KATHMANDU, March 29: A 10 minute ride from Tokha beneath the Shivapuri hills in Kathmandu, you will meet probably one of the most intriguing cowboys. He attended Business University in Paris, was expelled, wrote for TIME and Business Week, dropped that and finally settled in Nepal where he came for “trekking and chilling”.
Hippy in spirit, he currently fancies the possibility of making elephant milk cheese in Nepal. Who is this guy anyway, who drove all around town in his red jeep using cooking oil from hotels during last year’s petrol crisis?
Photo Courtesy: Francois Draird
Draird, Francois Draird is his name.
“Of course, the cooking oil idea failed as it jammed the jeep’s filter,” Draird says watering the rye field terrace. “But that was quite an idea. And I’m still to try elephant cheese.”
Draird himself is not sure if elephant milk is edible. In his brief research he did not find any people or any tribes eating it anywhere. But one thing is for sure. No one has tried to make Tomme de Savoie, the recipe Draird prepares at his farm, with elephant milk.
In fact, he asked around a lot about sourcing some elephant milk in Nepal and some people from the Terai showed interest too. But there is one thing very risky about elephant milk – it goes wrong within an hour.
“So, I’d have to be fast in processing my cheese,” he gushed, still hopeful. Initially, he thought of manufacturing goat cheese too, but dropped it when he realized some people were already doing that.
Draird first arrived in Nepal in the mid 90s. The first visit was enough to bring him here every consecutive year. After visiting 30 countries in three years as a journalist, he realized he was not a born nomad. He needed a home and felt it was in Nepal. Of course, for a Frenchman, a home is where the cheese is. But for Draird, it also included African music and natural beauty.
“I had my African music in my laptop and natural beauty Nepal had in abundance for me. So, all I needed was a cheese farm and I opened one,” he says with the smile that rarely leaves his face.
The 30-year-old sporting a casual t-shirt and boxer shorts over jeans was deceptive enough to make neighbors downhill believe he was just another whimsical, sandy-blonde foreigner who for some weird reason ended up becoming a cowboy.
“Okay, that kuire,” one elderly man who passed through Draird’s Himalayan French Cheese Farm with some wild leaves to cure his daughter’s menstrual pain, exclaimed. “Yes, yes, he is quite a gothalo (herdsman),” he sniggered proudly.
Draird had never thought of becoming a cowboy, at least not until he decided to live in Nepal. “I had never thought I would live with cows some day,” the Frenchman said in a low faltering voice, as if revealing some sacred secret. His voice lingered in air for a while amid the toll of cowbells.
In fact, when he told friends about his wish to live in Kathmandu as a cowboy, they snapped, “Okay, don’t make silly excuses. Why don’t you just say you want to live in Nepal?”
His diplomat mother, who divorced when he was still a kid, is happy about his farm. “She doesn’t like milk much but she does love cheese, just as I do,” the happy cowboy explains.
There was a time when Draird did nothing but read books and eat mushrooms. But these days he rises early at the cheese farm amid the moos and quacks, before the sun climbs the adjacent pine forest and greets his room. Lila, one of five employees there, cuts grasses and manages the straw, and also milks the cow and puts the milk in a big tank at the factory, where it is hardened before being put in a cellar.
Tomme de Savoie, the special French cheese prepared in Savoie in the French Alps, takes one month to mature, “if load shedding doesn’t bother the temperature of the cellar much.” Draird prefers to call it Himalayan French Cheese.
This particular recipe is prepared from raw milk. Since the milk is not pasteurized it needs extra sanitation. This is why the cow is given chlorinated water and not the regular spring water like most villagers do downhill. They also make it a point to wash the cow nipples with chlorinated water every time before and after milking.
“It seems to work now,” he says narrating how he discovered that most Nepali cows suffer from thunelo or “tunelo” as he says with his French accent. Thunelo or mastitis is a cow disease that makes the nipples swell. After he started treating his cows with chlorinated water, they have become less prone to the disease.
At the factory, after adding yoghurt and rennet, the coagulated milk is left to harden before it is sent to the cellar. The whey (mohi) extracted from the hardened milk is then given to pigs instead of being thrown away. For Draird, pigs are a must in a cheese farm.
“We need pigs because they eat up the whey and then they become very nice meat. That is how they do Parma ham in Italy, feeding them with the whey from Parmegiano. Otherwise, we’ll have to dispose of the whey in nature, which is very harmful for the ecosystem,” he says as he moves about bare foot like most of the time. Right now he has one pig and an English sow, which he bought from Jiri last year. Besides, the farm also has four sheep, five ducks and three geese.
