My feature on Christo Swanepoel of City Cheese in News Letter 24th May 2016

Winning Springbok flavours in Millisle cheese

Christo Swanepoel, a South African chef now resident in Northern Ireland, gained the top food award from Food NI at the recent RUAS show at Balmoral Park. It came as a bit of a surprise to the affable Springbok currently planning to expand his artisan business, City Cheese, in Millisle, Co. Down. “It was my first time to show my cheeses at Balmoral,” he says. “I took a stand in the Food Pavilion to get feedback from local people about the cheeses and didn’t really expect to be named as the Overall Best Food Product. It was a complete shock, a wonderful boost for my fledgling business,” he adds.

Christo Swanepoel
Christo Swanepoel

Christo gained the award for a raw milk cheese, Young Culmore, that he crafts using milk from an organic farm in Londonderry. He describes it as “a Dutch Gouda style cheese with a rich creamy taste”. The South African is part of a cluster of artisan cheese producers making an impact particularly with food writers and chefs. The group includes Julie Hickey, a Bostonian handcrafting Alpine Emmental style cheese and another washed in craft ale in Dungiven. Then there’s Portaferry native Paul McClean with his Kearney Blue, Mike Thomson in Newtownards, the artisan behind Young Blue blue cheese, and Leggygowan Goat’s Cheese from Adam Kelly on the family farm in Saintfield. Resident here with wife Angelique and their five young children for six years, Christo Swanepoel is bringing the distinctive flavours of his native South Africa and especially the Dutch influences there to local cheese.

 

The flavours he’s creating have already attracted local chefs and retailers in the Republic of Ireland and even Holland. His three cheeses reflect the influence of the Dutch who contributed greatly to the food business in South Africa. They include Angelique, a Parmesan style cheese named after his wife, and Pitjes Kaas, a rich, nutty and wonderfully creamy taste of South Africa that uses cumin seeds.

“The artisan sector is tremendously exciting here,” he says. “There are some wonderfully inventive producers who are passionate about food. I’ve seen the sector develop rapidly over the past five years, and I am delighted to be a part of it and to work alongside so many creative people. “The ingredients for cheese, especially milk from grass-fed dairy herds, readily available here are superb, wholesome, healthy and safe,” he adds.

“People here are only really just beginning to appreciate the quality and variety of food and drink, especially cheese, to be found here.” He trained initially as a chef in Pretoria because of his love of food. “It was something I always wanted to do from school,” he continues. He subsequently gained experience in the kitchens of leading hotels and catering organisations. Shortly after marriage to Angelique, the couple decided to pack their bags and “see the world”. “We opened up a map and decided where we wanted to go and then set out on our travels. We ended up in England and then Northern Ireland. It was all very exciting. “We really didn’t know much about Northern Ireland and it’s hard to explain why we decided to come over. I guess we’d heard a lot about the country and decided to see it for ourselves. We now love living here because the people are tremendously hospitable and it’s really beautiful.”

Christo decided to explore artisan cheese making as a career direction. “I’d been keen on cheese in South Africa and learned a lot about Dutch cheeses from Angelique and her parents. This led me to look at the market and to find out more about artisan cheese. I wanted to develop a raw milk cheese and started looking for a local supplier. It made sense to look at the types of cheese that we had enjoyed in South Africa as a starting point. The decision to use raw milk was influenced by his belief that this offers a much richer flavour. “Raw milk cheeses are delicious and contain natural enzymes that infuse cheese with natural, deeper and exciting flavours. My supplier understands milk and runs a dairy unit to the highest hygiene standards. His organic milk is wholesome, healthy and safe,” he explains. “And it helps me to create unique cheeses with outstanding taste.”