The Yak Cheese Project
Helping Tibetan nomadic yak herders to attain self-reliance
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[Another version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Jan 23, 2002]
DEVELOPING A KNACK FOR YAK
By JONATHAN WHITE
High on the Tibetan plateau, nomadic yak-herders have been grazing their semi-wild herds for 10,000 years, making theirs the world's oldest existing agricultural enterprise. During the brief summer, these shaggy-haired ruminants, grazing above 13,000 feet on 60-odd species of grass and wildflowers, make a milk that is rich, pure and sweet, full of the flavors of mountain flowers and grass.
In summer, the milk is plentiful to the point of surplus, but the rest of the year is hard, cold and lean in this remotest of human civilizations. While the "wish-granting yak" gives the nomads milk, butter and meat for the table, hair for the tents and fleece and skins for their clothing, one bad winter is all it takes to deplete a family's perilously thin safety margin.
This past summer, I spent a few weeks with the nomads. I was sent by a New York-based foundation, engaged in economic development projects in Tibetan communities on the plateau. My job was to develop an export-quality cheese, to give the nomads an opportunity to earn hard currency to supplement their subsistence economy by turning their surplus milk into a cash crop. The nomads have always made butter and chura, which can be either dried yogurt or dried buttermilk solids. But there is no tradition of cheese-making, other than a monastic blue cheese that I had read about (I could not find any firsthand reports of its existence).
There is no tradition of cheese-eating on the Tibetan Plateau, nor any taste for it. I had brought some of my well-aged cow's-milk cheeses from home, and the Tibetans were politely circumspect in their comments about the flavor. This was not going to be easy to sell in the local market. But even if the Tibetans didn't
appreciate the taste of cheese, they certainly could appreciate the fact that there was finally a possibility of a cash buyer for their milk--cash that could buy luxuries such as shoes, roofing materials, stoves and medicines.
As a long-time cheese-maker, I am accustomed to working just a few steps from the cows, using simple equipment, but I am also accustomed to having electric motors, steam boilers and hot water flowing from a tap. In Tibet, the boiler was fired by burning yak dung, the clean and tidy factory was lighted only by daylight and the only motive force came from the shoulder. But the soul of a cheese is in the grass, by way of the milk--the equipment can help or get in the way, but ultimately it is nature, and not technology, that makes the cheese.
I found myself living in a tent camp, with a rice sack full of yak hair as a pillow. We were near a river whose only name, apparently, is The River, with yaks, horses, long-horned sheep and marmots grazing, and whole flocks of eagles soaring above. I had never seen eagles in groups before, and was doubting that they were indeed eagles, thinking them more likely to be vultures. Then I saw one of them nose dive into a swale and come up with a marmot in its talons--yep, those were eagles.
Despite being a couple of miles closer to the sun, the midsummer weather was crisp: the brightest blue sky I've ever seen. Perhaps it was illuminated by hypoxia? Ice on the tent in the morning, warming up to about 75 degrees at noon, then dropping off toward the 40s when the sun sets over the ridge at 2 p.m.
The nomads, who were as curious about me as I was about them, treated me like family. The children, being even more curious and less shy that the parents, engaged me in games of soccer and, more my style, cat's cradle. When my interpreter was not available, I would pull out photos of my family and the farm--my wife's curly red hair drew a lot of notice, as did the Guernsey and Jersey cows.
Since winter is so long, there is a festival every few days during midsummer: weddings, religious festivals, horse races. Every time a group gathers, there is singing, dancing and eating. Yak meat is served in a variety of ways and eaten with breads fried in yak butter. During the festivals, I had a chance to engage in other nonverbal communications by joining in some of the communal cooking projects. I failed dumpling making, but I was able to show off some new pastry shapes for yak-butter-fried breads: the palmier, croissant and snail have now entered into the Tibetan pastry repertoire.
Breakfast was always tsampa: roasted barley porridge served with tea, yak butter and dried yogurt. Lunch and dinner were always yak and noodle du jour--nothing fancy, but solid, satisfying and tasty. Yak is a bit stronger than venison, and it was often prepared with oilseed greens (a cousin of broccoli), onions and some chiles. The vegetables were, incidentally, an accommodation to the visiting lowlander. Self-respecting nomads don't eat plants; it's just not their place on the food chain.
While the daily menu and recipe didn't change, the "dry-aged" yak did get progressively stronger each day, so there was some variety after all. By the 10th day, it was quite a relief when a fresh yak arrived.
