On a recent visit to the Farmer’s Market at Le Sherpa, in Maharajgunj, there seemed to be a distinct buzz in the air. Making my rounds, reusable bags in tow, I noticed that François Driard from Himalayan French Cheese was absent and wondered aloud about the reason. Responses came back quickly: “You didn’t hear the news? He won an award! In France! For one of his cheeses!” Continuing my shopping, I soon found this was the main topic of conversation, a frisson of excitement running through the market. As I listened to to the happy raconteurs, I noticed an undertone of self-congratulation: after all, if a cheese from Nepal, made by someone we knew, had won such a prestigious prize, it seemed to be a reason for all of us to be proud, too.
Back I came to a subsequent market to get more details from François—and congratulate him, too, of course, as everyone else seemed to be doing, sampling tasty cheese slices all the while. Between sips of bubbly wine and filling people’s cheese orders, he explains to me that earlier this year he attended FOODEX Japan, the second biggest food festival in the world, with over 80,000 visitors. A man stopped by his booth to try his cheese; he turned out to be the President of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, a cheesemaker’s guild that’s been around since 1901. The guild president was so taken with the Yak Blue that he invited François to enter it in the annual cheese competition Mondial du Fromage 2019, held in Tours, France. An extremely competitive affair, there were 952 cheese and dairy products in the running, mostly French. Yak Blue was awarded a Super Gold—something François still seems genuinely surprised by. To be so awarded by his peers—and from a country that takes its cheese as seriously as the French do—is a real honor indeed. And it wasn’t just the judges, the public were really taken with it as well. “They loved it! There was a massive public reaction. We had importers asking about it, too.” How fantastic that Nepal is getting known for something like this. According to François, it’s about more than just his cheese: he has a vision of Nepal becoming a food force in Asia, providing a wide variety of natural, healthy products to the whole region. With so many good things being made here, he believes it’s possible to affirm Nepal’s reputation as not just a land of mountains and wildlife, but of delicious, artisanally made food of all kinds. And why not?
Perhaps this is a good moment to tell you about the cheese itself that has garnered all this acclaim: Yak Blue. Exactly what it sounds like—a blue cheese made with yak milk. Though I am a great cheese lover and eater, I am in no way a connoisseur, nevertheless I will try to describe it anyway. It’s more creamy and smooth than crumbly as many blue cheeses can be, mild yet still possessing that piquant blueness—perhaps it’s the yak element that gives it a sweetness or balance and somehow sets it apart. I’ve loved blue cheese since I was a child: Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton; the bluer the better, really. My sister, not so much. When she was here on a visit last year, however, this Yak Blue so won her heart that she insisted on returning to buy more to take home with her. So this could accurately be called ‘the blue cheese that wins over non-blue cheese lovers.’
Which means that whatever your cheese preference, there’s no excuse not to give it a try. If for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about, and what made those guys in long robes give François a medal. Go sample a slice.