hand. “Everything is done by hand; we roll by hand and pack by hand. Even the presses are not mechanized. They are vintage and so are we.”
Rina and Norman are both 70, although you wouldn’t be able to tell from their hard work and feistiness. Belcher insists that the work and having the young people around keep her feeling young and although she thinks that men age faster than women, her and Norman continue to be equal and loving partners through it all.
“Norman and I work well together. He is not a chauvinistic type, long ago he said “you’re just better at it than me. We don’t divide jobs on gender lines, whoever does it well does it. But we’re a team; if ones wonky one day you do a little bit more and the next day you do little bit less because you are wonky.”
But this hands on approach allows them to see the difference when they make their roughly 22 different Goat's milk products, 4 Sheep's milk and 7 Cow's milk products from milk that they bring in. And sometimes it’s this difference that can lead to a whole new line, which brings us back to the joys of mistakes in cheese making.
“We made chevre one day and we completely stuffed it up. Norman said we have to throw it away but I said let’s see what happens. And it was a damn nice cheese. I even entered in a competition and it won it’s class. It’s become one of the lines and now I must just think of a name. So it’s those little things that make me think gosh, when you think of the whole cheese spectrum probably 90% of what’s out there is some bodies mistake that they put a label on.”
If you would like to eat that delicious mistake and other cheese made by Belnori’s Boutique Cheesery head on over to The Culture Club in Bree Street, Cape Town and to The Cheese Gourmet in Linden, Johannesburg. Or better yet if you live in Gauteng head on over to the Hazelwood Market in Pretoria on a Saturday and buy directly from Rina and Norman themselves.