Sampling Yak Cheese at the Olympics
The L.A. Times's Bill Plaschke has already eaten animal penis at these Games. NBC's Mary Carillo has already filmed a package on sampling scorpions and seahorses on sticks. But, as far as I know, I was the first American sportswriter to sample Geza Gold Artisanal Yak cheese.
(Pause for reflection by Pulitzer committee.)
While I conducted a phone interview about yak cheese in our office this afternoon, several co-workers suggested that the yaks of Western China had little to do with sport. I asked my source, Ventures in Development co-founder Marie So.
"They have yak racing in
Shanghai Qinghai once a year," she pointed out. "It's kind of slow, because they're eating grass on the way instead of running."
So anyhow, Hong Kong native Marie and her fellow 20-something business partner, Carol Chyau, met at Harvard's Kennedy School while studying public policy. After school, they formed Ventures in Development, a non-profit that attempts to incubate sustainable business enterprises in China. Their first two projects quickly gave them their iconic "Yak Girls" nickname: Shokay, their own company, which produces yak cashmere, and Mei Xiang Yak Cheese, which is run by a Tibetan family in Yunnan.
Traditional Tibetan yak products, of course, trend toward yak butter and fermented yak cheese, which haven't meshed well with Western taste buds.
"It's a very strong flavor," Marie told me today. "It's not quite palatable."
And so the fledgling cheesemakers turned their focus elsewhere, trying out a Ma Po Yak Cheese in a spicy sauce to appeal to Chinese palates, and, more importantly, bringing Wisconsin cheesemaker Ranee May to show the Tibetan herders how to produce an Asiago-style aged cheese with their yak milk. They sampled the results at various ages--the fresh Yage, creamier with the scent of the farm, and the older Geza, gold and crumbly and full of caramel sharpness--and began spreading their product among China's most urbane chefs, gourmet store owners and restaurateurs.
Their Hong Kong launch party's menu pretty well indicated the target audience: Crispy Ravioli of Organic Yak Cheese, marinated and wrapped with smoked bacon, herbs and black olives; Organic Yak Cheese Cookies flavored with roasted walnut; and Home Smoked Beef Fillet and Marinated Yak Cheese Roll, for example. The cheese is often paired with a dry Bordeaux.
Mei Xiang can produce up to eight tons of cheese a year; the end result retails for about $15 a pound, and the cheese is meant to appeal to China's burgeoning upper middle class, whose tastes are increasingly influenced by Europe. This year's marketing sweep targeted Shanghai, but Beijing won't be far behind.
Anyhow, I met up with Columbia Business School student and Ventures in Development intern Beverly Chung at a Beijing coffee shop today to pick up some samples.
"It's stinky," she warned me as she opened the tub, adorned with picture of a very serious-looking yak. "Some people don't even know what yaks are, and I have to stop and explain: it's kind of a wooly cow in Western China."
Indeed, there was some skepticism when I brought my prized bounty back to Olympicland. "Is yak a verb in this case?" asked Carillo, one of my guest tasters. But then she took a whiff; "this smells great, are you kidding me!" she said, and the cheese was met with mass approval, despite a few concerns about excessive saltiness. Asiago is a fine comparison, although the fresher version smells yakkier and has a flavor more reminiscent of a cow/goat Robiola. I think. Definitely tasty.
It seems clear that right-thinking Whole Foods customers and Hollywood activists would knock each other over with yoga mats to be first in line for a wedge of artisanal high-price-point cheese made in Western China by Tibetan herders. I'm imagining riots in Takoma Park. All you have to get past is the yak thing.
"You don't taste the yak at all," Marie assured me. People "need to try it, that's what it is. It's branding and image."
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