Maestra of Mozzarella

April 26th, 2024

Behind Babylonstoren #6: Alta Eybers

“Water buffalo?!” she says incredulously. “If someone had told me five years ago that I’d be making cheese from water buffalo milk, I would have laughed at them,” says Alta Eybers, our resident cheesemaker and water buffalo milk specialist. Ironically, this graduate of the International Culinary Academy outside Stellenbosch grew up on a farm called Enyati in KwaZulu-Natal, which means “place of the buffalo”. Besides the word “buffalo” in the name, the gentle-natured Italian Mediterranean water buffalo has little in common with the smaller yet far more aggressive African buffalo, or “black death” as wary hunters call them.  

The Cheese Room is adjacent to the Creamery where gelato is made. There is a trace of steam and sweet milk in the air. With two large cheese vats called Hansie and Grietjie (Hansel and Gretel), a cheese stretcher, cooker and cheese press, the set-up is a far cry from the 100-litre machine Alta started her cheese journey with.  

After joining Babylonstoren in 2014, she spent three years as the kitchen manager of the Greenhouse, surrounded by garden-fresh produce, guests, tortoises, turkeys and cheeky chickens clucking for crumbs at the back door. Alta loved every minute of it but by 2016 she felt a little niggle inside, pushing her to take on a new challenge.  

In 2016, positions opened in the deli for a cheesemaker and butcher. “Although I had always wanted to do a blockman’s course and loved working with meat, my heart was drawn to the cheesemaking part,” she says. 

Her only prior experience was a one-month stint at Fairview’s cheese factory while still a student, where she helped to sort and pack the Christmas range for Woolworths. Though she didn’t get to make cheese, this experience piqued her interest in cheese, its value and processes. “They also taught me to eat blue cheese!” 

Suffice to say that stepping up as Babylonstoren’s first cheesemaker in 2017 was a massive challenge that required a lot of work. It was a process of trial and error, figuring out what refrigerators and machinery to use. Babylonstoren sent her on a three-day cheese course at Grootplaas Cheese Academy to learn the basics of making yoghurt, butter, ricotta and halloumi. Once she got the hang of it, she had free rein to play with cultures, milk and flavours from the garden.  

“Just when I thought I had everything under control, the owner requested I make fior di latte,” she recalls. Italian for “milk’s flower”, it refers to mozzarella made from cow’s milk, as opposed to water buffalo milk. A learning curve with many flops and tears ensued, but also many happy moments. “I got on brilliantly with the mozzarella and enjoyed the entire process, from the Jersey cows to the finished product. I struggled for six months to understand my cheese. Milk is alive, like yeast. You never know what mood it’s in, so best work with care.” 

“Mozzarella taught me the biggest lesson: patience. You can’t rush the process. Sometimes cheese stretches within two hours and sometimes it takes four hours. As long as the product is as soft and shiny as silk.” 

2018 brought yet another surprise: the addition of a herd of water buffalo. “I heard I would soon start making water buffalo mozzarella. I was shocked, happy, scared – all rolled into one. How do I make cheese from water buffalo milk? They were a rarity at the time, and still are, so calling up a water buffalo cheesemaker for advice was never really an option.”  

It was the start of an even greater food adventure. Alta travelled to Italy to learn about the animals and their milk. She spent a week at La Casara Roncolato in 2018, a family of cheesemakers in Roncà since 1920, and a second week in 2019 at the Culinary Institute of Italy in Copanello to do an intensive cheese course. In 2022 she attended a mozzarella course at Sapori & Saperi in Salerno, in the very heart of mozzarella country, where she observed centuries-old methods and traditions of the craft. The experience was a game changer for her. “It opened my heart to Italian food culture, to their mozzarella, and the shared passion among cheesemakers. I realized that I want to learn, to be the best, and to be different from the rest.” 

Not even a scary midnight encounter with a massive water buffalo in a darkened shed could throw her off track. In the past four years Alta and the Cheesery have gone from strength to strength. Alta and her team excel at making soft cheese from water buffalo and Jersey milk. She is particularly fond of the hand-pressed herbed halloumi skewer, which may have started as a clever plan to avoid wasting a tray of uneven halloumi but ended up winning SA Champion at the 2021 South African Dairy Championships, as well as a Quality award in 2023. 

After six years of cheesemaking, she’s still learning and growing. There’s no niggle to try something new. “I am so grateful for the work we do at Babylonstoren,” she says. “The water buffalo are part of who we are, we celebrate their record yields and know each one by name. There’s even an Alta.”  

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