No whey! From some unlikely origins, African cheese — and other milky things- making a splash on the international stage

First documented on the continent in 2,000BC, now Africa's cheese makers are off to new markets.

IT WAS first documented in Africa in 2,000BC when archaeologists found Egyptian tomb murals showing butter and cheese being made. However, aside from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s “Goma” cheese and Egypt’s “Romy” cheese, few African milk products have garnered international attention. 

Until now.

At the annual Cheese 2015, an international event dedicated to milk in all its shapes and forms to be held in Bra, Italy, there will be a special display showcasing Africa’s cheese and other milk products, all made by small scale producers who are part of the Slow Food and Terra Madre network. 

Here visitors will be able to meet food communities from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Cape Verde, Morocco and São Tomé and Príncipe who are all specialising in the production of goods from milk. 

Here are a few of the African producers who will attend: 

Camel milk soap, Ethiopia

From Ethiopia the Karrayu herders will bring their camel milk handmade soap. 

Traditionally camels are highly prized within the community, though usually the milk from the camel is not processed and simply drank fresh as part of their staple diet. The Karrayu herders however started to provide milk to an association called Elilta Women who make the milk into soap. 

Ash yoghurt, Kenya

The Pokot, a group of herders native to Western Kenya, will offer tastings of their traditional Ash yoghurt. To make this yoghurt, milk it is poured into long, narrow gourds, left to rest for at least three days and then mixed with ash from the wood of a local tree, the “cromwo”, known for its antiseptic properties. 

Known in local dialect as “mala ya kienyeji”, ash yogurt used to be extremely important in the diet of the Pokot community, and was one of the staple foods for herdsmen looking for pasture. As livestock farming is now less widespread and milk is less available, there has been a significant reduction in the production of the yoghurt. In addition the community has seen lost pride in their traditional food culture. Today the yoghurt is only produced by a few families, for their own consumption. Surplus is occasional and sold at local markets.

Raw milk cheese, South Africa

From South Africa, there will be some producers from the South African raw milk cheeses presidium who will be informing international consumers about the benefits of cheese made from unpasteurised milk and the importance of South African artisanal cheese-making. 

At the moment there are around 10 presidium producers and they work only with raw milk. The variety of cheeses reflects the incredible variety of climates and environments around South Africa. 

Cheeses like Karoo Crumble, Ganzvlei Vastrap, Ficksburger and Huguenot are all very different from each other, offering unusual characteristics and reflecting their places of origin, the pastures were the animals have grazed and the passion and stories of the producers. Karoo Crumble, for example, is made in the semi-desertic Karoo region and has notes of hay, hazelnut and aromatic herbs. Ganzvlei Vastrap, bright yellow in color, is made in a rainy area close to the ocean and has a gentle flavor, with pleasantly bitter hints of the grasses and flowers of the local shrubland vegetation called fynbos.

Mature Goat Cheese, Cape Verde

Goat’s cheese is produced on various islands of the Cape Verdean archipelago, as well as all over the island of Santo Antão. But in the mountainous, dry and almost uninhabited area of the Planalto de Bolona plateau there are a group of shepherds who, against all odds, raise animals and make cheese. 

Cheese-making starts immediately after milking in tiny traditional stone huts with roofs of straw and matting. Each operation is carried out with extreme care, keeping water consumption to a minimum. Water is valuable here and, except for short periods, has to be brought in by water tanker or donkey. Processing is carried out naturally without using additional sources of heat. 

The rennet from the goat kids is added to the raw milk. After about two hours the curd is broken down to the size of corn grains, left to settle and the whey is removed. The paste is then shaped and pressed by hand into metal molds and left to drain. The final product is a pure rennet coagulated goat cheese. It is semi-hard, cylindrical in shape, ivory-white in colour and has a weak lactic aroma. It has a sweet, slightly tangy flavour and a tender elastic consistency.

Jben of Chefchaouen, Morocco

A delegation from Morocco will bring the Jben of Chefchaouen, a traditional goat cheese, a very popular product for the past 50 years in the region of Tangier and Tetouan. 

Here the goats feed on natural pastures rich in native plants and aromatic herbs. The cheese is made with raw milk and natural rennet extracted from the stomach of young ruminants or from the fig tree. It is preserved by the addition of salt. The cheese is eaten for breakfast, sometimes accompanied by olive oil, or msemen (thin, soft bread similar to pancakes) or bread. The cheese must be “washed” before being eaten to get excess salt off. 

The sale of jben has become an important income supplement for goat farmers who sell their cheeses in the souks weekly region. The jben goat is produced mainly for family consumption and production quantities are very low. 

(All photographs courtesy of the Slow Food archive)

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