Italian-style fresh cheeses fior de latte and burrata are as delicious as they are finicky to make. Mastering this ancient craft are Louise Dawood and her husband, Stephen Ngqwebo, of Curds and Whey Artisinal Foods in Johannesburg.
Written by Susan Reynard
Photographs by Annalize Nel
Styling by Louise Dawood
Louise has taken the scenic route on her journey to becoming one of an extremely select few, Italian-style fresh cheesemakers in South Africa. Having first tasted the products she now makes from scratch while dining at True Italic Osteria del Capo restaurant in Cape Town, Louise fell in love with the delicious spheres of silky soft creaminess, as well as their romantic Italian names like fior di latte and burrata.
Housed at the Riversands Industrial Park in Fourways, Johannesburg, Curds and Whey Artisanal Foods produce fior di latte (which directly translates to flower of milk) – a semisoft mozzarella – and burrata cheeses.
All it takes is cow’s milk, salt, rennet, water and a lot of hard work. Rising at 3am and spending long hours on herfeet, stretching cheese in hot water with aching hands, is a far cry from Louise’s previous life as a banking IT professional with a computer science degree from University of the Witwatersrand. And yet, after a journey of self-discovery, this is what she loves doing.
It all started when Louise decided to step away from the rat race and her high-paying yet highly stressful career in the corporate world. Staying at home for months with no immediate plans, it dawned on her that she spent most of her time thinking about food, watching food channels, reading food magazines, researching food online and deciding what to make next, then shopping for the ingredients.
“My husband started to gain weight and I realised that I needed to transfer this elsewhere, as his waistline would not be able to hold all my creativity!” Louise recalls. “I was spending all my free time making food and planning to make more food. Suddenly, I had time to try my hand at recipes from scratch, which I could never do before.”
Louise undertook a cheese-making course at Grootplaas Cheese Academy in Hartbeespoort, before enrolling at the Prue Leith Chefs Academy in Pretoria for a year’s training that resulted in her achieving a Culinary Arts Diploma cum laude. “I came out of Prue Leith with such an appreciation for the value of good ingredients, what things really taste like and how home-made products are different to mass-produced ones,” she explains.
A perfectly timed move to Cape Town allowed Louise to gain cheffing experience at a couple of Italian eateries. And, before returning to Joburg, she and her husband hunted down the fresh cheese suppliers. They spent time in the factory of Capebased Italian cheesemaker Davide Ostuni of Puglia Cheese, followed by a cheesemaking course in Calabria, Italy, under John Nocita, the founder and president of the Italian Institute for Advanced Culinary and Pastry Arts, and the mastro casaro (master cheesemaker) Salvatore Postella.
For a year before starting Curds and Whey, the couple then started researching how to become pasta filata (spun curd) cheesemakers; in Louise’s case, full-time. “I was keen to make fresh cheese close to the marketplace in Johannesburg. The timing was perfect. We returned to Johannesburg in early 2017, focused on our research, putting our business plan together and looking for suitable premises to operate from.
We continued to make a lot of ‘bad’ cheeses at home as we perfected our technique,” Louise shares. “It took us time to combine all the bits of knowledge, and to build up confidence in our product and our ability to consistently produce the right texture, moisture and taste. We later realised that we shouldn’t have thrown away so much, as the cheese was great!” Stephen adds.
On the day fresh cheese is stretched and moulded, it feels tough and rubbery; after languishing in a brine bath, it then becomes moist, milky, silky and soft. The temperature of the product, premises and environment also play a big role. In addition, there is no do-over: if you start stretching too soon, too late or take too long, then the product fails.
As Louise points out, pasta filata cheese is fussy and unforgiving. “This is a living product; it has an attitude, personality and mood swings. We’re on a journey to discover where we can take it and so much depends on the quality of the milk,” she explains. Louise is a self-confessed city girl, but Stephen hears the call of the countryside. While she is passionate about connecting with how food is made, he remembers his childhood with his grandmother, helping take care of her cows and milking them: “I’d forgotten about it all these years, but this process has stirred up something in me. I’m thinking cows, maybe a buffalo (for production of buffalo mozzarella produced from water buffalo’s milk – the difference between buffalo mozzarella and fior di latte is that buffalo milk is higher in calcium and protein while lower in cholesterol than fior di latte from cow’s milk), a farm – it’s starting to make sense,” Stephen muses.
