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Sampling Yak Cheese at the Olympics

Mary Carillo samples yak cheese with Ritz cracker.

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."

Good enough!

The yak.

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.

Sally Jenkins, responding to yak cheese smell.

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."

By Dan Steinberg  |  August 11, 2008; 1:44 PM ET
Categories:  Beer and Cheese , Olympics  
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Next: Gilbert on the Street Corner


Sally Jenkins had that same response to the Wizards' 2008 playoff field goal percentage.

Posted by: | August 11, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

"Yak" need not always equal "yack." It's my understanding that excessive stinkiness regarding cheese is often a very good thing.
Go, Dan, go.

Posted by: Arlington Pimp | August 11, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I want to eat some yak cheese now, so I guess this is a good post.

Posted by: Lindemann | August 11, 2008 2:20 PM | Report abuse

You really need to try yak butter tea!

Posted by: slacker mom | August 11, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

this is steinberg at his finest and in his element. he should just quit the rag biz and write a book about traveling the world and eating different cheese.

Posted by: Charles Zimbabwe | August 11, 2008 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Huzzah! A cheese tasted! Yippee! And I second that motion: Travel, taste and write--you are made for it! Now I just have two words for you: stinky tofu. I really think it does qualify as a cheese, if not in the traditional sense. But c'mon--you're a fan of tofurkey; I read that here--it must be the truth! So spread those tofu-sustained wings and partake. Do it.

Posted by: Bobbie | August 11, 2008 6:59 PM | Report abuse

glad to see that you're keeping us apprised on the dairy products... bring back a wheel, will ya?

Posted by: Carolina Miranda | August 11, 2008 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Just couldn't resist the Olympics and writing about cheese, huh?

Posted by: Kornheiser | August 11, 2008 10:16 PM | Report abuse

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