The wondrous art of cheesemaking

A Healeys platter consisting of a variety of cheeses, charcuterie, olives, root crisps, and chutneys, ideal to enjoy with a glass of Waterkloof bubbly or wine, while observing the cheesemaking process.

Siyambona Paul pushes the large stainless steel cutter carefully and steadily through the curds, from one side of the enormous cheese making vessel to the other, shifts it slightly to the left, and draws it as carefully back, watched by Healey’s master cheesemaker, Desiree Stuart.

It is Tuesday midday, and the weekly cheesemaking cycle is underway, which will culminate in 140kg to 150kg of fine cheddar cheese finding its way into the maturation room, where it will join 19 tonnes of cheddar heads, which slumber for up 10 months, maturing to perfection, before they are ready to be sold.

The curds are cut into 5cm cubes, and in order to ensure consistency of size, the cheesemaking team sifts through the cut curds by hand and using a snow white sterilised plastic shovel, to find
the inevitable larger pieces, which must be painstakingly cut to size.

“Understanding the science of cheesemaking doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make cheese,” says Desiree, her attention focussed on precisely cutting the slab of curds on her hand. “There is art in cheesemaking as well.” And watching Desiree and her team at work, patiently, methodically working the curds, it is evident that it is a tactile process requiring patience and precision.

The curds started life on Monday, as a delivery of raw unpasteurised milk, from a farm somewhere in Stellenbosch, which runs a herd of prize Fresian cows, that produce milk with a fat content ideal for making cheddar cheese.

The location of the farm is a closely guarded secret – the source of the milk which Healey’s uses,
is considered a strategic advantage.

The milk is heated and a bacterial culture added, which converts milk sugar into lactic acid.

Rennet – which contains the protease chymosin – is then added to the slightly acidified milk, and it is left to stand until coagulation reaches the desired level and the milk is split between curd and whey, after which the curds must be cut, the painstaking process I am observing.

A large, stainless steel stirrer rotates slowly upon itself, from side to side, as it traverses the length of the cheesemaking vessel, gently agitating the cut curds to form a thin layer on each, in preparation for the next step.

The finesse in cheesemaking is in managing the variables of temperature, Ph and agitation speed when drying the curds, the precise confluence of which determine the quality and longevity of the final product.

The next stage, cheddaring, involves draining the whey, forming the curd mass into slabs, then stacking and flipping them to expel any whey trapped between the curd grains.

Temperature control at this point is critical. If it runs too high the remaining processes must be accelerated to prevent the curds from becoming too hard.

The cheddared curds are then fed through a milling machine to cut the curd into uniform chunks, which provides consistent surface area to cheese ratio. This in turn ensures uniform absorption of salt by the curds.

The salted curds are then packed into moulds lined with a non-woven fabric, and pressed for 24 hours, to form heads of either 2kg or 9kg in weight.

The heads are dipped into 80ºC water, which melts the fat to create an initial rind, then back into the moulds and pressed for another 24 hours.

The heads are wrapped in muslin – cheesecloth – larded with margarine and stored in the temperature- and humidity-controlled maturation room, where they are turned weekly after an initial two week rest period.

Two kilogram heads – truckles – are sold whole, and the 9kg heads are cut to required size and weight, vacuum-packed and labelled.

Unopened, the cheese will last for up to eight months in the fridge, but once opened, should be eaten within seven days.

The joy of visiting Healey’s Cheeses on Waterkloof Wine Estate on Old Sir Lowry’s Pass Road in Somerset West, is that you can watch this entire process through the large picture windows set into the rear of the bistro area, while enjoying a variety of platters, fine coffee or even a glass of Waterkloof wine.

Cheesery general manager, Jannik le Roux, is often there to explain the various stages of the cheesemaking process, and you can also watch a video of the processes, between cheesemaking cycles.

And quite naturally, you’ll want to leave with at least one wedge of Healey’s Mature Cheddar, to eat at leisure at home.