Food people are interesting people. I don’t say this just because I love food. The fact is, the search for life’s umami often leads people down some unusual paths before they find what really floats their boat.
Take Luke and Jessica Williams, owners of Culture Club Cheese on Upper Bree Street. There’s nothing ordinary about their journey — from England to Bangladesh to Cape Town — or their venture. In Luke and Jessica’s words, it’s “Cape Town’s first boutique artisan cheese hub and fermented foods hotspot.” In my words, it’s love and goodness. Put these concepts together and you have a yellow cheery space (with restaurant) for anyone who likes/loves cheese and other fermented foods.
Where else under one roof in South Africa, a land not known for its handmade cheeses, would you find 7-year-old Gonedsa, South Africa’s longest aged cheese (a very smelly cheese he enjoys with whiskey, not too peaty); Ovis Angelica pecorino, the only sheep’s milk pecorino made in South Africa, and AOC Brie de Meaux, the “King of Cheeses” from Ile-de France? And, homemade probiotic kefir (choose from jersey cow, buffalo, sheep or goat), kombucha and live sauerkraut?
Luke is a cheese and fermentation evangelist, who tailors his enthusiasm to each customer who walks through the door. “Cheese shouldn’t be scary. We wanted a place where people could sit down, eat a sandwich or breakfast; even sample a new cheese with their meal, if they’re interested. What we didn’t want was a pressured environment.”
Luke doesn’t just like talking about cheese; he is a qualified cheesemaker, cheese monger and affineur – the person who looks after the maturation of a cheese (I had to ask what that term meant). But first, his story.
Luke and Jessica are English; having just settled in South Africa 3 years ago, with the intention of opening a cheese shop. Luke studied illustration and had made a living in animation and music videos, which he felt was “too free” for him. Then he taught in an English school which he loved, but was still searching for something “a little wonkier” in his life. He was still teaching when about 10 years ago he read a book called The Last Food of England by Marwood Yeatman, which was all about fermenting, curing and smoking. Inspired, he decided to see if he could make “a salame that would taste a quarter as good as a decent Italian salame.” He bought a small temperature controlled wine fridge, which he used as a humidifier chamber. And so it began.
“Before I made salame I didn’t even know it was raw meat. I wondered why it was edible; why did it taste so good. I experimented with curing duck breasts with brown sugar and orange zest; sometimes it was unbelievably delicious, sometimes not. The fermentation process piqued my interest. My parents then bought me a cheese-making kit. I thought, that’s great, but what I really want to do is perfect my salame. I started playing around with it, and was immediately fascinated with all the kinds of cheese you could make from just four ingredients: milk, starter cultures, salt and rennet.”
Soon, all his English lessons revolved around cheese, and his students began to wonder: what’s with the cheese?
It was time for a change. Luke joined La Fromagerie in Marylebone, London, which has one of the largest selections of European cheeses from England and around the world. He started in the Cheeseroom, where he learned how to cure and mature cheeses, wash them in solutions of bacterium and brine; essentially learning how to get a cheese to its best when it gets to the table.
“Factory cheeses are made in a factory, usually over a day or two…nothing else happens to them once they are made and a lot of the time they are aged in plastic bags. Handmade cheeses require a lot of work; the maturing process can take years.”
Doubling as La Fromagerie’s blogger, Luke was also given the opportunity to visit many cheesemakers in the UK and loved what he saw. “It was not just the action but also the attitudes of the cheesemakers, who were away from the highbrow world of gourmet cheese. It’s rare that you get a nasty cheesemaker.” He decided he wanted to be one. Luke worked for several cheesemakers around the UK, then did a course in microbiology of cheesemaking, as well as butchery and charcuterie. His plan was to find somewhere in the countryside where he could raise goats and make some interesting and smelly cheeses.
Then love intervened. He met Jessica, a lawyer who was working in Bangladesh. Cheesemaking was put on the back burner, and he went to Bangladesh and India, where he embarked on writing a book about the cheesemakers of India, only to have all of his material stolen in a political rally. With a baby soon on the way, it was time to leave Bangladesh for greener pastures, literally. The plan was to find a place somewhere in the world where they could make and sell cheese. South Africa, with its wine industry and lush pastures, was the place. And while there were a few cheese shops, Luke felt that nobody was really offering a collection of the best cheeses.
To prepare, Luke worked at Fairview Cheeses, assisting with product development and selling cheese in the shop – the important link between the maker and the buyer. The attraction was that Fairview was making cheeses that weren’t your run of the mill cheddars and goudas. Then, he spent a year travelling, meeting as many cheesemakers as he could, and even helping to conceive and make cheeses with them. That monumental effort has paid off: “It’s the reason we get the best cheeses,” he says. Eighty percent of their cheeses are South African; the other 20% are personal favourites of Luke’s from Europe.
A perfect Upper Bree Street location meant they automatically would be linked to good food, but also meant high rents. Luke wanted Culture Club to be a bustling place with people coming and going, like La Fromagerie; where people could eat on site and try something new. This was especially important in a country where good quality cheese is a relatively new thing. Chef Jonlin Carollissen was brought in to collaborate on a menu, which is centred around fermented products.
Pretty much everything on the menu has provenance: i.e. “cheese from truly free range, happy (antibiotic/hormone free) animals with no additives and preservatives in the making, pasture-reared meat from Ryan Boon in Paarl, sourdough from Woodstock Bakery,” etc.
Breakfasts feature dishes like avocado on toast with eggs and in-house full fat labneh, and pancakes with whipped live yoghurt, organic honey and banana. For lunch there’s raclette (melted pungent Alpine cheese) with baby potatoes, brandy apple, pickles and cured meat; a slow cooked lamb salad with pomegranate and whipped mint yoghurt and a labneh and goats’ cheese salad. For toasted/grilled cheese sandwich lovers, there are many oozy ones to choose from: like the green white and blue, with roasted aubergine, De Pekelaar boerenkaas, homemade cashew nut pesto and peppers, or the croque monsieur, and its lady friend, the croque madame (with a fried egg on top).
From the fermentation bar come pro-biotic rich live kefir smoothies – I had one with ginger, chia, unpasteurized honey and turmeric — live kombucha (in-house fermented tea) and “live gut shots”, which are lacto-fermented probiotic hits.
Fermented foods are both great tasting and wildly trending, which is why it’s nice to talk to Luke, who is not in this because it’s a trend. He has done exhaustive research on the process and the products. And he believes fermented foods have great health benefits: “It’s probiotics vs antibiotics…a way of looking after your body.”
Is this why it all tastes so good?