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Talking Cheese in Asia: Who is Yanzi Wang?

In this week's Talking Cheese in Asia series, our cheese specialist talks to an inspiring couple who are making artisan cheese in the nomadic Mongolia.

During my training with Academie MONS, I discovered the network of MONS alumni reached as far as Mongolia, a landlocked country bordered by two giant states, China to the south and Russia to the north. With a population of around 3 million and a surface area of 1.5 million km2, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated sovereign state in the world.About 45% of its population lives in Ulaanbaatar, one of the coldest capitals in the world. 

The country’s landscape is mountainous in the north and west, and dry and arid conditions from the Gobi Desert dominate the south. It is therefore not surprising that there exists very little arable land. A nation deriving from Genghis Khan’s early 13th Century Mongol Empire, today about 30% of its population is nomadic or semi-nomadic. Market economy came late to Mongolia, which only obtained its independence from China in 1921, but fell under control by the Soviet Union in subsequent years. Mongolia eventually underwent its own democratic revolutionary process in 1990, leading to a multi-party government and transition to market economy.  

My curiosity about this alumnus hailing from Mongolia steered me to contact her via Sue Sturman, Academie MONS’s Anglophone Director. What I then learnt from Yanzi Wang and her husband Mike Morrow was a very inspiring story of vision, passion, survival and persistence.

Mongolian’s Cheese Guru: Tumurkhuyag Urtnasan
Image courtesy of MACU

It all started in 2014 when Mike was introduced to Tumurkhuyag Urtnasan, the doyen of Mongolia’s artisan cheesemaking industry and the maker of Mongolia’s most famous cheese Khustai Gouda.  Tumurkhuyag has been making cheese in a remote atelier since 1995, working alone most of the year on a mountain steppe about 80 kilometres southwest of Ulaanbaatar. One important lesson in Mongolian artisan cheesemaking that Mike learnt from the cheese guru is that it needs to be practised where the animals pasture during the 100 days of summer when the mother animals are in full lactation and their young are strong enough not to require all the milk produced, thus creating a milk surplus.

The American-Chinese couple began their year-long research into the socio-economic aspects of herding communities with the objective of identifying a feasible business model. Herder families principally derive their income from selling cashmere combed from goats in spring and selling meat and hides in the fall. During the hundred days of summer, herder incomes are low and labour is in surplus.  If they could sell surplus milk for money, this would provide useful summer income and money for children’s education.  By selling excess milk, the productivity of animals would be increased and herders would be encouraged to avoid overstocking and to better manage pasture conditions to improve quality and quantity of milk. This would not only improve animal husbandry practice but also help sustain the environment.

Inspired by Tumurkhuyag’s example and motivated by the potential socio-economic and ecological benefits for Mongolian’s nomadic communities, Yanzi and Mike eventually shaped their idea into the framework for Mongolian Artisanal Cheesemakers Union (MACU). MACU was thus established in 2016, based on a networked socio-ecological entrepreneurship model.  They soon realised that self-funding the business could take a long time to realise their goals. However, they could accelerate it by inviting a third party to join as financial investor, preferably someone with established track record in the business community, who could be their sounding board for important business decisions.  Arvintsogt Ragchaa, one of the founders of Newcom Group, one of Mongolia’s most reputable business conglomerates, joined MACU as a Director in August 2017.

MACU currently has three subsidiaries, including its White Mountain Cheesemaking Plant built to international standards, and a cheese ripening facility.  Mike is the Executive Director, and wife Yanzi is the Operations Manager and Cheesemaker.  The rest of the management team consists of Enkhbat Ulziisuren, the Chief Engineer, Olivier Courtard, Marketing & Sales Manager as well as the Cheesemaster, yet to be named.

 

Aside from making and selling cheese at its White Mountain Plant, MACU primarily sources investors and herders who are interested to become shareholders of cheesemaking plants. The estimated capital outlay for each cheesemaking facility is around USD 100,000-150,000, depending on location and capacity. 

Given the geographic spread of “sums” (districts) in Mongolia, each cheesemaking plant will have different shareholders.  Each MACU cheesemaking facility is committed to purchasing the milk from around 50 herders in the local community at the price of Mongolian Tugrik MNT 500 per litre (approx. USD 0.18 per litre), on the assumption that each family supplies 40 litres of milk on a daily basis during the hundred days. The price paid for milk will depend on quality of milk and animal breed. (In Mongolia, cheese can be made from the milk of cows, yaks, khainag (hybrid between cow and yak), goats, sheep and camels.) 

