Dear Friends and Family,
Cheese-making in Mongolia is all about survival. And survival, if you are a nomad, means using whatever resources you have, finding ways to preserve milk for as long as possible and making sure that whatever you come up with is transportable.
In practice, this means that Chimgee and Haygaa (my hosts and teachers) burn dried cow manure to heat their milk, use sour horse milk to curdle it and then dry their cheese by hanging it on the walls of their home.
To prove just how well-adapted Mongolian cheese is to a nomadic lifestyle, Haygaa showed me how quickly he can take cheese down from the walls, stuff it into sacks, and move it. (Picture a goofy Santa Claus-type rushing to remove twinkle lights from Christmas trees and you might laugh too).
Like most herdsmen, Chimgee and Haygaa migrate four to five times per year, have few financial resources and are disconnected from modern conveniences (such as electricity or the internet). As such, yurt-style cheese-making is also detached from many of the most basic Western practices. Technical instruments (such as pH meters or thermometers) are non-existent, pre-made cultures and rennet are unavailable, salt is saved for other foods and “hygienic practices” are low on the priority list.
As far as taste goes, Mongolian cheese is dry, jaw-breaking stuff. Chimgee suggests dipping it in hot soup but my favorite is to nibble slowly, taking my time to appreciate this cheese’s greatest attribute (flavor aside). More so than any other cheese I have encountered, Mongolian cheese takes me back not just hundreds but thousands of years. Perhaps it is the backdrop of our yurt, but this cheese seems frozen in time; remarkably overlooked by the larger social, economic and political pressures shaping the rest of our world.