Camembert fields forever: the Dalewood Fromage story 21 years on

Daily Maverick caught up with Rob and Petrina Visser of Dalewood Fromage in Franschhoek on the 21st anniversary of their business that has done much to greatly boost South African’s knowledge and love of speciality cheese.

Our conversation took place in their farmhouse kitchen, where the counter was spread with, obviously, a lot of cheese, as well as bowls of fresh cherries, olives, water biscuits, preserves, biltong and droëwors, and sprigs of fragrant rosemary.

There was a carafe of chilled strawberry water, but before anything else, Petrina popped a bottle of bubbly. The reason for this was to celebrate Dalewood’s 21st anniversary, an occasion she said they’d only just remembered about a month ago.

Dalewood Winelands Camembert

“Our cheese business is 21 years old, and here I sit with the flagship cheese of ours,” she said, holding up the Winelands Camembert, “because this was the very first cheese we launched in 2000.

“It’s still very much part of our range, and it’s unique in South Africa in terms of the fact it’s the only oval Camembert that you can buy. And people love it for that. The shape sets it apart, and the recipe is also different.” 

The Dalewood farm has been in the Visser family for more than 60 years; previously Rob and his father were in the strawberry business. 

“When I arrived on the scene, a city slicker from Johannesburg, and saw what was involved in growing strawberries and picking strawberries, I nearly died,” said Petrina.

“After three or four years, I looked at this and said to myself there is no way I can handle it. I said to Rob one night, ‘It’s either the strawberries or it’s me.’ I literally forced him to make an overnight decision to stop strawberries and go into cheesemaking.” 

From strawberries to fine cheese

The farm had always had a tiny dairy which used to supply the local community, so the milk was there. Plus Rob had qualified at Elsenburg, where he studied dairy technology and animal husbandry. “So that’s where his passion lies,” said Petrina. 

“We experimented for a couple of years before we decided to do it properly. We launched with this white mould cheese and we called it Wineland because we were inspired by the romance of the vineyards and all the beautiful wines in our area. And cheese and wine are natural partners. It made so much sense.”

This particular Camembert is special not only because it was named overall cheese champion at the first South African Cheese Festival in 2001 and the Qualité award (the only mark of excellence for dairy products in South Africa) in the SA Dairy Championships, but because the recipe – like all Dalewood recipes, developed by Rob – made it the first cheese in South Africa that was a ready-to-eat Camembert. Rob has won various other South African awards including Best Functional Herd Life, Best Herd Genetics and Model Herd. 

“It’s very easy, and very versatile, because it doesn’t need ripening. It doesn’t have a chalky centre, or heart, which is a real pain when you’re buying cheese at a supermarket because they’re so paranoid about shelf life,” said Petrina. “It’s very accessible and it appealed to the SA market because they’d never seen anything like it before.” 

The early awards for the Wineland Camembert confirmed for the Vissers that they should go into the cheese business seriously. And that’s when the journey really began in earnest. The strawberry fields slowly started to be replanted and replaced with pastures.

Rob Visser with his beloved Jersey cows.

“We have about 55 hectares where we feed our cows. That’s when Rob decided he was going to focus on the genetics and the breeding of the herd, which has been recognised with stud status, and most importantly it’s 100% Jersey,” explained Petrina.

“It’s a tightly controlled herd. We don’t buy in any milk whatsoever. And Rob is the genetic specialist. He chooses which semen to import from all the best bulls around the world so that has been part of his journey.” 

The happy lifestyle of the cows is of the utmost importance to ensure the cheese produced from their milk is of the best possible quality. “Growing our own pastures means we have control over the milk,” said Petrina.

Dalewood has a regenerative approach to farming and the rotationally grazed herd spends each day on green pastures, which are precisely managed, beginning with the gentle nurturing of the biological life in the soil. No artificial fertilisers, insecticides or weed killers are used to boost these pastures. The cows never receive growth or milk production increasing hormones, neither do they receive any unnecessary antibiotics. 

Ultimately, these benefits are passed along to us, the end consumers of the cheese and other dairy products from Dalewood…. Read the full article here