Say Cheese! From Yak Cheese To Mozzarella

Features Issue 51 Jul, 2010
Text by Eva Manandhar / Photo: ECS Media

“In 1955, with financial support from New Zealand, another country that has had a close relation with Nepal  probably because of Sir Edmund Hillary the Swiss set up a cheese plant in Langtang, six days’ walk from Kathmandu. Now there are several cheese factories in the country, and cheese and butter made from yak’s milk (yak cheese is, by the way, delicious) have become an important export.”
-Jeremy Bernstein- ‘The Wildest Dreams of Kew’(1969)

A Swiss national named Werner Schulthess  arrived in Nepal as a UN volunteer in the early 1950s. The Swiss aid agency had given him the sole responsibility to set up a dairy in Nepal, a land-locked country, which had only just opened its doors to foreigners. With his dedication and persistence, he was able to persuade illiterate farmers living in villages around Kathmandu valley to supply him milk. He was so successful that expatriates living in the valley gave him the nickname “Milkman”.  Thanks to this man and Swiss aid, there was pasteurized milk available in the valley. Though his initial venture had its share of difficulties, he overcame them to start cheese production. Owing to insufficient information regarding the supply of milk, it was when he decided to do his own study and went in search for it in the mountainous regions that he realized he had come to the right place. He found exactly what he had been looking for; cows that looked stronger and with the ability to supply sufficient milk for his dairy. Working with the local people he offered them jobs to supply milk to the valley, which was readily accepted by them. Initially, he was involved with almost every aspect associated with production, distribution and marketing of the milk. But gradually, he was able to hand over the responsibilities to the Nepali people.

Though the primary objective was the production and supply of milk, when Schulthess ventured higher into the mountains, he saw an enormous prospect for this business to grow. But, he also saw a major problem; the distance was too great for the milk to be brought to Kathmandu. That was when the bright idea of transporting milk in the form of cheese struck him. Though it was possible, there was however, one hindrance - the people of Nepal had never tasted cheese before and he was in a dilemma, whether they would accept this totally alien product. Not one to give up easily, he decided to go ahead with his plans. Along with his Sherpa friends, to whom he taught the process of cheese making, Werner worked rigorously for many months. When they had made enough, they transported everything down to Kathmandu. The early customers were made up entirely of foreigners. To acquaint the Nepali people with this new food, he distributed it free of cost, which they reluctantly accepted at first. But once the taste had grown on them, they liked it and the Milkman’s new venture flourished. With a successful cheese plant running, he went on to establish cheese factories in other parts of Nepal, which even till today, send a constant supply of cheese to the capital.

Although cheese has been produced for only 50 years in Nepal, its history goes back several thousand years. Many different stories are told about the discovery of cheese. One of the most popular tells of an Arab, who is believed to have discovered it accidentally around 4000 years ago. He had set out on a journey carrying milk in his saddlebag. In the desert, the heat got to him and he felt the need to drink. He took out the milk he was carrying, but to his amazement, he found that it had coagulated into a creamy solid substance, which when he ate tasted quite good. The presence of rennin, (a bacteria used for coagulating milk) in the saddlebag and the effect of the sun had caused the milk to turn into cheese. It was this simple accident that led to the discovery of cheese. Since then experiments have been carried out with various types of milk from different animals and using different techniques, creating a wide variety of cheese. With fruitful results from these experiments, there are now scores of cheese available all over the world and it is almost impossible to list them. They are offered in an array of tastes – mild, mellow, tangy, delicate, sweetish, spicy, smoked, pungent, sharp, salty, slightly acid along with various textures such as smooth, crumbly, soft, very hard, creamy.

A particular type of cheese which can turn you off with its smell, (you are strictly advised not to sniff, but only consume for its superb taste) is Goat cheese, which is produced by French Nepali coordination and is now available in the market. But one name that is synonymous with cheese in Nepal is ‘Yak’. There is no cheese like yak cheese for a Nepali. This was produced similar to a hard type of Swiss cheese known as Gruyere. The other preferred varieties include cheese made from buffalo and cow’s milk. Kanchan cheese is another variety, which is highly preferred in Nepal. These are especially produced in the Himalayan region while people residing near the Tibetan border make Yak cheese. Langtang Yak cheese is famous and was one of the Milkman’s first products.

Besides the Langtang and Jiri cheese factories,  the Dairy Development Corporation (DDC) was also established in   Lainchaur. Cheese is now so popular in Nepal, it is made in many distant places like Rasuwa, Dolakha, Nuwakot, Ilam, Solukhumbu, Nuwakot to name a few. Besides these, private firms have also sprung up. While most of the hard cheese in the form of circular discs come from the mountainous regions, the softer variety is produced here also. These include the fine mozzarella and processed cheese, which are of a milder type.

Storage is an important aspect of cheese production. At the DDC in Lainchaur, more than 1500 discs are kept in cold storage in racks made of saal wood. These are good for more than a year. The cheese must be turned and washed everyday with salt and water to maintain the moisture content and to retain its softness.


Emmental cheese

Emmental lies behind the Bantiger mountain (947m) which is just outside the eastern city limits of Bern. Nestled in the Swiss landscape of peaceful, rolling green hills, emmental has isolated timber-built dairies. This is where Emmental cheese (the one with the holes) originates.

