Searching for Noordhoek’s mystery cheesemaker

Michele Agostinelli aged approximately 30 years old in his Italian army attire. Picture: Pina Agostinelli collection

Historian Alan Lindner’s research into historic sites in Noordhoek for two soon-to-be-released books found him confronting a mystery: who was the Italian who brought his own special style of cheesemaking to the area?

Mr Lindner had 22 sites when he started research for his books in 2014, but he was to find a further 42 with the help of more than 80 contributors.

One of those sites was the Haven Farm, once the home of cheesemaker Michele Agostinelli, whose identity remained a mystery until October last year.

The full story will unfold in Mr Lindner’s book, Footloose in Noordhoek starting in Sunnydale and Brakkekloof, while some of the other sites will feature in Historic Noordhoek, Sunnydale, and Brakkekloof. The dates of release for both books have yet to be confirmed.

Mr Agostinelli was instrumental in the development of the cheesery and the processes and disciplines at Fairview Wine and Cheese in Paarl in its early days.

Charles Back, owner of Fairview Wine and Cheese, named a red wine ‘Agostinelli Sangiovese’ after him.

Mr Agostinelli’s life was celebrated earlier this month, in an intimate get-together with his grandson, from London, and second cousins, at the Simon’s Town Country Club.

In an article by Cedryl Greenland in the Fish Hoek Echo, dated December 1971, Mr Lindner read about a young Italian man who had arrived on the doorstep of Haven Farm on Silvermine Road, then one of the Cape’s few private cheese factories and home to John and Marie le Roux.

According to the article, the man had arrived with a cheese under his arm, and to the Le Rouxs’ surprise he said, “I see a cow”. To him, a cow meant cheese.

He introduced Italian cheeses made from raw cow’s milk to their range, and one of his semi-soft cheeses, Mariroux, named after the owner’s wife, became very popular.

Mr Lindner was determined to find out who the Italian cheesemaker was, but all he knew about him was that he was a former Italian prisoner of war who had made cheese in Noordhoek in the 1960s.

Mr Lindner made contact with the manager of the Italian Club in Milnerton in 2021 with no luck. Correspondence with the president of the ex-Italian POW Association revealed that one POW, Michele Agostinelli, was employed by Lourensford Wine Estate after his release in January 1947.

However, their human resources department had no information about him.

He had also spoken to several other people, including a dairy consultant formerly of Simonsberg and Parmalat, and the man who had occupied the Italian’s residence at Haven Farm after he left.

He was then referred to Kobus Mulder, a cheese expert and author of Cheeses of South Africa: Artisanal Producers & Their Cheeses and was told he would surely know. But then Mr Lindner could not get hold of Mr Mulder and the trail went dead.

“At that stage, I did not know that Kobus was South Africa’s ‘Mr Cheese’ whose knowledge of the South African cheese industry would have short-circuited the process by a mile. I was so close at that stage,” he said.

There was hope again after bumping into a sales rep for Zandam Italian Cheese in a local mall, which led him to Zandam’s managing director, Mauro Delle Donne.

After discussions with Mr Delle Donne’s wider family, it was agreed that the mystery Noordhoek cheesemaker was in all probability his great uncle, Michele (Mike) Agostinelli.

This was confirmed by Mr Mulder in October last year. Mr Mulder was a dairy inspector for the Western Cape in the 1960/70s and knew all the dairymen and cheesemakers. The mystery was solved.

Born in 1911, Mr Agostinelli was a Italian POW, captured at the Battle of Gondar in Ethiopia, north of Addis Ababa in 1941, and held at Zonderwater Prisoner of War camp outside Pretoria.

Prior to his departure for military service with the Italian army, at the age of 30, he had trained as a cheesemaker.

After his release, he decided to stay in South Africa and moved to the Winelands.

He then encouraged his family in San Bartolomeo, in Galdo, Italy, to emigrate and settle in Tinkerberg in Agter Paarl, in 1949.

They were a family of artisanal cheese producers, and from there, Michele and his wife, Maria, also a cheesemaker, whom he had married in Italy before the outbreak of the war, started managing vineyards and producing cheese on a commercial scale in Worcester, Kuils River and later Noordhoek.

They also worked at Maryland Dairy in Hobhouse, near Bloemfontein

They had five children, Giovanni, Antonio, Francesco, Matteo, and Rosa.

Mr Agostinelli died peacefully in Paarl at the age of 87 in 1998.

In a tribute to Mr Agostinelli, Mr Back said: ‘When we decided to start producing cheese on Fairview, my late father Cyril asked this congenial man, who was renowned for his braces and broad frame, to assist with setting up the cheesery and making those first hand-made Fairview cheeses.”

During the celebration of his life, his grandson, Roberto Agostinelli, managing director of Agostinelli Wines, a boutique vineyard in Durbanville, said he had fond memories of running around Fairview with his grandfather when he was young.

Michele Agostinelli’s second cousins, Tino and Mauro Delle Donne, both of Zandam Italian Cheese, were also present.

Tino said he always had a story or two about the war and his experience in South Africa after the war.

“He told us these stories with pride and always with a smile on his face. He used to visit Zandam weekly, either to come to buy some cheese or just chat and drink a coffee, occasionally bringing his shotgun with him to come and shoot some rock pigeons. He enjoyed being around people and had the gift of the gab, never short of words and always chatting.”

Michele Agostinelli’s second cousins, from left, Tino Delle Donne and Mauro Delle Donne, and his grandson, Roberto Agostinelli, at an event in his honour at the Simon’s Town Country Club earlier this month.
Michele Agostinelli’s former residence at Haven Farm. The cheesery was at the back. Picture: Dave Callan