Over the long weekend of the 27th to the 29th April 2018, close to 30,000 people descended upon Sandringham farm in Stellenbosch to demolish their way through (literally) tonnes of cheese, wine, charcuterie, freshly-baked bread, olive oil, and a bevvy of other artisanal, locally concocted treats. This was the 17th instalment of the annual foodgasm that is the South African Cheese Festival, which is reportedly the biggest outdoor culinary event in Southern Africa.
We were among those tens of thousands at the festival, and I’m pleased to report that we contributed quite monstrously to said demolishing… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Some background: every year, hundreds of artisanal food and beverage makers and craftspeople set up their stalls at the SA Cheese Festival and spend the weekend extolling the virtues of their brands and products, handing out samples of their fare, and selling them to cheese-crazed crowds.
I need not even talk about the festival’s major draw card – no one ever needed a better reason to tramp out to the northern reaches of Stellenbosch than cheese – but there is more to this festival than its title suggests. Cheese is fabulous on its own, but with a hunk of fresh bread, some virgin (truffle-flavoured) olive oil, wine, slices of smoky charcuterie, and a dollop of local fig preserve, washed down with a glass of a stout yet sultry Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon… and you’ve got a feast that would certainly be my choice for a last supper. And there was no shortage of any of these treats and accompaniments at the SA Cheese Festival!
The secret to a success at the enormous smorgasbord that is the SA Cheese Festival is strategy. You cannot simply plough through the festival’s endless samples and wares unless you plan on retiring early with a groaning belly. Since we had every intention of trying as much as possible without descending into the fug of cheese fatigue, we first decided to take a walk around the grounds and see everything the festival had to offer.
First of all, the variety and abundance of the activities and attractions on offer were absolutely astounding – far too much to take in in a single day. There were celebrity chefs cooking up a storm, live music and entertainment by well-known South African artists, interactive learning sessions and talks, cheese-and-wine (or beer) pairings, presentations by award-winning cheese-makers and vintners, and guest chefs showcasing their favourite recipes and cooking tips.
There were cook-off competitions, wine-tasting stations featuring the fruits of the Cape winelands, both near and far, a “Gourmet Lane” for those in pursuit of a substantial ready-made meal, the “Milk Factory” where festival-goers could meet the dairy animals behind the cheese, and surprisingly civilized toilets (for an outdoor festival).
Then there was the majestic cheese emporium, where we were finally able to stuff our cheeks with cheese, glorious cheese.
The cheese emporium
Imagine an entire warehouse, packed with stalls and stands offering bite-sized samples of cheese, bread, olives, olive oil, preserves, jams, and other treats: this was my kind of heaven! And so we spent the better part of an hour shuffling from one stand to the next, nibbling as many cheeses as we could get our toothpicks into (from Gouda to Gorgonzola and Pecorino to Parmigiano-Reggiano), purchasing our favourites, and gathering together an ever-growing collection of food for lunch.
We ended up with a beautiful aged Dutch Beemster (a hard cheese similar to gouda), a bright green basil pesto and a bold red tomato pesto gouda (because we couldn’t decide between the two), a fresh baguette, two extra virgin olive oils from Willow Creek Olive Estate (one infused with garlic and the other with truffle), and pomegranate balsamic vinegar. We subsequently took our bounty to the Standard Bank VIP lounge and fell upon it with the kind of appetite that can only be worked up by hours of walking, several wine tastings, and constant immersion in beautiful food views and aromas.
A celebration of South Africa’s food scene
The South African Cheese Festival is a celebration of everything that makes our unique food scene special: the artisanal cheese, charcuterie, and beer craftspeople, the home bakers and preserves makers, the gourmet chefs who blaze trails for South Africa’s reputation as a foodie paradise, our exceptional wine routes, and all the primary producers that are the fundamental drivers of our country’s culinary scene: the farmers.
If you have not yet been to the South African Cheese Festival, you owe it to your taste buds and your waistline to do so. It may be a whole year until the next instalment, but it is worth the wait and the weight!