French cheese comes to the Himalayas

by AFP/Claire Cozens , Jul 23, 2009 | Destinations: Nepal

CHANDESHWORI, July 16, 2009 - When Frenchman Francois Driard decided to settle in Nepal after a decade-long love affair with the Himalayan nation, just one thing was missing -- good cheese. So the 31-year-old former business writer decided to make his own.

For the past year and a half, Driard has been running a small dairy farm in the foothills of the Himalayas, producing mountain cheeses using traditional methods honed over centuries in the French Alps.

"It started out as a bit of a romantic idea -- I like nature and I like food, and I had a vague idea that I might do some farming," says Driard.

"In Nepal now you can find almost everything, but non-processed cheese was missing.

"I thought it would be a good place to make quality cheese because labour is still cheap and nature is generous. We've got good rain, good milk, it's a good country for cheese."

Driard says he was also inspired by the desire to ensure traditional techniques are preserved as European consumers increasingly opt for cheaper, factory-made cheeses.

But his former career compiling reports on investment opportunities in developing countries for the likes of Business Week and the Miami Herald provided scant preparation for life as a cheese-maker.

So, having rented a plot of land northwest of Kathmandu, Driard travelled to the French Alps in the summer of 2007 to learn how to make Tomme de Savoie -- a semi-hard cow's milk cheese made by farmers there for centuries.

By the end of that year he had produced his first batch of Himalayan French Cheese, which is made using the traditional French method but does not qualify for the name because it is not made in the Savoie region.

The cheese is hand-made by a small team of workers on the farm before being aged for three months in an underground cellar, which has to be air conditioned during the hot summer months to maintain the correct temperature.

"I always said I wanted to make a cheese that made you feel like you needed a glass of red wine. And it's working," Driard says of his product, which sells mainly in specialist shops and in restaurants in Kathmandu.

"People seem happy with it and they say they want more -- and they want more different products as well."

The success has inspired Driard to experiment with other Western delicacies, such as French-style dried sausage and ricotta -- an Italian soft cheese made from whey, a byproduct of the cheese-making process.

But there have been challenges along the way.

Initially, Driard bought milk in from local farmers, but he soon found the bacteria levels were too high for a cheese that is made using unpasteurised milk.

Now, he has his own cattle -- a decision that brought a fresh set of problems in this majority-Hindu country, where cows are considered sacred and killing them is punishable with a jail sentence.

"There's nothing you can do about it but it's a huge problem," he says, remembering the time he had to watch a sick cow die a slow and painful death rather than put her out of her misery.

"You can't slaughter the older females or the males, and every other birth you have is a male."

Nepal's notorious corruption problems also made it difficult to obtain all the necessary permits to set up a business here, until Driard appointed a local fixer to smooth over the cultural differences.

But despite the difficulties, the Frenchman is optimistic about the potential for a cheese industry in Nepal, which unlike many Asian countries already has a strong dairy tradition.

As far back as the 1950s, aid organisations began introducing Swiss cheese-making techniques to remote mountain communities here to give them a way of using up their surplus milk, and Swiss-style hard cheeses are now widely available.

More recently, farmers have also begun producing goat's cheese and mozzarella, which they sell mainly to restaurants catering for tourists and expatriates in Kathmandu.

Driard says the hard cheeses being made locally are "really quite good" but that they are sold too young because the farmers cannot afford to wait for payment.

"If they were to leave it for six months to a year, it would have an amazing flavour, at least for me. I'm not sure the locals would agree. But we could be exporting extremely high quality cheese from Nepal," he says.

Driard's ambitions include expanding his own operation -- he is looking for a 15-acre (six hectare) plot of land further away from the capital -- and setting up a cooperative to help local farmers do more with their milk.

"In a way, Nepal is a land of opportunity. Nothing has been done yet because it is not an entrepreneurial culture," he says.

"But if you accept the system, there's so much that can be done."

* * * * *