If you find yourself in Nairobi and in an upmarket supermarket, you will encounter – inevitably – the dairy products of Brown’s Cheese Farm. They have a rather singular position as the premier, if not the only, dairy producer in East Africa. Their dairy is also to be found an hour outside of Nairobi, and so I went.
The journey itself is worth undertaking. You can take a number 112 matatu from the very top of Tom Mboya Avenue and for the price of pence be taken away from the dust, noise and madness of central Nairobi and into the beautiful calm, the green rolling hills and the ranged tea plantations of the former white highlands. You wind up and up, into cleaner and clearer air. Then suddenly you leave behind the trickle of gradually decreasing settlements and find yourself among the tea plantations.
The bushes of Camellia Sinensis arrayed in orderly queues, women with their jute sacks tied to their heads straining forward against the weight working their way up and along the lines bringing in the fragrant harvest. This was the first time that I had seen a Kenya which was not crumbling concrete and screaming engines. I understood Karen Blixen saying you could breathe easily.
Among these plantations is the Cheese Farm. This title is perhaps a misnomer; most, the vast majority in fact, of the milk comes from neighbouring farms but the site is the centre of production for the startling range of 35 cheeses the company makes. Moreover, there is on the site a small herd which is used to produce the culture necessary for the cheese making process.
Pleasingly, it is a family affair. You are received in what is clearly a family home, music sheets scattered about, framed photographs on the chimneypiece, ludricously comfortable and deep sofas. Indeed for 35 years, as many years as cheeses, it has been run by the same family. First under David and Susan Brown, and since 2008, under their daughter, Delia.
The origin story is also suitably cosy. In the 70s there was a distinct lack of dairy products in Kenya. It is worth noting here that cheese was yet and is still to become seriously popular in East Africa. There was a lone Government Cheddar of inferior quality. David (so Caren, our wonderfully charismatic guide tells us) had a craving for Brie, and Susan the obliging wife endeavoured to produce said cheese. Eventually, word got round and a business grew.
The whole site is in fact delightfully cosy. The production room which we were allowed to glimpse, and for which a walkway will allow more intimate interaction with in the near future, had a wonderful nostalgic feel. It could easily have been the set of a Beryl Bainbridge or Alan Sillitoe adaptation, if either had ever set a kitchen sink novel in a creamery. It was all steam, perspiration on tiles, stainless steel vats and high windows. There is a mozzarella machine which looks suitably like a prop for a bygone age.
It is from this rather charming site that all those cheeses come. There is indeed a vast array and range, some obviously better than others. Parmesan for a start should not be chewy, and the Chevre had too dense a texture. I would like to say that such criticism misses the point and instead like Doctor Johnson the wonder is not that it’s done well but that it’s done at all. That would be cruel, because some of their cheeses are rather good.
The Goat Gouda is pleasingly goaty with the characteristics of a Gouda: rubbery, squeaky, chewy. Whilst not earth shattering, there is nothing more in this world that I enjoy so much as something being right, and this cheese is all it claims to be. There is also a particularly fine Valency. This is decidedly delicate. These two cheeses speak particularly well of the company.
Along with the cheese, it also comes with a good side dish of community out reach. The site is used not only to evangelise the wonders of fermented milk but also to educate school children on nature and the natural world. Which is all well and good, but the most wonderful part is the sourcing of the sheeps milk.
When the farm was beginning to expand its range, there was a gap for sheeps cheese, and in the surrounding hills there are plentiful flocks. These are kept by the Masai largely for meat. When the company approached the shepherds they met skepticism over the very idea of milking a ewe; despite the endless Youtube tutorials.
Eventually the women of the Masai took up the notion and now provide the necessary milk. This has given these women money of their own, which is excellent of itself, but has also allowed them to educate their children as well.
Certainly there is a novelty factor to cheese being produced on the equator, but there is also a real demand which Brown’s Cheese Farm happily fills. More happily still, it is a rock of calm on the shores of seething Nairobi.
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