Curds & the Cape Whey

There is a constant, underlying sense of fear that one must acknowledge exists while in Cape Town, or anywhere in South Africa for that matter. It’s not quite paranoia, and sometimes you don’t even realize that you are in imminent danger when you are, but it’s there: a threat that lives on the edge of the Capetonian consciousness.

The reason for this is complex and involves a history swamped with racial segregation and political/social/economic hardships. As an outsider and a Canadian, who comes from a land where practically everything is sanitized for your protection and people are generally free to leave their front doors and cars unlocked, the precautions one must take in Cape Town, and the level of awareness that is necessary when walking down a street, especially after dark, adds a certain level of stress and anxiety. But perhaps what makes Canada so safe is also what can make it so boring. And although living here in Cape Town is less safe, it comes with a vibrancy that makes you feel alive. The chaos keeps you on your toes.

The underlying threat to my life in Cape Town culminated with learning to drive a manual car. Not just any manual car, but a “Rent-a-Cheapie” early-1990s Mazda. At first I was embarrassed of never having learned to drive a stick, but this embarrassment was quickly transformed into panic and trauma on Cape Town’s disorderly roads. It’s like no one knows how to drive a car, manual or not! Suddenly I felt that I had company in not knowing how to get around safely in a vehicle, which was terrifying. My level of comfort was also dramatically reduced as a result of everything being the opposite to North America, namely the side of the road and side of the car where the driver’s seat is located. Starting after stopping on a hill elicits heart palpitations, further exacerbated by an e-brake that is too old to hold up the car. When it’s time to turn, I have to focus intensely on which lane to maneuver the car into, and try not to switch on the windshield wipers.

After making my way to and along the N1 physically unscathed (but not emotionally), I eventually reached my destination: the green and tranquil farmlands of Stellenbosch, where roads and life are much simpler. Here, cradled in the arms of gorgeous granite mountains and bathed in sunlight, I spent four days learning to make cheese and yogurt from milk that arrived each morning, still warm, from the udders of neighbouring grazing cows.

cheese stellenbosch farm homemade

The first day was spent learning about the composition of milk, the function of rennet, and other interesting facts such as the difference in the calcium content of milk from grass-fed vs. grain-fed cows (which plays a very important role in the coagulation of milk when making cheese). This sounds very technical, which it was. Our instructor was not only expert in cheese making, but also had a background in microbiology. In the dairy we proceeded to make Gouda, cheddar, halloumi, ricotta, feta and yogurt, and took turns stirring the curd and taking the temperature of the milk. And using large cheese harps, we cut the curd into squares to help release the whey, prepping it for the molds, which we then pressed overnight to form the cheese.

cheese harp cheddar farm homemade

Cheese “harp” and mixing curds for Cheddar

Making cheese is a process that is very scientific – if there is not enough calcium in the milk it won’t coagulate properly; if the temperature is not brought to the right level at the right speed, the culture won’t grow as it should; if the milk doesn’t acidify to a precise pH level (which varies depending on the type of cheese) the cheese could be ruined, as it won’t age properly and could spoil.

But at the same time, making cheese is a delicate craft. It requires such patience and tenderness in the way the milk is handled and the way the curd is gently heated, stirred, cut and pressed, that it feels very artisanal – and almost therapeutic. The texture of the soft curds between your fingers, the slow transformation of the milk into curds and whey over hours, and the great care that is taken to create a perfect cheese, that not only looks as it should, but feels and tastes the way you want it to. And the smallest adjustments to the temperature, time, amount of culture or rennet, cut of the curds, or pace of the stirring can fine-tune the cheese into a unique and special art that you created. After a few failures, attempts, and tweaks, a successful cheese is incredibly satisfying. And it requires a lot of love.

cheese curd homemade feta

Stirring curds for feta

I’d be happy to share any of the cheese recipes – contact me at

1 Comment on Curds & the Cape Whey

  1. Butterfly
    Friday, July 5th, 2013 at 8:52 pm (5 years ago)

    Really enjoying your fresh writing style. I can visit Capetown without boarding a plane.


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