Marrying into Cheese
An American cheesemonger settles in Limuru, Kenya and produces some of Africa’s finest cheese.
Two years ago, Andrew and Delia Stirling lived in Phoenix, Arizona. He sold electronics while she sold commercial real estate. The commute to work was long leaving the couple little time to spend with their young sons, Alec and Kincaid. As many do, the Stirlings grew tired of this lifestyle but unlike most, the couple had a compelling alternative. They left the United States for Kenya to take over Delia’s parents’ cheese business. Now the family of four lives on a 6-acre farm in Limuru just north of Nairobi. “We work more here, but the kids are always around,” says Andrew.
Delia’s parents, Kenyans of British descent, established the business in 1979. It all began with a craving. Forty years ago, David Brown asked his wife Sue to make some brie cheese. He was bored with KCC cheddar, the only cheese available in Kenya at the time. Imported cheese had been banned in an attempt to encourage local industry. Sue’s brie was a hit- she made more to give as Christmas gifts and soon people were asking to buy her cheese. From this the business was born. In time, the production facility expanded from a small room in the basement to a large production facility adjacent to the family’s home.
Now under Andrew and Delia’s management, the product line has grown from a sole brie to fifteen different cheeses, the largest variety produced at a single factory anywhere in the world. Colleagues abroad have told the Stirlings that they produce fourteen cheeses too many. “Normally artisan cheesemakers will focus all of their efforts on a single cheese,” Delia explains. If she could, Delia would produce just one variety, but the market in Kenya is not large enough for specialization. Today Brown’s customer base comprises just half a percent of Kenya’s population, a majority are expatriates and Kenyan Asians.
The absence of cheese in traditional Kenyan diets limits the mass-market appeal of Brown’s products. “Several of our Kenyan staff really dislike cheese,” Andrew noted. He suspects a culture of preserving foods never developed in Kenya or much of sub-Saharan Africa because of the climate. In Europe, long winters necessitated food preservation. “The most delicious foods are preserved!” Andrew exclaims, “cheese, meat, and wine.” He protests the reputation of cheese as a highbrow food, historically people made cheese to extend the life of milk.
The invention of cheese likely occurred by accident, several thousand years ago, when Arab travelers used animal stomachs to carry milk. Rennet, an enzyme found in stomach lining, separated milk into curd and whey and a soft cheese was produced from the compressed curds. The practice of making cheese has been refined over centuries and across continents, today nearly 500 internationally recognized varieties exist. Artisan cheeses such as Brown’s, made in small batches and produced by hand, are gaining in popularity. “Making cheese is a science, but it also an art,” Delia states, “It is difficult to make the same cheese twice.”
All fifteen varieties of Brown’s cheese begin with either cow’s milk or goat’s milk. They keep a small herd of Friesian cattle on site in Limuru and supplement their stock by purchasing milk from three hundred farmers in the surrounding community. Limuru’s proximity to Nairobi- it is just a thirty minute drive- inflates costs. The market price for milk is highest in Nairobi and Brown’s must compete with buyers in the city. Goat’s milk is especially difficult to procure; goat farmers are generally poorer and are unable to afford the transportation infrastructure needed to deliver their milk in a timely manner.
After the milk is delivered to the factory, it is mixed with rennet in a large steel basin. The rennet used in Brown’s cheese is vegetable-based, making the product vegetarian-friendly. In Kenya this is especially important for attracting Asian customers. After the rennet is added, one part curd is produced from every ten parts milk. The whey, the liquid remaining after the milk is curdled and strained, is fed to pigs on the Brown’s farm and other farms in the area. The curds are then pressed into a mold and allowed to age. The fat content of the milk, the amount of pressure applied to the curds, the size and shape of mold, and the length of time a cheese is aged all affect the texture and taste.
Upon meeting Andrew it is difficult to imagine that there was a point in his life when cheese was peripheral, just something he liked to eat. Andrew, a Michigan native, attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where Delia was also a student. With degrees in mechanical engineering and business, Andrew worked in management and sales for several years.
