April 11, 2019
Benoni City Times
After scrutinising more than 800 products, the judging panel at the Agri-Expo Qualité Awards named a “humble little specimen” made by a Bapsfontein cheesery South Africa’s 2019 Dairy Product of the Year.
An elated Norman and Rina Belcher, the owners of Belnori Boutique Cheesery in Nestpark, Bapsfontein, are no strangers to awards – 60 South African gold medals and 24 World Cheese Awards medals to be exact – but this title, they said, is the proverbial cherry on the cake.
The star of the Agri-Expo show was the Belchers’ St Francis of Ashisi cream cheese, which triumphed over 882 dairy products from 76 manufacturers at the awards ceremony in Cape Town on March 29.
The couple attended the awards with their production manager, Bongi Nondzama.
“One always hopes to win something – otherwise, why enter?” Rina said.
“We are always interested to see who wins – a commercial manufacturer or one of the smaller cheeseries – and of course we’ve dreamed of achieving this accolade, but never really thought we’d get it.
“It was pretty mind-blowing that our cheese, a humble little specimen, was named the winner.”
Rina explained St Francis of Ashisi is a 50 per cent goat’s and 50 per cent Jersey milk cream cheese.
“The product is inoculated with penicillium camemberti spores and wrapped in ash.
“It is left to ripen for a fortnight or so and, as it does, a white-mould jacket covers the cheese,” she explained.
Chief judge and international dairy expert Kobus Mulder said for a product to be awarded the prestigious title of Dairy Product of the Year in a competition of this nature is a long and difficult journey and the dream of every dairy technologist.
“Not only is it an extraordinary performance, but also proof of sustained good manufacturing knowledge and practices, as well as quality control.
“St Francis of Ashisi is made using the lactic acid coagulation method, which is well known in France,” Mulder explained.
“This beautiful cheese deserves a place on every cheese board.”
Norman and Rina Belcher are both in their 70s.
They lived in Johannesburg, he a factory manager and she in the corporate finance world, when the opportunity to buy their daughter’s plot in Bapsfontein landed upon them “many years ago”.
“Who would have imagined, but here we are; cheesemakers for 17 years now,” Norman said while showing the City Times around their beautiful 15-acre property last week.
“When we decided to buy the place we knew we had to do something with it to generate an income for our retirement.
“I thought of planting proteas, but discovered the soil here isn’t suitable, so then I thought maybe olives, but this was no good as we’re in a high frost area.
“It was eventually a documentary I watched on goat farming and cheesemaking which sparked the interest we ultimately pursued.”
Among many other avenues, the couple undertook cheesemaking and dairy production courses at an academy in Irene.
They’d absorb all the knowledge they could and turn this into experiments at home.
Norman fondly recalls them milking the four goats they started out with by hand, Rina making the first pot of cheese on the stove.
“It was a disaster,” Norman laughed.
Today they employ 13 staff, produce dairy products six days a week and supply customers, mainly in the hospitality industry, all over the country.
It’s obviously hard work and long hours for all involved.
The goats are already being milked by 4am and on Saturdays Norman and Rina drive out to a market in Menlyn at the crack of dawn for a full day of promoting and selling their products.
Rina is bubbling with excitement about them opening a market-style eatery and cheese shop on their farm later this year; the building works are already in full swing, complete with her favourite sash windows.
“Many people already think we are open to the public, which we aren’t, so we’re excited to eventually be able to offer them this experience in Benoni; it’s going to be something very special,” she said.
“It is a wonderful feeling to know our little Benoni-based cheesery produces award-winning products which are revered and enjoyed in top-class establishments across South Africa,” said Rina.
“But this is not something you can go into if your heart isn’t in it and it’s a team effort, not a hobby ‘to keep the wife busy’,” Norman said.
“It’s an expensive business to run, so you need to know what you’re doing to minimise losses.
“You learn something every day and our biggest lesson has been if you fail at something just move on.”
Their product range includes chevre cheeses, semi-soft, hard, Jersey milk, halloumi, sheep’s and mixed-milk cheeses, as well as yoghurts.