Curds And Whey: Fresh Yoghurt from the Farm
It was a beautiful winter's day when I drove into the estate. It wasn't a long drive through the fields to Karen's house, but it took a long time because there was a lot to appreciate: the view of Table mountain, the green winter grass, and the happy cows enjoying themselves sunbathing on the field and eating their feed. This city farm is well positioned in Plattekloof, which makes it one of the more central farms, a "city farm".
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It was at the Earth Fair Market in Tokai that I first discovered Curds & Whey yoghurt. One of the reasons that it's so delicious is because it's made with Jersey milk and because there are no other added ingredients (no preservatives, no colourants, no stabilisers or ingredients that you don't know how to pronounce). Karen made me a cup of tea and she told me a bit about how she came to own and run Curds & Whey.
Can you tell us about how you ended up starting Curds & Whey?
I started out in tourism - first working for an inbound tour operator and then doing the marketing for a renowned game reserve in the Eastern Cape. When my second-child was on the way, travelling wasn't really an option any more with a dairy farming husband, so I decided to try and find a half-day job in Stellenbosch, where we were living and my husband was managing a farm. I found a local job and started working for a tree specialist. They had a few Jersey cows that they would use to make their own yoghurt to sell at the Waldorf Market. I decided to try and make my own yoghurt. Moana, who would make the yoghurt, told me how to do it but the first time I made it I ended up with sloppy milk. I went back to Moana in the morning and asked her what I did wrong and she said, "Nee man! Jy moet laat slaap daai babetjie!" She meant that I made a mistake by not wrapping the yoghurt in a blanket to maintain the heat in order to keep the process of lactose changing into lactic acid going. So… its got to be heated, treated and put to bed! Across the road from the farm lived Melissa, from Melissa's, and after tasting it, she insisted that I also made yoghurt for her family. I started making yoghurt for our two families, for her Stellenbosch shop and a third friend.
Unfortunately that dairy in Stellenbosch was later closed down and fortunately my husband was transferred here, where we now live on De Grendel. I kept making yoghurt for our household use but soon made the decision to make yoghurt on a bigger scale and distribute it. So we bought the pasteuriser and the fridge and off we went. The whole idea was to be able to work from home to be with the kids as well as tap into the industry that I've married into. I'm in the unique position of being around a lot of milk, so it's definitely to my advantage to have it so close at hand!
Which were the first markets that you first launched your product at?
We had a teacher from Elkanah House visiting us and she suggested that I take my yoghurt to their Schoolyard Market. It was held once a month so suited the family life and was a good chance to get my yoghurt out there! I saw the advantages of trading at a market and so also took a stand at the Meerendal Farmers Market which was great. They hosted the prologue to the Cape Epic Cycle Race and asked the traders that sold food to be the food vendors for the Epic and it was there that I saw how athletes identified with our product! I then got involved with selling our yoghurt combined with other ingredients as a parfait at the big marathons which was phenomenal.
And then finally, I decided to make the big move and commit to the Earth Fair Market which trades every Saturday in Tokai. It was a big sacrifice for my family but very good for awareness and growing our sales in the Southern Suburbs.
You mentioned that the markets you were at were a great space to build a customer space and get great feedback, what other advantages are there to selling your goods at a market?
When you are producing a product, you end up doing it all and it's very easy to "hide away" and get bogged down with admin, production, marketing and not getting out there.
The markets really help you keep a finger on the pulse with the quality of your product, with the trends. It is a really good place to test new products and get almost immediate feedback, and to see how the product sells, etc.
Also I've seen that people buy into you, the personality behind the product, so it is a huge advantage being there in person. It is definitely a good form of marketing.
Since your husband manages all the animals on the farm, what is his day like?
Both of us get up just after 5:00 and are off to the dairy just after 5:20 everyday. He starts milking the cows by 5:30. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I'm collecting milk and he's doing what he has to in the milking process. I then take the kids off to school and he might come home for a quick breakfast and the rest of the morning is farm work and working with the cows.
There are five breeds of cows on the farm at the moment. The Holsteins have been here for over a hundred years now. They are milked three times a day because they're all about volume. They are milked at 5:30, two o'clock in the afternoon and then again at nine at night.
The Jerseys are more about cream rather than volume, so are only milked twice a day. They've only been here a few months which has been great as previously I've had to drive to Malmesbury to get milk for the yoghurt.
