Cheese weekend: We take you on a tour inside one of the most hashtagged agritourism destinations
Agritourism continues to soar as a unique travel trend, with Brown’s Cheese Farm in Kiambu county finding itself one of the most hip and hashtagged destinations in this respect. HARRIET JAMES takes us on a tour inside
In the late 70s and early 80s, there was a ban for cheese importation in Kenya. Only KCC (Kenya Cooperative Creameries) was permitted to make it, and cheese lovers, mostly residents of foreign origin, struggled, since they found it to be of subpar quality.
One family looked at this as an opportunity to create their own natural cheese, and also sell to those who were hungering for it. Well, at first, the Browns didn’t know it would end up being a big business.
They were just craving some good cheese made from natural ingredients, with no colouring, coating or other additives.
“They began with one cheese called Brie. David Brown asked his wife Susie to make him some cheese, and it surprisingly turned out okay,” begins our guide Charity Kariuki as we set off for a tour at the six-hectare Brown’s Cheese Farm, located in beautiful tea plantations in Tigoni, around 45 minutes drive from Nairobi, where guests book a day out comprising a tour, cheese tasting, lunch and more.
Currently, the farm is run by the Browns daughter Delia and her husband Andrew Stirling. The couple had to relocate from the US to Kenya to continue with the legacy as their parents desired to retire.
They’ve taken the farm to greater heights, considering all the awards it has won. For instance, in 2002, their cheese was the Nantwich Cheese Festival winner in the UK. Other awards include the championship for their halloumi cheese in 2006.
This was during the four years Nairobi hosted the East African Cheese Festival. Again, in 2010, Brown’s Cheese was awarded five first, three second and two third prizes at the South African Dairy Championships.
Frankly, I’ve never been a cheese fan, but my visit here was quite eye opening and made me start taking interest. For starters, I found the flavours that suit my palate.
I was accompanied by one of my friends, who is such a cheese enthusiast, and was instrumental throughout the tour, assisting me understand the various kinds of cheese that exist.
Tigoni being in the lush green suburbs of Limuru, the air is fresh and clean, the green vista of tea invigorating, and the area is so tranquil that you can feel all your stress fade away. From the cool temperatures here, you can tell the environmental condition is perfect for the business they are in.
We were to start the tour at 11 in the morning, but, as usual – I’ve decided it’s changing this year – I was late, and if eyes could kill, my friend would have long taken me.
One must book their tour beforehand, so that it can be scheduled. We began by putting on cheese lab coats, gumboots and hairnets, as being a food processing area, especially with sensitive items such as milk, it needs to be protected from contamination.
Every day, the farm collects a total of 15 to 30,000 litres of milk from 6,000 farmers living around the area.
The quality assurance office audits the farmers and their produce, as cheese production relies on the quality of milk.
This is also determined by what the cows eat. The factory has a milk collection plant in Embu too, and some come from as far as Kinangop and Kereita, as they are expanding into other areas.
“We first check for aflatoxins, antibiotics, the acidity level, as well as the bacteria content in the milk. This is what determines whether the milk is good,” says Charity.
“Afterwards, it is sent to the factory and the making of the cheese begins. They have to first fully pasteurize the milk at 74 degrees Celsius, and then cool it down before it goes into the vats,” she explains.
A milk-clotting enzyme called rennet is added to coagulate the milk, which makes it form a custard-like mass. This allows it to be separated into the liquid (whey) and the milk solid (curds).
Only 10 per cent is used to make cheese, and the 90 per cent of the milk that remains (the whey) is fed to pigs as it’s rich in protein, that the farm also rears.
The curd is collected and placed in airtight containers before taking it through the process of cooking and pressing, to determine the characteristic shape of the cheese, often wheel-shaped.
When the large curds are cooked at lower temperatures, they yield softer versions of cheese such as ricotta and mascarpone.
Depending on their size, some of the cheese are pressed in three to 12 hours. This process removes any remaining moisture from the curd and the cheese is now ready for aging.
We then moved to the curing room, which is normally done depending on the variety as well as style of the cheese.
This is usually for aged cheese and as Charity explained, it assists in developing its texture and flavour.
After this process, the cheese goes to the maturity room, where it is carefully controlled for the necessary temperature and humidity, and it might age for up to 10 years.
Here, the cheese are stacked in racks under cold temperatures. “They have to be turned twice a day and we have two guys who work in shifts to ensure this is done.
When the cheese is young, it’s mostly sort of liquid, thus, if it’s not turned regularly, it turns into a volcano shape,” adds the guide.
During its formation stage, cheese starts off with a near white colour before it slowly starts to yellow and finally gets to a yellowish brown.
Charity explains that some cheese makers will try to speed up the process by adding colour to the cheese, that’s why some are electric yellowish.
In the natural process, when the cheese matures, it is washed to remove the white mould and add a little oil to prevent its skin from cracking. Though the white mould is not dangerous, it’s washed off for presentability.
In the packaging room, the cheese is sliced and bagged before heading to the dispatch cold room. Despite being able to have their procedures automated, there are 140 workers doing this as the farm seeks to provide jobs.
“The challenge during packaging is getting the right size. Our cheese is round and artisan and the shapes are different at some point depending on how the Parmesan wheel looked like. The soft cream cheese and yoghurt cheese (Greek yoghurt) are moist and sensitive to contamination, hence they are made and packaged on site before being moved to the dispatch area,” explains Charity.
To diversify their products, the factory also has a cracker shack, where they make crackers, ice cream and jam.
We also toured their farm, which the guide said is purely organic. They don’t use chemicals, rather do research to find out alternative ways pests can be controlled.
The farm has cows, rabbits, chicken, turkey as well as pigs. Afterwards, we had a great time learning about pairing wine and cheese. When pairing them, match up the ones with equal intensity.
For instance, bold red wines go well with aged cheese. It was an interesting experience, as I’d never tried out a meal of the two, and I’ll be writing about it soon. Stay tuned.