You might be forgiven for not knowing your ricotta from your parmesan. Let’s face it. Not too long ago, most South Africans mainly ate cheddar and gouda – although, thankfully, a variety of international cheeses are now widely available.
More than 50% of the country’s cheese is made in the Western Cape with cheddar being the most popular for its versatility.
In Mzansi, CHEESE IS often eaten as a snack and large quantities are used as an ingredient to prepare meals.
Mozzarella takes the number two spot for its use in millions of mouth-watering pizzas made on a daily basis. Gouda, eaten in various ways, is placed third, followed by feta, cream and cottage cheese. The smallest group is continental cheeses made by artisanal cheesemakers and sold in restaurants and markets.
The nation’s undisputed cheese guru, Kobus Mulder, says cheese-making originated 6 000 years Before Christ in Samaria (today known as Iraq). The purpose was, quite simply, to extend the shelf life of milk to preserve its nutritional value.
Mulder, who wrote Cheeses of South Africa: Artisanal Producers & Their Cheeses, explains cheese-making as the clotting of milk to separate the milk solids from the water in milk. Thereafter the mixture is heated, fermented, some water drained and the curd ripened for a short or long period. “Curd” could be described as the soft, white substance formed when milk changes from a fluid to a solid or semi-solid state (also known as “coagulating”).
According to Mulder, the purpose of cheese-making today is still to preserve and extend the shelf life of the nutritional components of milk. Cheese can be made from any lactating animal, but commercially the milk of cows, goats, sheep, water buffalos, reindeer, camels and horses are used. (Yes, you read that right. The list really includes the milk of camels and horses.)
So exactly how is cheese made?
There are nine steps to making cheese. According to Mulder, the steps vary considerably between the cheese types. The cheesemaker manages the differences with certain actions, temperatures, pH (“potential of Hydrogen”) and duration. The steps include:
- Pasteurisation: Heat treatment of the milk.
- Inoculate the milk: Adding a culture containing different types of bacteria to make a specific type of cheese. The purpose of the culture bacteria is to ferment the lactose (milk sugar) to produce lactic acid which gives flavour and to serve as a natural preservative for the cheese.
- Additions to milk: It can be a colourant or calcium chloride to help with the coagulation of the milk.
- Coagulate the milk: This can be done by using the enzyme “rennet” from the fourth stomach of a ruminant or microbial rennet of non-animal origin for vegetarian cheese. Coagulation is done at specific temperatures for each type of cheese. This is normally around 32℃.
- Cutting the coagulated milk: Using specific knives to cut it into small curd pieces. The size of the curd pieces depends on the type of cheese made.
- Driving the whey out of the curd pieces: This is done by stirring the curds and whey (the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained) while heating it to a specific temperature depending on the type of cheese.
- Moulding of the curd is done by placing it containers (moulds) to obtain the shape of the type of cheese made.
- Pressing the curd: The curd in the moulds is then pressed to remove the whey from between the curds and to shape the cheese further.
- The cheese is then matured for different lengths of time at different temperatures and humidity depending on the type.
How long does it take to make a specific cheese?
Each type of cheese has its own timeline. Maturing the cheese is part of the process. Some cheeses are matured for 18 months and others for a mere three days.
Is there a difference between when you make cheese from raw or pasteurised milk? Does it taste different?
There is a difference in the taste. Raw milk cheese has a fuller and earthy flavour. Mulder says raw milk comes with all the bacteria in the milk – some of these will be “good and wanted” bacteria, but some could be “bad” bacteria from milk not produced hygienically. Bad bacteria gives cheese a bad taste.
Pasteurisation kills 99.99% of all bacteria and the cheese maker then adds only good and wanted bacteria in the form of the culture. The cheesemaker has more control over which flavours will develop in the cheese. If the cheesemaker knows the milk is clean, he can make raw milk cheese without concerns. However, if he is not sure about the microbiological quality of the milk, it is safer to pasteurise the milk.
How many variations of cheese exist in South Africa?
There are 10 categories of cheese into which all the cheese names in the world fit:
- Fresh cheese, e.g. cottage cheese.
- Whey cheese, e.g. ricotta.
- Pasta filata cheese, e.g. mozzarella.
- Soft cheese, e.g. camembert.
- Semi-soft cheese, e.g. reblochon.
- Semi-hard cheese, e.g. gouda.
- Hard cheese, e.g. cheddar.
- Extra hard cheese, e.g. parmesan.
- Blue cheese, e.g. stilton.
- Processed cheese, e.g. Melrose.
Does South Africa export any cheese?
Mzansi only exports cheese to neighbouring countries and Indian Ocean islands. Mulder says there’s nothing special about the cheese made all over the country. It’s just easier and nearer for these destinations to buy and import cheese from South Africa.
He explains that the country cannot export to the European Union as our value chain for milk and cheese-making is not monitored and recorded sufficiently by the government for European Union authorities.
What is South Africa’s status in the cheese-making industry compared to the rest of the world?
South Africa is a young cheese-making country compared to European countries where cheese has been made for centuries. However, many of our cheeses are world class. At the annual World Cheese Awards, South African cheeses regularly win gold, silver and bronze medals.
But Mulder says that many local cheese makers still need to improve their cheese. He says it does not help that the country does not have a recognised cheese-making school. One or two-day cheese making courses are offered in the country, but this barely teaches the very basics of cheese making, Mulder adds.
Does cheese expire and how is this determined?
Cheese is a living product made through the process of fermentation just like bread, wine, beer, salami and yoghurt. Mulder explains that they give cheese a “best before date” after which the flavour and texture will become atypical of the kind of cheese. Camembert has a two months “best before” date whereas that of parmesan is three years. Supermarkets require expiry dates, but usually the cheese is consumed long before that date. For consumers who are not very familiar with dairy products, it is always safest to respect those indicated.
How does cheese get its yellow colour?
The deep yellow colour, which cheddar and gouda shows, comes from adding a natural colourant called “annatto” to the milk before making the cheese. Annatto is the natural juice, which comes from the seeds of the annatto tree. It is tasteless and does nothing to the cheese except colour it yellow. According to Mulder it is perfectly safe and does not affect children like some artificial colourants like tartrazine.
Is there a way to make cheese last longer once opened?
The best way to treat cheese is to eat it as quickly as possible. Best is to wrap it tightly in cling wrap and store in the fridge as far away from vegetables as possible. Vegetables usually contain mould spores from the soil, which transfer to the cheese to make it mouldy. Mulders advises that if the cheese becomes mouldy, simply cut it off and eat the cheese. It is perfectly safe.