Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Help for Nepali cheese makers brings help for small holder farmers

Cheeses made in a remote Nepali cheese house mature before marketing at three months of age.

Bringing Nepali smallholder farmers closer to the market place has always been a challenge in a country where glacial waters, which drain from the Himalayas, make transport so difficult. These waters form huge rivers such as the Koshi, Narayani, and Karnali Nadi that flow south into India where they are the headwaters of the massive Ganges that empties into the Bay of Bengal. The valleys of these Nepali rivers, run north to south and the main lines of transport must navigate across them east to west. For several decades Nepal’s eastern districts around Illam have not only produced tea but also Gouda type cheeses that are popular both locally and in the central Kathmandu valley. These value chains have allowed smallholder milk producers to bring their milk products to the market place. By converting milk to cheese not only does the value rise per kilo but also the product volume is reduced by 90% allowing transport costs to be covered and still leave extra margin for the cheese maker and the milk-supplying farmers.

But there have been some problems. Cheese quality is declining and a newly established cheese house, has asked for some help to get things back on track. So its with this challenge in mind I join a small team tasked with visiting the district that neighbours Illam, Terhathum, where we will visit the small factory to look at the entire cheese making process and try to come up with some suggestions. My job will be to build the capacity of the team and facilitate a short training session.

The current political instability within Nepal make air travel the safest way of reaching some districts. Our small Yeti Airlines plane waits to taxi at Kathmandu airport.

There can be fewer more memorable sights than Everest rising out of Nepal's Himalayan Range

A reminder that not all of Nepal's districts are mountainous. The flat rice paddies around Biratnagar are typical of the Tarai plains that border N. India.

We take an internal flight with Yeti Airlines to Biratnagar an eastern city on the flat Tarai lands bordering India. From here we will take a jeep and drive four hours north to the mid- hills and the village of Basantipur, in Terhathum district.

Eventually we arrive at the cheese house situated at the end of a rough dirt track, on a col, at an altitude of 2600m. The small team, lead by a young man, Sudbir Tamang, eagerly await our arrival and the assistance we might offer.

Our destination, a small isolated cheese house. 

Cheese maker Sudbir Tamang works over the 1000lt. vat. He learnt his skills
 in the neighbouring district of Illam

The previous days cheese on the pressing table in simple make-shift moulds.
After brief introductions, and a look at that day's cheese still on the presses, we retired to a local lodge for the night. 

Next morning, our walk back to see the factory was rewarded by magnificent views of Makalu (8468m), Cho Oyu (8201m), and the ultimate peak Sagarmatha (8828m), in the far distance. What a wonderful place to work. But that is only a Westerners feeling about the situation. When I asked the locals what are the names of these imposing peaks no one has an answer. They are just a landscape feature that everyone takes entirely for granted and whilst locals respect the existence of these mountains, since they are of strong cultural value, their existence does little to counterbalance the harsh way of life in these remote communities.

This small cheese house produces between 8 to 10, 4kg  cheeses each day from 400 lts of milk which is  supplied by 150 small milk producers. A Danish development project, some years ago, had been the first to introduce cheese making in the east of Nepal. Gouda is the style rather than Cheddar with which I am more familiar. Gouda has one big advantage in that it's preservation is achieved by submerging cheeses in a brine bath for 48 hours rather than the more tricky methods used in cheddar making.  Brining or not, the cheeses must be matured at around 100c for several months, which make these cool moist mountains ideal for the process, since refrigeration is still largely unavailable.

The supplying farmers bring their milk to a few collection points from where it is carried, unchilled, in aluminium cans to the factory.  Depending upon the distances involved, the task of carrying these containers, in dokhas (baskets), is done by various teams. The closer collection points which involve carrying for 1-1.5 hours use school boys who do the job before their school day starts. The same three boys do the job every day.

These boys have carried 40kgs of milk from their collection points over an hours walk away. The general belief is that young men do not want to work hard in rural areas. These guy's are disproving that belief. They return to their villages after delivery, in time to start school at 10.30 am. Amrit Rai the taller boy has passed his school leaving certificate this year.

Basanta Rai is 11 years old and has bought 38kgs of milk to the factory. It took him an hour.
He will get back to school to attend class 5.
Emptying the milk into the vat, through a filter.

Away home

 Where the milk is brought longer distances the 3 hour journey is done by men and women who each deliver up to 55 kgs., before making the return journey,………taking a further 3 hours. But the team spirit of all these players is fantastic. Not a single word of complaint, just smiles and unsolicited offers to help each other before a short rest and away home to do more work on the farm.

Hard to believe it but this woman has carried more than 50kgs for 3 hours. Here she
is helped to unload.

Another woman farmer delivers from her close steading

Local farmers earn extra money by carrying milk

Returning home

After a visit to the small cheese store and the inevitable tasting session we discovered that the main problem we were to solve is the existence of small holes in the body of the cheeses. These only become apparent when the cheese is cut. Customers are voicing their dislike of the tiny cavities which are harmless in a food safety sense. I had some ideas about the causes that were confirmed by watching, with fascination, the entire process. There were definitely some inadequacies in both the milk pasteurisation and cheese brining stages. These were allowing gas-producing bacteria to survive and multiply to create small gas holes in the final cheeses.

The small gas holes are clearly visible in the matured cheese.

Rajendra my team colleague proudly shows off the fire that is heating the jacketed
vat.  His design. Wood is in rich supply close to this cheese house.

Cutting the curd

Removing 30% of the whey to reduce acidity.
After scalding and cooking the curd it is separated from the whey using this unique but effective method.

The cheese cloth now filled with curd is taken to the awaiting moulds
Mould filling

Making sure moulds are full and of equal size


After an hours pre-press the cloths are checked to ensure a good cheese shape is achieved. Then the pressing continues overnight. The cheese on the shelf behind, have been labelled and await being placed in a brine bath for 48 hours.
Standardisation is achieved by separating some of the cream from the milk.
Hand churning butter takes about 25 minutes, the cream having been left to ripen for
2 days.

The finished butter will be used to produce ghee.

Throughout the day our small team conferred and debated the current scenario eventually coming up with some recommendations.  Once the days making was completed Rajendra, my Nepali counterpart, gave a short training session attended by the entire team, to share the new knowledge and tweek the cheese making recipe.

Rajendra takes a short training session

The new recipe is written down and displayed.

The following day we made a re-visit to back up the theory with some practical demonstration during that day’s cheese making. After farewells and promises to come back and check all was going well we jumped in the jeep and away.

For the future, more visits to other cheese makers in neighbouring Illam district have been arranged to tackle similar problems. These should coincide with our planned revisit to Basantipur. Working within this value chain is not only helping cheese makers like Sudbir Tamang but is also allowing us to achieve our ultimate aim of both securing and improving the income for the hundreds of small holder milk producers.