There are also red and black Angus. They're beef cows and they are used as surrogates to host the embryos of the Holstein cows. There are also Nguni's which are very difficult to work with as they are wild have you have to get around or out of the way of their immense horns and then there are also a few Boran, like Frank.
(Next, we were off to go and see the calves near the dairy and chat about how the yoghurt is made.) I noticed that the calves are separated from their mothers while they are quite young, why is that?
They are separated from their moms early on so that they don't build up too much of a bond. Due to the volume of milk the calf could also get too much milk and end up with a runny tummy leading to dehydration. The calves are kept in separate enclosures so that they do not bully each other for food and spread diseases amongst each other as it can happen very easily. They get their colostrum from their mom in the first day and are then fed formula. This ensures that they all get exactly what they need and the quantity required as well.
The very little calves wear little blankets to keep them warm and they get fresh hay and food and water several times a day.
So, after the cows are milked, I understand that to make the yoghurt, your milk goes into 20 litre buckets and then into the pasteuriser to kill the bacteria that could be in it and then add in a crumb of a freeze-dried culture that you want to grow. Then you wrap it in blankets to maintain the heat. Afterwards, the percentage of the whey is strained out to make sure that the yoghurt is nice and thick. What do you do with the left-over whey?
We had been feeding it to pigs. We would like to have the nutritional values tested as it might be something we can bottle and sell … for the bodybuilders!
There's a secret about your yoghurt which I was sworn to keep, but can you tell us what else is special about your yoghurt?
When I started making the yoghurt for our household use it was with Jersey milk as that is what we had at hand. When we moved to De Grendel, I tried making it with the Holstein milk (the black & white cows) but it didn’t have the same absolutely delicious taste.
Jersey milk has more cream than Holstein milk; it just makes the most amazing yoghurt!!!
Other than yourself, who else is involved in the yoghurt making process?
I have Francerine Maya who has been with me since almost the beginning, Jane Loops & Janine Davids - all fantastic ladies doing a great job! Francerine and Janine are both from the farm and Jane is from Elandsbaai.
What's the biggest challenge you have with regards to running your own business and managing your stock?
The buck stops with me; I have to take the risks and the knocks for any mistakes made, season changes, etc. I have to be jack-of-trades and master-of-all as well!
Having posted quite a few photos on social media of Frank, can you tell us a bit more about him and how he ended up living happily in your backyard with the dogs?
Frank was an embryo inseminated into a surrogate Nguni cow. The embryo was flushed from a Boran cow - one that is of good genetics and that they would like more than just one calf a year from her. The Nguni cow gave birth and walked off with the rest of the herd leaving Frank lying alone and calling for her. Fortunately my husband found Frank and brought him home as there was the first big winter storm coming through that evening and he would have definitely died had he not had any milk. So we put him in our honey room with a heater and hay on the floor. We struggled with a rubber teat to get 500mls of Jersey milk into his tummy and then again a few hours later. He survived the night and took to the bottle. As soon as he was strong enough we let him choose where he would spend the night and it ended up being with his new "herd": our three dogs Madison, St. John & Jessy.
If the dogs leave him he moooo's calling for them until he's with them again. He comes on walks with us too.
You can definitely see that he knows where his milk comes from and he knows who is herd is! He now drinks two litres three times a day and we will soon be weaning him off the milk so that he only eats greens! We have really enjoyed him and he is so part of the family but he is going to turn into a huge bull so we are going to have to introduce him to the rest of the cows soon. It is going to be rather traumatic for him as he does not know what a cow is!
Other than yoghurt, are there other products that you make?
We make Labneh; strained yoghurt with a little salt added. It ends up being like cream cheese… but still yoghurt! We do not have enough fridge space currently to produce it for the stores so it is only sold at the Earth Fair Food Market .
Even though you aren't at the Earth Fair Market regularly yourself at the moment, where can customers find your products?
Van the Grocery Man has taken over our dairy stand, so you can order through him. He trades both Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Earth Fair Market.
I thanked Karen for taking the time to chat to me and took the slow, beautiful drive back through the farm. I took a wrong turn and got a bit lost but I didn't mind. Curds & Whey yoghurt and labneh comes highly recommended: it tastes as good as the process used to make it. We hope you can get your hands on some soon, as not to miss out!
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