Nepali Times
The big cheese

Iconic French leader Charles de Gaulle once questioned how anyone could govern a nation that produces 246 types of cheese. Nepal shares many of France's great attributes: beautiful mountains, fantastic growing conditions, diverse countryside, an aptitude for animal husbandry. Now, it seems, it is developing a (some may say worrying) palate for cheese.

Nepal is a nation of yak cheese eaters. The famous yak cheese, much of which is actually made from zopkyo milk, is produced in the high mountains. One version of it is the khurpi, which is not really a cheese at all. In Ilam, they make cheese from cow's milk, and everywhere in between it is from the high-fat water buffalo milk. Lately, goat's cheese from Chitlang and cow's milk cheese in Tokha is proving popular with Kathmandu expats.

"When we started selling cheese, most of our buyers were foreigners, but locals have developed a taste," says Nirmal KC of Hermann Helmers Bakery in Sanepa.

Goat cheese

The cheese industry in Nepal officially started in 1953, when the government-run Dairy Development Corporation (DDC) ventured into producing yak cheese with the support of the Swiss. Sumendra Shakya of DDC says: "Nepal is one of the few places in the world where yak milk is used for making cheese. It has almost become a souvenir product."

While the cheese produced by DDC is the dominant seller in the market, there are a number of small-scale cheese makers with the holey Swiss Emmenthal and French Cantal being produced in Langtang and Ilam.

Swiss cheese connoisseur Jean Paul Corboz says: "Nepal has perfect conditions for it to develop as a cheese producer. It has the right climatic conditions, the grasslands and people who are traditionally into animal husbandry. You couldn't ask for more."

He reckons the cheese selection here is quite good. While most of the varieties have a mild taste even strong

Smoked Provolone

flavoured ones like Ekisho are available.

Surprisingly, Nepal doesn't export cheese. Iswori Prasad Adhikari of DDC explains, "Right now, the demand exceeds the supply, especially in the case of yak cheese."

According to Corboz, the export could pick up if the consistency in the taste and the quality of the local cheese could be maintained although producers will also have to satisfy strict hygiene and veterinary regulations.

However, Nepali cheese is 'unofficially' exported by expats. "Nepal's yak cheese or other varieties are so popular that there are many foreign customers who take more than 7kg abroad at a time," says KC.

If Prime Minister Dahal really plans to turn Nepal into another Switzerland, then the cheese industry is one place he could start.

Paavan Mathema and Shradha Basnyat

French connection

n the hills above Tokha and in the shade of Shivapuri lies the hamlet of Chandeshwori. From there it is a 15 minute hike through woods and over streams to the simple stylish home built by 30-year-old Frenchman Francois Driard (pictured right) two years ago.

When he had to decide how to make a living in Nepal he hit upon cheese- making because it was the single thing he missed most about his native France.

The French are pretty superior about their cheese and Driard, who consumes 2kg of the stuff a week, is no exception. For him cheese must have a rind and it must call for a glass of red wine. While higher quality wine was becoming increasingly available in Nepal, non processed cheese was still lacking.

Having recognised his ambition he went to the Savoie Valley in the French Alps for traditional training.

Last December he made his first batch of Tomme (though he still owned no cows and was buying in the milk) and after leaving it to mature in his cave for the required one month at 12-14 degrees Celsius and 95-98 per cent humidity he tried it.

"I vowed that if it wasn't good I would stop immediately," he says, "I taste every batch of cheese I sell and if it's not to
my taste I ditch it."

One year on from that first cheese he has a small herd of Jersey hybrids and Holsteins.

But the popularity of the luxury cheese means demand has quickly outgrown supply.

It has been a steep learning curve. His herd is producing 60 litres of milk a day which makes six kg of cheese but he needs to up that which may necessitate moving elsewhere to get pasture for the animals.

His ambition is to start making other cheeses so he can offer a whole platter, perhaps beginning with the quintessential soft French cheese Camembert on which he gorges himself whenever he goes home.

Driard is also now making salami with the aim of expanding into other forms of 'Charcuterie'.

Katy Elliott

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)