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Developing a Knack for Yak

January 23, 2002|JONATHAN WHITE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

High on the Tibetan plateau, nomadic yak-herders have been grazing their semi-wild herds for 10,000 years, making theirs the world's oldest existing agricultural enterprise. During the brief summer, these shaggy-haired ruminants, grazing above 13,000 feet on 60-odd species of grass and wildflowers, make a milk that is rich, pure and sweet, full of the flavors of mountain flowers and grass.

In summer, the milk is plentiful to the point of surplus, but the rest of the year is hard, cold and lean in this remotest of human civilizations. While the "wish-granting yak" gives the nomads milk, butter and meat for the table, hair for the tents and fleece and skins for their clothing, one bad winter is all it takes to deplete a family's perilously thin safety margin.

This past summer, I spent a few weeks with the nomads. I was sent by Trace Foundation, a New York-based organization engaged in economic development projects in Tibetan communities on the plateau. My job was to develop an export-quality cheese, to give the nomads an opportunity to earn hard currency to supplement their subsistence economy by turning their surplus milk into a cash crop.

The nomads have always made butter and chura, which can be either dried yogurt or dried buttermilk solids. But there is no tradition of cheese-making, other than a monastic blue cheese that I had read about (I could not find any firsthand reports of its existence).

There is no tradition of cheese-eating on the Tibetan Plateau, nor any taste for it. I had brought some of my well-aged cow's-milk cheeses from home, and the Tibetans were politely circumspect in their comments about the flavor. This was not going to be easy to sell in the local market. But even if the Tibetans didn't appreciate the taste of cheese, they certainly could appreciate the fact that there was finally a possibility of a cash buyer for their milk--cash that could buy luxuries such as shoes, roofing materials, stoves and medicines.

As a long-time cheese-maker, I am accustomed to working just a few steps from the cows, using simple equipment, but I am also accustomed to having electric motors, steam boilers and hot water flowing from a tap. In Tibet, the boiler was fired by burning yak dung, the clean and tidy factory was lighted only by daylight and the only motive force came from the shoulder.

But the soul of a cheese is in the grass, by way of the milk--the equipment can help or get in the way, but ultimately it is nature, and not technology, that makes the cheese.

I found myself living in a tent camp, with a rice sack full of yak hair as a pillow. We were near a river whose only name, apparently, is The River, with yaks, horses, long-horned sheep and marmots grazing, and whole flocks of eagles soaring above. I had never seen eagles in groups before, and was doubting that they were indeed eagles, thinking them more likely to be vultures. Then I saw one of them nose dive into a swale and come up with a marmot in its talons--yep, those were eagles.

Despite being a couple of miles closer to the sun, the midsummer weather was crisp: the brightest blue sky I've ever seen. Perhaps it was illuminated by hypoxia? Ice on the tent in the morning, warming up to about 75 degrees at noon, then dropping off toward the 40s when the sun sets over the ridge at 2 p.m.

The nomads, who were as curious about me as I was about them, treated me like family. The children, being even more curious and less shy that the parents, engaged me in games of soccer and, more my style, cat's cradle. When my interpreter was not available, I would pull out photos of my family and the farm--my wife's curly red hair drew a lot of notice, as did the Guernsey and Jersey cows.

Since winter is so long, there is a festival every few days during midsummer: weddings, religious festivals, horse races. Every time a group gathers, there is singing, dancing and eating. Yak meat is served in a variety of ways and eaten with breads fried in yak butter.

During the festivals, I had a chance to engage in other nonverbal communications by joining in some of the communal cooking projects. I failed dumpling making, but I was able to show off some new pastry shapes for yak-butter-fried breads: the palmier, croissant and snail have now entered into the Tibetan pastry repertoire.

Breakfast was always tsampa: roasted barley porridge served with tea, yak butter and dried yogurt. Lunch and dinner were always yak and noodle du jour--nothing fancy, but solid, satisfying and tasty. Yak is a bit stronger than venison, and it was often prepared with oilseed greens (a cousin of broccoli), onions and some chiles. The vegetables were, incidentally, an accommodation to the visiting lowlander. Self-respecting nomads don't eat plants; it's just not their place on the food chain.

While the daily menu and recipe didn't change, the "dry-aged" yak did get progressively stronger each day, so there was some variety after all. By the 10th day, it was quite a relief when a fresh yak arrived.

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