Currently working as a software developer for a major bank, the food journey has Stephen intrigued. He spends most of his spare time involved in the business with Louise, helping in any capacity and usually taking on the harder tasks of collecting milk from a local farm at 3am. This precious ingredient is at the heart of it all. The determined duo look for suppliers with farms open to inspection in order to know what the cows are fed and how they are reared. Louise’s father, Mohamed Dawood, has also been a huge support; assisting in countless ways, from lifting heavy machinery and sorting out plumbing and electrical issues to sharing advice, encouragement and even his vehicle.
With good milk available in South Africa and transferable skills, Louise believes there are many artisanal products like fresh cheese that can be made locally. This would ensure the growth of local skills, boost employment and reduce the carbon footprint of expensive imports. Her goal is to contribute to the development of a culture of food production and deepening skills, instead of just jobs, imports and consumption. “Food is chemistry, which can be learned, managed and controlled.
We can have an imported concept made locally, with the culture and terroir influencing its character and domesticating it,” Louise emphasises, adding that she found a lot more exposure to specialist products like fresh cheese in Cape Town.
Most of the fresh cheese-making process is done by hand, as you need to feel the exact right time when the curd becomes soft and pliable – developing this muscle memory takes time. Curds and Whey has machines imported from Italy to help with volume: one to stretch the dough-like curd into silky soft cheese and one to portion mozzarella balls into different sizes.
“Burrata is made entirely by hand, from shredding the stracciatella filling (which is soaked in cream and stuffed in the centre) to shaping and moulding the pouch. You take milk and transform it, through the stages, to curd; then stretch it to soft, silky dough and form into a ball, and even make it ‘cry tears’ (a little bit of milky liquid comes out) when you squeeze the mozzarella.
The fresh cheeses are packed and labelled by hand too,” Louise explains. She goes on to say that the timing of this miraculous process is “as long as it takes”, or at least six to seven hours to get from milk to solid curd, then to reach a specific acidity that makes the cheese elastic, soft and stretchable.
Each element, including the bacteria, plays a part and can’t be rushed. At present, the husband and wife team do not make the cheeses from scratch every day, which means there is capacity to scale up the business in the current premises and with the existing equipment. They are planning for expansion to achieve the anticipated quantities in the near future. The couple says one of the challenges of being entrepreneurs is how physically hard it is. Without a pool of experienced cheesemakers to hire from in South Africa, Louise trains all staff herself. She says unlike being employed, no matter how tired they are, they have to keep going and can’t take a day off.
Fresh cheeses are best served at room temperature and have a lifespan of approximately 10 days. At Curds and Whey, the cheeses are made to order with no product sold directly from the premises, so there is no waste. The business’ customers include Cheese Gourmet in Linden, Johannesburg, as well as top restaurants, hotels, chefs and members of the public. Louise mentions that they are also best placed to advise their clientele on how to use their products.
The fior di latte and burrata are the biggest sellers. In future, Louise wants to play around with flavours and tweak the product in a very un-Italian way. The love of cheese that started this journey continues: “Some days Stephen and I just feel like burrata and home-made bread; there is a purity of enjoying them together,” she says happily.
Curds and Whey currently has a product offering of:
FIOR DI LATTE – mozzarella made from cow’s milk in 50g, 100g and 150g balls
BURRATA – fresh mozzarella pouches filled with creamy stracciatella in 80g, 100g, 125g and 150g
SFOGLIA – soft sheets of mozzarella cheese
NODINI – knots of stretched mozzarella cheese in various sizes
TRECCIA – braided strands of mozzarella cheese in various sizes
CULTURED WHEY BUTTER made from whey cream
UNIT F4, BLOCK 6, RIVERSANDS INDUSTRIAL PARK, 8 INCUBATION DRIVE, FOURWAYS; 072 231 5565; CURDSANDWHEY.AFRICA