The profit from the Dutch cheese is far higher than that of their usual milk and cheese

Merak/Sakteng: The highlanders of Merak and Sakteng, famous for fermented or smelly cheese, have ventured into a new product.  They are making Gouda cheese from yak milk.

Gouda cheese made from cow’s milk, named after the city of Gouda in the Netherlands, is one of the most popular cheeses worldwide.

Started about two years ago, the highlanders have found Gouda cheese as a good source of cash income.  A kilogram of Gouda cheese is sold at Nu 550 in the market.  The smelly cheese sells around Nu 450 to 500 in Trashigang.

Villagers are serious about their new venture, and have already formed two cooperatives, one at Merak with 26 members, and the other at Sakteng with eight members.

The cheese is produced once in a year when yaks and zom (yak and cattle hybrid) return to the villages.  Tashi Norbu, a member of the Gouda cheese cooperative in Merak, said they spend about a month or two producing the cheese.

“Officials from the department of livestock (DoL) have trained us on the production and, today, members know how to produce quality Gouda cheese,” he said. “We sell it as and when there is demand. Otherwise, we also have a selling counter at Rangjung.”

For villagers, who largely depend on livestock for a living, Tashi Norbu says, Gouda cheese is helping them earn more.

“We aren’t able to earn much by selling milk and butter. Gouda cheese fetches a good price and we’ve learned a hygienic and better way of processing cheese,” he said.

However, members of the Gouda cheese cooperative in Sakteng said they were finding some difficulty in selling it.

Lhendrup, a member, said there was no local demand for the cheese. Without a road network until the gewog, supplying the cheese outside the gewog would mean walking for almost two hours.

“Civil servants in the gewog don’t buy the cheese because of the high price. Although the DoL is helping us with marketing, we’re still not aware if there’s a larger market for our product,” he said.

He added that, last year, they could not produce more cheese because of lesser milk collection.

“We could only keep yaks and zoms in the village for about a week. Because of less hay in the village, people had taken them to far off places for grazing and collection became difficult,” he said.

Apart from a few civil servants, major buyers of Gouda cheese are the local tourist hotels and high-end hotels like Tashi Taj, Uma and Amankora.

Dzongkhag livestock officer, NS Tamang, said the market of Gouda cheese was good.

“High-end hotels are regular customers of the cheese and the feedback is good. They said the quality was at par with international standards,” he said. “In future, there are possibilities of exporting the cheese to other countries as well.”

To produce a kilogram of Gouda cheese, the DLO said, it requires eight litres of milk.

“Roughly, it would cost villagers about Nu 250 to produce a kilogram of cheese, while they can sell it at Nu 550. They’re earning a net profit of Nu 300,” he said.

While Merak gewog produced about 400kg of Gouda cheese last year, Sakteng produced about 60kg.

By Tshering Wangdi, Trashigang