His foray into fromage began seven years ago while on holiday visiting Delia’s family in Kenya. Sue Brown taught Andrew to make his first cheese. After deciding to take over the business, he studied for one year at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, a center at the University of Vermont. The formal training equipped him with technical skills, though Andrew claims, “making cheese is more valuable than learning about making cheese.” Most of his cheese savvy comes from hands-on experience.
As it did forty years ago with Sue’s brie, product design at Brown’s often starts with a craving. Four months ago, Delia’s frustration at having to buy imported cured meats led her to hang a ham in a cool, well-ventilated room. In five months she will have prosciutto. Though the company does not yet sell meat, the results of such experiments with cheese often end up on the shelves of Nakumatt, served in the front of Kenya Airways flights, and in hotels and lodges around the country. Chefs around Kenya also approach the Stirlings to identify gaps in their cheese lineup.
Though the breadth of artisanal cheeses produced at Brown’s is unusual, the quality remains uncompromised. Brown’s aged gouda and plain soft cheese took the coveted qualité prize awarded at the 2010 South African Dairy Championships. Brown’s Cheeses also dominated four consecutive East African Cheese Festivals hosted in Nairobi. These awards are buttressed by sales figures. In the two years since Andrew and Delia took over, Brown’s has experienced a 40% growth in sales and production. They are now looking to expand internationally and have represented Africa at the Fancy Food Show in New York City. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, passed in 2000, encourages U.S.-African trade by promoting free markets. The initiative would allow Brown’s to export their cheese to the U.S. duty-free. Before Andrew is able to sell his cheese back home, he must work through the logistics and costs of maintaining a cold transport chain from Nairobi, through Europe, and into the U.S.
In Limuru, the Stirlings host cheese tastings and lunches at the farm to get to know their customers. Guests are greeted with glasses of wine and fresh halloumi grilled in rosemary and mint. Andrew begins by demonstrating how cheese is made, pouring rennet into milk and setting it aside. While the curds and whey separate, he leads visitors on a tour of the factory, into aging rooms that are climate controlled to simulate caves from the cheesemaking of old. Thousands of rounds of cheese mature, waiting in perfectly spaced lines. Following the tour, a cheese tasting commences with a mild provolone and ends with Brown’s strongest cheese, the blue stone cheese. Lunch is then served. When asked if everything is sourced from the farm, Andrew concedes, “Well, we don’t make our own flour.” After lunch, guests spend an afternoon in the gardens, with fruit and vegetable plants running wildly into one another. Visiting children can milk the cows and watch the piglets but from a distance, their parents have serious teeth. One hog is named “Bacon,” Andrew explains, “to remind ourselves not to get attached.” The farm is made sustainable by a worm compost behind the house which processes all of the organic waste.
On a sunny Saturday in May during a farm tour, Alec, now four years old, showed around visiting kids. Rainy season had turned much of the property into a giant mud pit. A couple boys followed him to the fenced-in herd of cows, struggling to keep up as their wellies got stuck with every step.
“I want to play with that cow!” The boy made motions to open the gate.
Alec intervened, “it will kick.”
“Well,” the other boy reasoned, “let’s wait for another.”
In a wisdom intrinsic to barefooted boys on farms, Alec responded, “they all kick.”
For Andrew and his family, the move to Kenya is permanent. They left behind the suburban traffic for a sustainable and delicious life in the highlands of Limuru. Of course, there are challenges. The market for artisanal cheese is vulnerable in moments of unrest. Andrew noted that sales plummeted following the post-election violence in 2008. Power supplies are unreliable, when your entire store depends on a temperature-controlled room, a power outage or broken generator is perilous. The expensive European equipment in the factory brakes often and the replacement parts are oceans away, but Andrew makes do by driving to the industrial area and finding mechanics who specialize in improvisation. Most everything can be fixed within hours. “Yes, we are here for good,” Andrew said, as he watched his ridgeback chase after a guinea fowl in the backyard.
May 8, 2012