From strawberry-picking to celebrated cheesemaker

Nellie Fischer, the head cheesemaker at Dalewood Fromage.

A life as a highly regarded cheesemaker seemed fairly impossible for Nellie Fischer when circumstances steered her into seasonal work, harvesting strawberries, before she could finish high school.

Today Fischer, who turns 50 in October, is head cheesemaker at Dalewood Fromage and a top 3 winner in the World Cheese Awards. But back when she was only 12 her father passed away and her mother was left to raise eight children as a domestic worker on a farm.

“We were raised on the Bronkhorst Farm in Klapmuts (in the Western Cape) where my father worked as labourer. My mother, who was pregnant when my father passed away, had to cope on her own, with very little (at her disposal). My dad wanted a son, but he didn’t get to see his last born, a baby boy.”

Fischer later attended Klapmuts Primary School and Scottsville Secondary School in Kraaifontein, about 19km from the farm. Her high school career, however, was short-lived because she had to drop out in grade 9 to help support her family. For extra income, she started harvesting grapes on the farm where they lived.

In 1986, when she was just 17 years old, Fischer started as a seasonal worker, harvesting strawberries for Dalewood Farm and soon achieved a key position in packaging strawberries for Woolworths.

During this time she married her husband, who worked as a labourer on another Klapmuts farm. Her husband died in 2004 – a life-changing event, she says, that she could only overcome by the grace of God. As a widow, Fischer now had sole responsibility for their two school-going children.

“I became good at being independent, and that is how I got through the difficult times. If not for Robert Visser who believed in me, I would not be where I am today. The Vissers saw my potential and the hard work I put in at Dalewood.”

Fischer’s life took a new direction when Dalewood went from producing strawberries to cheesemaking in 2000 to become known as Dalewood Fromage.

Today, 19 years later, after starting on the farm’s milk production team, Fischer leads the production team as head cheesemaker.

Her motivation to get up in the morning is seeing her second family, which is her beloved colleagues at Dalewood Fromage. “I have a wonderful team working with me. My motto is, ‘When you do the job for the first time, do it right!’ I’ve been working in agriculture for over 30 years and every day I learn something new.”

For Fischer, it’s pure bliss when raw cheese is being moulded, cutting the curd into precise pieces and seeing it form into the correct size. She is passionate about the art of cheesemaking. “Cheesemaking is my passion and I enjoy every aspect of my work. It’s like cooking. You have to love what you’re making in order for it to come out perfectly.”

Cheese guru Kobus Mulder (left) and Nellie Fischer at Dalewood Fromage Cheesery in Klapmuts.

In 2010, South African cheese expert Kobus Mulder, who wrote Cheeses of South Africa: Artisanal Producers & Their Cheeses, selected Fischer to join the Cape Town Burgundy Cheesemaking Fellowship, sponsored by the Western Cape government’s Department of Agriculture.

This presented her with the opportunity to travel to France to learn more about cheesemaking. Mulder says, “I selected Nellie because of her good progress as a pupil cheesemaker at Dalewood Fromage. I knew her as a hardworking person with the exceptional ability of paying attention to the detail of making cheese.”

According to Mulder, Fischer easily worked the long hours cheesemaking required, and was always eager to learn. One of the attributes he was looking for in applicants was their ability to assimilate knowledge, and she was outstanding in this regard.

“Oh! What excitement! It was an adventure! It was the first time I travelled abroad. In all my years of cheesemaking I never imagined that I would reach France, but it was all thanks to Kobus for selecting me. He has played a big role in the knowledge that I have gained,” says Fischer.

Four years after she visited France with Mulder, Fischer was appointed as Dalewood’s head cheesemaker. This, according to Mulder, is quite an achievement, because in a small artisanal cheesery there aren’t many opportunities to the top. Mulder adds, “These cheeseries have a flat structure. There is normally the owner, and then the chief cheesemaker, who also acts as the production manager; deciding which cheese to make on which day, also looking after the maturation rooms.”

Nellie Fischer, Jolette Wilmot (General Manager), John Farrand (the Managing Director of Guild of Fine Food UK, the owners of the World Cheese Awards).

In 2017, Dalewood’s Huguenot cheese made it to the top 16 and eventually won joint third position in the World Cheese Awards in the United Kingdom. When the announcement was made, Fischer was flabbergasted. “Wow, is this really our cheese? Is this really our hands’ work?”

Mulder says, “If one considers she was competing against countries where cheese has been made for 600 to 800 years, it is outstanding. The cheese was also awarded World Jersey Cheese Champion, made from 100% Jersey milk – an even bigger achievement.”

Besides cheesemaking, which Fischer says she can do in her sleep after 20 years’ experience, she enjoys going to church and spending time with her sisters, children and grandchildren.

Looking to the future, Fischer hopes to teach the young people working in her team about the industry and maintaining standards in a cheese factory, including the importance of personal hygiene. “I can see a fast-growing interest in the cheesemaking industry, and I can pass on some of the knowledge I have gained along the way.”

About what it takes to be successful, Fischer believes we will never know what God has in store for us. “Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. The word of God says, after all, ‘For I know the plans I have for you.’”

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