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Alchemist of cheese

Alje van Deemter has been serving his award-winning cheese for lunch at his off-the-beaten-track Tsitsikamma home for 18 years. South visited Alje to learn why he is known as the Alchemist of cheese.

 WORDS Candice Ludick PHOTOGRAPHS Lisa Greyling

Tucked away in the heart of the Tsitsikamma lies one of the Garden Route’s best kept secrets. Internationally renowned, multi award-winning cheesemaker Alje van Deemter’s Fynboshoek is a haven from the demands of modern life, reminiscent of a simpler time when food was central to human social structures.

His philosophy on life and business is pinned on the fridge in his old-fashioned farm kitchen: “Whoever comes are the right people. Whenever it starts is the right time. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. Whenever it is over, it is over.”

Alje’s passion for food and his journey to greater sustainability evolved into creating a space where people could learn about their relationship with the food they eat and develop understanding, respect and appreciation for the process. “Cheese-making has never been about making a living for me but rather about making a life where my actions are in harmony with my heart’s guidance.”

After inheriting his family’s holiday farm in Tsitsikamma, he moved here from Cape Town 21 years ago and began experimenting with all things cheese. Trained as a microbiologist, Alje initially approached cheese-making with an exacting scientific regimen. Through trial and error he learned that far better results were yielded when he embraced the unpredictability of artisanal cheese-making instead of trying to control the process. The result was a variety of subtle flavours determined by the season, weather and a myriad of elements working in unison to create world-class produce.

Alje says people who tasted his cheese wanted to know the story behind the treasure, which ultimately led to him serving by-appointment-only cheese lunches at Fynboshoek in 1997.

He serves lunch on indoor and outdoor patios to the sounds of smooth jazz and birdsong on the edge of the Tsitsikamma forests. He welcomes guests into his home – shared by his beloved Ridgebacks, chickens and cats – with warm-hearted hospitality. The fragrance of freshly baked bread and roasted coffee peppered with an assortment of culinary high notes fills the air, and Alje’s attention to detail ensures his food is as visually appealing as it is tasty.

Lunch consists of a variety of raw goat and cow milk cheeses served with home-baked bread and organic salads. This year Alje planted wheat, which will later be milled into flour, to achieve his vision of a lunch produced entirely on his land.

Alje’s desserts are equally famous and include homemade Italian ice-cream made with vanilla pods from Madagascar. Artisanal coffees and teas finish the meal.

He serves the meals himself and lingers at tables to chat. The conversation most frequently turns to the cheese-making process. “People have a desperate need to understand the process. As a modern species we have become so far removed from where our food comes from. If the producer and consumer can look each other in the eye, there is a lot less chance of mischief.”

Alje has a herd of 30 Saanen goats that he milks by hand, often by candlelight in an old sod structure on his farm. Ethical standards are of utmost importance to him. “Many of my friends who follow a vegan diet in objection to widespread cruelty in animal-based food production are comfortable eating my goat milk cheeses because they know how I treat the animals.” His cow milk cheeses are made from milk sourced from neighbouring, equally ethical, dairy farms.

A chance meeting with another cheesemaker led to him entering his Formosa Goat’s Milk Cheese into the World Cheese Awards in 2003. He came away with a Bronze against artisans who had been making cheese for several generations. “I was blown over when the result came back, until then I had never really contemplated comparing my cheese to others.” Since then an array of Alje’s cheeses have won national and international awards, including three Golds at the World Cheese Awards and two international Slow Food Artisanal Cheese Citations.

Continued interest from his patrons led to Alje’s latest initiative, cheese-making demonstrations. Ideal for those wanting to learn about the cheese-making process, the demonstrations include an opportunity to experience the daily rhythm of farm life and the making of whatever is currently being produced.

Artisanal cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, quark (cottage cheese) and yoghurt are among the produce made on the farm. The cheeses demonstrated may vary depending on the needs of the farm at the time as Alje produces for the eatery and supplies to restaurants around the country.

Day one includes a demonstration on how to make quark and yoghurt, to be eaten with a farmhouse breakfast on day two. After breakfast, participants view more cheese-making processes and enjoy a leisurely cheese lunch. Two nights’ accommodation is provided for participants in Alje’s recently completed sand-bag cottage.

Intentionally electricity-free, gas and solar power provide the basics. The well-equipped kitchen and living area boasts a large fireplace ideal for a respite from the pressures of daily life. “I hope visitors to Fynboshoek will leave not only rejuvenated, but also with a better understanding of their relationship with food and respect for the process,” he says.

VISIT FYNBOSHOEK
Lunches
Served daily between 12pm and 4pm, by appointment only. Bookings no later than 11am on day of arrival. Maximum 20 guests.
Lunch: R150; Dessert: R50 Coffee: R15 (2015)
Accommodation
Cape farm style cottage sleeps up to four people in one double and one twin room.
Minimum stay of three nights in season.
R1 000 to R1 500 per night. (2015)
Demonstrations
Booking essential.
One person: R3 500 pp; two people: R2 325 pp; three people: R2 000 pp; four people: R1 750 pp. (2015)
Rates include two nights’ accommodation.

CONTACT
Alje van Deemte
042 280 3879
[email protected]