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Got Milk? - Yak Cheese

One of the planet's newest cheeses comes from one of its most prehistoric-looking animals, the yak. "It's as big as a cow but gives only as much milk as a goat. But what milk! Rich, sweet, fragrant milk from animals that breathe clean air, drink pure water and eat wildflowers. My first sip, out of a can in a saddlebag, with bits of butter in it that were churned by the motion of the horse I was riding, told me this milk had the soul of a fine cheese. All we had to do was help it find its way out."

Cheesemaker Jonathan White sings the praises of the yak, the source of Rajya Metok cheese, or "flower of Rajya" in Tibetan. Last summer, the Trace Foundation--a New York­based nonprofit aimed at helping Tibetan communities in China--sent White, one of America's most celebrated food artisans and the founder of the legendary Egg Farm Dairy, to teach Tibetans how to make a quality cheese out of yak milk.

Tibet presented some new challenges for White. He discovered, for instance, that the Tibetans had a very different palate. "I had brought some aged cow cheese from New York for them to try. They smiled politely. They're slowly developing a taste for it, just like I developed a taste for 10-day-old yak meat," White says.

White found that the cheese the Tibetans were already producing was grainy in texture and lacked richness. It turned out that they had been removing half the butterfat. White instructed them to do otherwise. And he taught them that instead of using brine, they should cure the cheese in a locally available red salt, from a sea that has been dry for 320 million years.

In turn, the Tibetans showed him how to pasteurize without electricity, using dried yak dung to fire the boilers. "I'm used to simple equipment, but this situation was lower than low-tech," White says. After the cheese is aged outdoors, it is wrapped in ceremonial scarves and transported to Beijing for shipment. The foundation plans to produce 15 tons this year--enough to help 500 families.

Although its texture is close to that of tomme de Savoie, a semifirm cow cheese from France, the taste of this yak cheese is unique: It's slightly tangy, with a grassy flavor. "Rajya is delicate, clean and slow on the palate, taking a full minute to unfold on the tongue," White says.

This year's batch will ship in July and sell for $20 a pound at cowsoutside.com and at specialty stores. But will yak cheese transcend its novelty status and find a permanent home in American fridges? The yaks are hoping yes; the New York cows, no.

Published May 2002
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