A half-pressed coagulated disc of milk is pressed with its equal weight. Once it is pressed enough, it is sent to a cave or cellar, where it is kept under humidity of 95-98% and temperature of 12-14 degrees Celsius for three months.
As the disc ferments, it develops fluffy rind around it, the mould which is referred to as cat’s fur in French due to the similarity. The fluff needs to be evened every other day to get that thick brown rind and a typical cellar smell, which Tomme cheese is famous for.
A matured Tomme cheese has a brownish-beige rind around it. As Draird explains, a good Tomme cheese invites a red wine. “And if this were the yardstick, my cheese will do.”
“There are people who spend 15 years studying cheese and there were people who did cheese 1,000 years ago, instinctively. I wanted to be in between,” he says as he lazes into an Indonesian bamboo chair.
Draird went to the Alps to learn the recipe and started the farm from scratch in December last year. The idea of a cheese farm first hit him while he was staying at the house of Ram Bahadur, who is now his business partner along with Gokul Magar and Binod Neupane. They leased the land at Tokha for 10 years.
Savoring the fresh cheese he brought from the cellar, he says, “My teacher said if cheese tastes good, all is good. I taste every batch of cheese and I have no regrets not studying for 15 years.”
Besides the French ambassador, one of his regular patrons, Himalayan French Cheese is supplied to a dozen places in Kathmandu – Hyatt Regency, Hermann Helmers at Jhamsikhel, European Bakery at Maharajgunj, Organic Market at Summit Hotel, and Delices de France in Thamel, to name a few. And although Draird is yet to make any profit, he is “surprised” the way the business is progressing.
Dhruba Dutta Bhatta, executive sous chef at Hyatt Regency, says Himalayan French cheese is picking up rapidly. “We started buying the cheese since the last seven months. The public response is really encouraging.”
According to him, among the yak cheese, local emmental cheese, provolone cheese and Al fontina cheese, which they sell at Hyatt, Himalayan French cheese is the most famous. “Seeing this we’ve recently launched Himalayan French Cheese pizzas too.”
At present, the cheese farm has 13 cows which give 90 liters of milk every day, 40 in the morning and 50 in the evening. Tentatively, 12 liters of milk is consumed in making one disc of cheese that weighs 900 to 1,200 gram. It fetches Rs. 1,250 per kg.
Remembering the times when people referred to his cheese as kuireko kuiyeko cheese (foreigner’s fermented cheese) he says, “If I can have a market for kuireko kuiyeko cheese in Nepal, where cheese is barely a part of food culture, I am sure I can do that in any country in the world”.
Of course, cheese making is not an easy business. Even for daredevils like Draird, there are times when he is really at the end of his tether. The 16-hour load-shedding that keeps altering the otherwise constant temperature of the cellar is one among many hindrances. More difficult still is the lack of a cow bazaar in Kathmandu.
“If we want to buy good cows, we have to get them from Punjab in India and since I cannot afford to do that yet, I buy from brokers. It often proves difficult due to the lack of transparent competition,” he says.
Last year, Draird bought some jersey cows, which are famous for their volume of milk, at a high price. But it turned out they gave two times less milk than they were supposed to. Some government officials then suggested he feed his cattle Napier grass. He actually planted the grass, but it turned out the soil was infertile for Napier. Double loss! Nevertheless, the Himalayan French Cheese is earning him quite a reputation.
And although Draird is all focused on the farm house now, he wants to turn to new dreams also.
For him, life is all about finding new dreams, the crazier the better, and realizing them. For instance, while building his stone and tile cottage, he wanted to have an antique wooden window that was broken in 35 unsolvable puzzles. It drove the carpenters crazy, and it was Draird who finally solved the jigsaw. The ardent cowboy now wants to extend his farm house.
“In France, they say that one cow needs at least 20 hectares of land. In fact, good grazing means a lot to the quality of cheese. But in Nepal, the land is so expensive I can hardly afford to invest in land. Still, I am trying to find 100 hectares, not so far away from the city, for a maximum of Rs. 10,000 per hectare,” he says.
His next plan is to go back to France and learn some more recipes and since all his money is in the farm, he needs the farm to go into profit first. But looking at all the success he continues to reap, maybe some day he will bring us some elephant cheese too.