Here, cheese production still begins in a copper vat. After the cheese wheel has been formed in a cheese mould, it is placed in a salt bath for two days. It is then kept in the warm fermenting cellar for six to eight weeks. During this time, the famous holes are formed. The characteristic taste develops gradually in the maturing cellar, where it stays for 2 to 4 months. As soon as the taste is full and round, the consistency and color are first-rate and the cherry-sized holes are regularly distributed, the carefully selected first-class quality cheeses continue their ripening process in the storage cellar.

Le Gruyère
The name is derived from the region of Gruyère in the Canton of Fribourg in Switzerland. It is mixed in a vat made of copper. Only the curd can be heated, not the whey. It is aged in caves with humidity of above 92°C and the temperature is between 12 and 18°C on shelves made of rough, unplanned spruce.  The cheese becomes spicier the longer it is aged.  Washing the crust helps to distinguish the taste from Emmental.  No anti-microbe or rind coloring substances are used.  The rounds of Gruyère can only be rubbed with water and salt and only licensed cheese makers are in control of the cheese making process.

Danish Blue
Danish Blue (also known as Danablu) is a light cheese veined with mould – similar to Stilton. It is a cheese made from cows’ milk and was invented early in the twentieth century by Marius Boel. This cheese has a characteristic sharp and almost metallic taste, has a salty overtone to it and feels creamy once in the mouth.

In most blue cheeses, the fungal or bacterial cult is inserted into the cream by rods whilst it is beginning to thicken. In some cheeses the culture is found there automatically in the milk or the surroundings (a cave at Roquefort, for example.) The treatment by rods, however, ensures a more homogeneous presence throughout the mould.

Smoked Cheese

To preserve food items, previously smoking was in practice, which is still used for certain food items. This process is employed over cheese also. One can get the best smoked cheese using oak or other kinds of local wood as well. For this, the shavings are smoldered and the smoke is dispersed at a low temperature to avoid cooking the cheese. This procedure is very effective as the deposits from the smoke vapors give not only a distinct smoky flavor, but also an equally appealing color to the cheese.

Gouda Cheese
Guda Cheese is Holland’s most famous exported cheese, with its characteristic yellow interior dotted with a few tiny holes. It has a mild, nutlike flavor that is very similar to edam, but its texture is slightly creamier due to its higher milk fat content. Gouda can be made from whole or part-skim cow’s milk, and aged anywhere from a few weeks to over a year. The younger the Gouda, the milder the flavor. When aged over a year, it takes on almost a cheddar-like flavor. It comes in large wheels ranging from 4 to 11 kgs, and usually has a yellow wax rind.

Cheddar Cheese
Cheddar Cheese owes its name to the Cheddar Gorge Caves in Britain. Local legend has it that a milkmaid left a pail of milk in the safety of the caves while she went on another errand. When she returned, she found that the milk had hardened into a tasty substance. Thus Cheedar cheese was born. The rich pastures of Somerset levels provided ideal pastureland for grazing and also gave the cheese a distinct flavor. The nearby Cheddar caves proved to be ideal for storing their products, which matured in the constant temperature of 7 °C. Cheddar Cheese is made from “heat shocked” milk as opposed to pasteurized milk. This process is used as natural enzymes in the milk, essential for producing quality cheddar cheese, suffer during full pasteurization. Milk is heated to 66.6°C and held for 30 seconds. This process requires the cheddar cheese to be aged for a minimum of 60 days prior to marketing.

Mozzarella Cheese
Mozzarella Cheese is made by pasteurizing raw milk, which then coagulates to form curds. Once the curds reach a pH of 5.2 they are cut into small pieces and then mixed with hot water and “strung” or “spun” until long ropes of cheese form. This “stringing of the curd” is unique to cheeses in the “pasta filata” family, such as mozzarella, scamorza and provolone. When the proper smooth, elastic consistency is reached, the curds are formed by machine or hand into balls, which are then tossed into cold water so that they maintain their shapes as they cool. They are then salted and packaged.

Processed Cheese
Processed Cheese is made by pasteurizing natural cheese. Pasteurizing is a process, which is used to kill the bacteria present in the milk by heating it for sometime and then rapidly cooling it. This is beneficial as it increases the storage length. To give it more smoothness emulsifiers are also added to it.

Cheese is tasty by itself, but then it works wonders when mixed with other food to create special cheese delicacies like appetizing pizzas, which has hot melting cheese spread all over it giving it a special aroma; delectable Swiss fondue which is prepared with melted cheese and wine to which pieces of bread are added; cheese lasagna, a scrumptious dish formed by cooking up the combination of pasta and cheese; risotto, a succulent meal of rice, cheese, onions, garlic, vegetable and white wine; it tastes really yummy stacked up between burgers and sandwiches and is quite refreshing when it acts as an accompaniment to salads. When cheese is cooked separately as cheese balls and cheese straws the taste is awesome. It could be cooked to be in a soft state or a hardened flavorsome cheese cracker. It also blends in well with desserts and cakes; the result is a luscious dish to be savored smoothly. There are some dishes quite popular in Nepal like the cheese omelet and vegetarian cheese momo.

Delicatessen Center at Kantipath is the one stop for imported cheese in Nepal, their products are also found in some major departmental stores.