SA’s winning cheese maker
Eckard Leicher is the man behind Royal Ashton, a prize-winning cheese created for the SA market. Hilary Biller met him at his farm near Ashton in the Cape
From dairy farmer to cheesemaker. Why the change?
In 1993, quotas imposed on milk production forced me to look for something else. I needed to find a way of selling the surplus milk - at the full price - by adding value to it. I attended a cheesemaking course at the Cape Institute for Agricultural Training in Elsenburg and started making cheese on a small scale. In 1999, the cheesery was upgraded and today the cheesemaking business has taken over from the farming, although we still have a herd ofJersey cows.
You recently won the first ever Woolworths Cheesemaker Challenge for your new creation, Royal Ashton. What did this involve?
Small local cheesemakers were challenged to create a new cheese to tempt local taste buds and permitted two entries per cheesery. The cheeses were judged by a panel of independent cheese-makers, including Kobus Mulder, one of the country's top cheese experts.
What kind of cheese is it?
A semi-hard Dutch Maasdamer made with cow's milk. The cheese is aged, which gives it a nutty and sweet flavour with a pleasant bite - great for South African palates.
Did you know you had a winning cheese?
It came as a big surprise, really. We used cultures imported from the Netherlands and were concerned the cheese may have gone over the maturation point. When we tasted the sweetish, nutty flavour, we knew it was a good cheese.
You've won both local and international awards for your cheeses. What gives you the edge?
I think it is our organic approach - we use environmentally friendly techniques and a unique "ultrafiltration" process in the making the cheese - and our dedication and creativity.
La Montanara produces a number of cheeses. What are they?
We make a Danish-style feta, traditional feta, haloumi, pecorino, cottage and cream cheese and a range of organic cheeses - feta, gouda and cheddar.
Not much beats a chunk of cheese and a glass of wine, but is Royal Ashton good for cooking too?
Our deli chef Karla Kotze has explored many creative ideas using the cheese, including a roasted vegetable pizza finished off with shavings of Royal Ashton. It's great in a cheese soufflé and on sandwiches - and one of my favourites served with fig preserve, where the sweetness of the figs balances well with the sharpness of the cheese.
Royal Ashton is sold exclusively at Woolworths. La Montanara offers cheese and wine tastings on the farm in the Breede Valley. Call 0236151929.