Cheesemaking has been in practice for more than 8,000 years by different cultures around the world. In Nepal, cheesemaking has a unique history, especially in Langtang Valley. The said region is popular not only for its astonishing Himalayan landscapes but also to its status as the origin of Nepal’s yak cheese, which contains higher levels of healthy fats compared to cow’s cheese.
Nepal’s yak cheese
Even Swiss cheese connoisseur Jean-Paul Corboz mentions how Nepal has the “perfect conditions” for cheese production. Their famous yak cheese is made from zopyo milk, which is produced in high mountains. Aside from having the right climatic conditions, which makes the nation ideal for cheesemaking is that its people are also traditionally into animal husbandry. “You couldn’t ask for more,” the cheese connoisseur said via Nepali Times.
However, Nepal’s cheesemaking is now under threat because the traditional practice of herding is gradually disappearing. Langtang also has volatile tourism, still reeling from the impact of Covid-19 in the country. Aastha Uprety from the Earth Institute at Columbia University believes that revival of yak herding would be the key to build a more resilient community, environment, and economy that will help the country’s cheese industry.
The community in Langtang Valley has traditionally enjoyed different types of cheeses, including the chhurpi that comes in soft and hard varieties. In the early 1950s, though, Swiss development workers supported by the United Nations FAO visited the valley and started a project to introduce European-style cheesemaking. When they arrived, yak herding was still common and milk was consumed and used within families. Exchange of the said dairy product was only on a small scale.
Dairy development in Nepal
After observation, Swiss dairy experts thought that the new forms of cheese production in Langtang would be a good way to utilize the surplus milk produced by yaks during summer. W. Schulthess, FAO Dairy Consultant, has a pioneering role in the project. In 1953, he started manufacturing alpine-type hard cheese (a new type of cheese) with the help of Nepalese craftsmen but in 1964, Schulthess had to leave the country. At that time, the production of export quality cheese was 20-25 tons per summer season in three pasture areas of north and north-east Nepal. When he came back in 1986 on a private visit, he found that cheese production in the area quadrupled.
Langtang-based cheesemaker Gyalbu Tamang described that the work was met with reluctance and suspicion from local yak herders. These people did not want to give away their milk to foreigners that are imposing a “largely externally-developed plan on the community.” Tamang even told the Nepali Times that Swiss workers would sometimes "break into herders' huts and confiscate the milk.” Nevertheless, the Swiss have persuaded the village’s Lama (religious leader) and soon the locals agreed to the project.
In the newly built facility, Langtang locals and Swiss workers began to produce new yak cheese, which is much softer than the original rock-hard type of chhurpi. The community then slowly became accustomed to the softer cheese after the Swiss regularly provided free samples. Soon, the cheese was sold to tourists visiting the valley, distributed throughout Nepal, and transported to Kathmandu. The chhurpi is now distributed throughout the country and is known to originate in the Langtang region.
Even up to today, the original cheese factory is still in use and operates usually in the summer months. There are also seasonal facilities in the nearby pastures and other factories in the wider region. Many facilities in Nepal continue to use the cheesemaking tools that were given to them by the Swiss decades ago. They used these tools together with newer technologies for purposes of monitoring the process and ensuring hygiene.
The 2015 Nepal earthquake and its effect in the cheesemaking economy
In 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, creating avalanches and landslides in the Himalaya Mountains. The calamity had a devastating effect on Nepal’s cheesemaking economy, the Earth Institute at Columbia University published.
Tamang believes that, nonetheless, the earthquake provided the locals a chance to “breathe new life into cheesemaking in Langtang.” The cheesemakers negotiated with the government’s Dairy Development Corporation and the Swiss Embassy also donated to help rebuild the country. This year, cheese production throughout the region surrounding Langtang is on the rise but the practice of yak herding is now at risk. Uprety opined that the long-term trend of cheese production could eventually force the local cheesemaking facilities to find new options to source their milk.
Austin Lord, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University, the earthquake was a direct factor for the decline of yak herding in Langtang. It killed 27 yak herders and 400 yaks.
Yak herding as a “laborious profession”
Lord also believe yak herding is a laborious profession. Many herders are aging out of the profession and only a few from the younger generations can replace them. This is because young people from the region are instead attending school in Kathmandu and other cities. Thus, they spend less time at home and prefer to work in other industries, such as tourism. The impact of climate change is also concerning. There are only a few people these days who move through and live in the landscape in a sustained way the way locals used to.
According to Trend Economy, the top export destinations of cheese and curd from Nepal in 2017 are USA with a share of US$1.02 million or 74%, Japan ($235,000, 17%), South Korea ($96,000, 7.02%), Hong Kong ($19,200, 1.39%), India ($758), China ($577), and Singapore ($96).
In 2018, the production of milk for Nepal amounted to 2.24 million thousand tons, reports Knoema. The bulk of milk production is processed before being marketed as liquid milk or manufactured into products, such as cheese, condensed milk, yogurt, or milk powder. Between 1969 and 2018, the production of milk in the country substantially grew from 623,800 to 2.4 million thousand tons, increasing an annual rate of 9.00%.
Langtang has undergone environmental and cultural changes. Yet, the full effects of these changes are to be seen. The revival of traditional agricultural practices and yak herding would be necessary for the country’s cheese industry.