Yaks are mostly black, with a bit of white here and there, and quite shaggy, sort of like aged buffalo with dreadlocks and huge Wagnerian horns. These are semi-feral animals, not at all like the friendly, kissy, golden retriever-like Jerseys and Guernseys I'm used to. When Jersey cows see people coming into the pasture, they trot over to sniff, lick and wipe their noses on the visitors. If a group of yaks starts to move
toward you, you look for a hole to jump into. I admire the courage of the nomad milk wives, who are the only ones who ever get close to the yaks--the men herd them with big snarling mastiffs and handfuls of stones.
On her wedding day, the bride's mother gives her a milk pail and a brass pail hook, and the father gives the groom a yak dowry. If the new couple prosper, after a few years the husband will buy his wife a decorative, oversized pail hook, made of silver filigree and studded with coral and turquoise. The pail hook, functional or decorative, is the symbol of the wife's betrothal. From what I saw, the nomad men are kind, attentive husbands and fathers.
A yak is as big as a Jersey cow but only gives as much milk as a goat, a few liters per day. But the milk--oh, that milk! Rich, sweet and fragrant from the wildflowers that made it. Milk from animals that breathe clean air and drink pure water. When I tasted my first sip of yak milk, out of a can in a saddle-bag, with bits of butter created by the horse's canter, I knew that the lack of equipment wouldn't hurt us a bit. This milk had the soul of a fine cheese in it, and all we had to do was help it find its way out.
What emerged from the refractory of the cheese vat we named Flower of Rajya, after the nearest village (it's a hair-raising three-hour jeep ride from the factory, but it is, after all, the nearest place with a name). Rajya is also the location of a famous monastery and school.
Flower of Rajya is a firm cheese, made by simple methods, from milk that arrives each morning by horse, motorbike and yak. (Horse-carried milk has the most butter churned out of it; the yak, it seems, offers a gentler ride.) The milk is heated and ripened in big copper vats, curdled, drained and molded into 10-12 pound wheels.
It is dry-cured in Tibetan red salt, sea salt from an ocean dry for 320 million years. This crude salt, called Tears of Drolma, is dug from the earth, tinged pink by the presence of iron. Its flavor is as complex as Brittany's fleur du sel, but sweeter, if you can use that word to describe salt. The cheeses are aged in the mountain air, then wrapped in ceremonial scarves (khata) and packed in bamboo dumpling-steamer baskets for the trip down to the lowlands.
The flavor of Rajya is delicate, complex and slow on the palate--it takes a full minute or two for it to unfold. It is wonderful with wines and ciders. It tastes first of milk, with a delicate, not-goat, not-sheep, some-other-animal flavor. Then you taste the wildflowers in the crisp, dry, thin air, with hints of leather
and even wood. It is a clean, subtle flavor that builds up to a gentle rise and then fades out into a long, slow, earthy, and, yes, funky yak-like note. But it is not the infamous rancid-yak-butter flavor that we hear about from trekkers--no, this is a clean but very distinctive flavor.
My Tibetan friends developed more of a tolerance than a taste for cheese, with one exception: When I made a pot of yak mozzarella, just for kicks, it was a huge hit. The sweet, creamy cheese was appreciated by everyone. At one of the festivals, I spent a few hours making little braids of fresh "yakkarella" for the hundred-odd visitors, and every man, woman and child came by to taste. Unfortunately, with no refrigeration or means of transport, yak mozzarella will remain just a curiosity.
But the aged wheels of yak cheese are now a commercial reality--we are importing it into the US, where it has been very well received: The first shipment sold out in a few weeks. Last week, at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco's Moscone Center, the American gourmet marketplace had its first encounter with food from the Tibetan Plateau. If all goes well, this summer will be a very good one for the nomads, and there will be a lot of new shoes, roofs, and perhaps some new pailhooks, too, plain and fancy.
When a visitor from afar is leaving, the Tibetan host pours one last cup of tea ,which is left untouched, as a bond that the visitor will return soon, an Elijah's Cup in reverse. I hope to be back in Tibet this summer, after the snows melt, perhaps to supervise the building of another cheese factory, and again in July to train another group of cheesemaker-students. I expect that I'll be back in Tibet once or twice each year, until I'm too old to walk the hills.
White, formerly a well-known cheese-maker at New York's Egg Farm Dairy, is founder of Grasslands Cheese Consortium, which helps American grass-based dairy farmers become cheese-makers, and webmaster of www.CowsOutside.com.
Copyright 2001, 2002 Jonathan S. White
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