After completing a psychology degree at the University of the Free State and travelling in and the US, Estelle McDonald returned home with little idea of what to do next. All that changed when her mother suggested cheese, well, as a career, and she completed a number of cheesemaking courses. In 2000 she heard of the Pentermans of Paterson, a family who had swapped Europe for Africa in 1999 to produce cheese and who specialised in a unique Gouda-type cheese called Boerenkaas. By then, obsessed with producing cheese, applied for a short-term training stint at the De Pekelaar Dairy and to her surprise, the Pentermans offered her a full-time job.
After relocating to Paterson, quickly set about spending as much time as possible in the dairy and her relationship with the and their Boerenkaas gathered momentum, only to be tragically cut short in mid-2000 when Els Penterman’s husband, Tonnie, died in a car crash.
At first Els, along with her four children, decided to soldier on alone in South Africa and she promptly won two first prizes at a national cheese festival in 2001.
In the end, though, Els opted to sell the business to a Dutch neighbour, Kees Kingma, also a dairy farmer and experienced cheesemaker and she returned to Europe. Kees insisted Estelle take over cheesemaking at the De Pekelaar Dairy and almost overnight, found herself at the helm of a successful dairy with very big shoes to fill.
Meanwhile, Estelle had married Hercu du Preez and with her husband’s support and her talent, the De Pekelaar Dairy went from strength to strength, probably best illustrated by a string of sought-after awards, including the South African Champion position with a semi-hard Boerenkaas with cumin and the Qualité award for the same cheese at the 2006 South African Dairy Championships, hosted by Agri Expo in Stellenbosch.
The same year saw the De Pekelaar Dairy sold to Morning Milk, a respected George-based dairy business and owners of the well-known La Masseria cheese factory in Stellenbosch. Such success and upward mobility into the mainstream market was undoubtedly the perfect tribute to the Penterman’s determination to produce cheese in Africa and their sensible choice of a student in 2000.
Maintaining uniformity of taste
Production at De Pekelaar has increased from using of 3 000â„“ of milk a week, in 2000, to 12 000â„“ in 2007, from which matured Boerenkaas is mainly produced. The cheese is naturally flavoured with ingredients such as cumin, black pepper, mustard seed, basil pesto, garlic, onion, red pepper, peppadew, cloves and even biltong.
The major challenge of creating a successful cheese-producing facility lies not only in increasing volumes, but in the consistent and uniform production of the same cheese, explains Estelle. “It’s easy to make cheese, but difficult to make the same taste and flavour of cheese day in and day out. Somebody who buys my cheese should always appreciate the same taste, or they will be disappointed and never buy it again,” she explains.
In order to achieve this uniformity, it’s vital to approach cheese-making with precision and a healthy culture of cleanliness. “You work with bacteria and milk and simply have to be clean. All the apparatus has to be disinfected and washed twice a day,” she explains.
The Pentermans knew that the development of a niche market was the best way to compete with bigger cheese producers. Thanks to the quality of De Pekelaar cheese and in association with a Cape Town-based business Truckles Traditional Cheese, the De Pekelaar dairy has been supplying Woolworths with plain and flavoured Boerenkaas since 2000. In fact, today about 60% of Estelle’s three- to four-month-old cheese is marketed via Woolworths, while the other 40% is marketed across the country to various up-market delis, restaurants and other outlets – a market share captured by reputation.
Estelle explains that her association with Woolworths has served as an important marketing tool in the sense that quality is often associated with Woolworths. “I’m lucky to have the relationship,” she says.
With the stability and advantage of the Woolworths niche market, it’s been less stressful to build an alternative stake in the increasingly discerning cheese market where smaller producers often need to offer something unique to attract attention. “Consumers aren’t happy with orange slabs anymore,” she laughs. She goes on to explain that people’s improved tastes can only be good for business.
Contact the De Pekelaar Factory Store on (042) 235 1628 |fw
Once the day’s milk, sourced from Kees, has been poured into the holding tank, it’s kept at 6ºC before being poured into a pasteuriser that neutralises impurities. The milk is then transferred into a large mixing tank in which the milk is maintained at a temperature of about 30ºC. Here the milk is treated with a Danish culture, non-animal rennet (180ml of rennet to 2 000â„“ of milk), calcium chloride (400ml of calcium chloride to 1 000â„“ of milk) and natural flavouring. The mixture is then left to mature and set as curd, while the whey is separated and supplied to a pig farmer.
The curd is then cut up and washed, heated, moulded and eventually pressed into 10kg wheels of young cheese, equivalent to 100â„“ of milk. The cheese is then sunk into a seven-year-old brine solution in a large bath below ground level, which helps to keep the continually monitored solution cool. The brine bath is at the heart of the business as it helps define the flavour.
After four days in brine, the cheese forms a crust and is ready for storage and maturation. Maturing takes anything from two months to two years and the cheese is stored at 14ºC and at 90% humidity. The cheese is turned once a day to “breathe” while a wax coating ensures the cheese doesn’t dry out. A certain amount of evaporation is inevitable, with most cheeses losing on average 10% moisture before being marketed.