MACU’s management and technical personnel is committed to providing installation consultation, technical support and staff training to enable the cheesemaking plant to be suitably equipped and staffed to produce cheese to international standards and develop and create its own range of cheese products.  MACU is committed to purchasing the freshly made cheeses, ripening them at the White Mountain ageing facility, marketing and selling them during the first five years of operation, at an agreed price.  The cheeses will be sold either under the MACU brand or an independent brand. Where requested, MACU can also undertake to be the turnkey project manager and act as the initial plant manager for an arm’s length fee.

MACU’s vision is to build a network of 100 plants by 2024, with total production capacity of 1,000 tons of cheese per year (roughly 1 million kg per year). When fully operational, the plants are envisaged to employ about 500-750 people and provide summer income of USD 800 per family to about 5,000 families.

With this new source of summer income, children will have the opportunity to be educated. Locals will be trained to become skilled workers and cheesemakers at each plant. MACU’s management hopes that the prestige associated with the production of high quality products that generate meaningful income will serve to partially reverse the urban migration trend and help continue the nomadic pastoralism traditions. By-products from the cheese production can provide additional income, such as whey processing into animal feed, candy, baked goods and nutraceutical products. Herders can develop ancillary businesses to complement cheesemaking, such as honey production and production of winter fodder.  Over time, each “sum” will develop greater economic strength, stronger advancement opportunities for its people and a skilled and empowered workforce.

Aside from sourcing investors and building the network of cheesemaking plants, one of MACU’s most imminent tasks is developing the export markets, primarily China and Russia, with Japan, Korea and Hong Kong in sight. The company is currently actively seeking distributors in these three markets. To develop export markets, MACU needs to build the brand, its credibility and consistency in quality of its cheeses.   

MACU currently has five new countryside plants under development, in partnership with local investors, but the construction has been slow due to shortage of capital and the difficulties in establishing protocols with China and Russia for export. It is, however, expected that three should be finished this year and two more in 2020.

Unfazed by setbacks, Yanzi and Mike have continued with their plans to open The Fromagerie MACU, a cheese shop and small café, in an upmarket district in central Ulaanbaatar where many embassies, diplomatic residences and the Shangri-La Hotel complex are located. Open 7 days a week and all year round (1), The Fromagerie MACU is well-placed to service the well-heeled and well-travelled of Mongolia’s local and expatriate communities. Since its opening early July, they have already received distinguished guests such as the Foreign Minister of Mongolia, the US Ambassador and the French Ambassador.

Fromagerie MACU Floor Manager Ankhbayar
Image courtesy of MACU
Distinguished guests at Fromagerie MACU, from left to right: France’s Ambassador Philippe Merlin, Mike Morrow, MACU’s Director Arvintsogt Ragchaa and the French Embassy’s Agriculture Attaché Mathilde Hussonnois
Image courtesy of MACU

MACU currently markets and sells an admirable selection of cheeses, mainly international style cheeses made in the Mongolian way, including the iconic Khustai Gouda, Uyanga yak cheddar made by a local cooperative and aged by White Mountain, a Brie, a Camembert, a peppered Pecorino, a washed rind tomme, as well as fresh mozzarella, quark and ricotta. (2)  MACU has just introduced Mongolia’s first blue cheese – Mongolian Blue, a cow milk cheese that is closer in style to a Foume d’Ambert than Stilton in texture but develops stronger flavours over time.  At the moment all the cheeses, with the exception of the yak cheddar are made with cow milk. They have put off cheeses made with other animal milk, such as goat, sheep and camel, until next year when the new countryside plants open.

Mongolian Blue featured in a cheese platter of MACU cheese to celebrate 4th of July
Image courtesy of MACU
US Ambassador Michael Klecheski and his wife Eloissa with Morrow at Fromagerie MACU
Image courtesy of MACU

Back at White Mountain plant, Yanzi and Mike hardly have an idle moment. As Mongolia does not have a deep pool of homegrown cheesemakers to hire from, they have had to look abroad for talent to join them. White Mountain plant has seen a succession of overseas cheesemakers joining and leaving.  The reasons are invariably connected to the extreme climatic conditions and unfamiliar living conditions.  Retention of talented staff and staff training remain their number one priority, as well as increasing the repertoire of products.

With a young family of two daughters to raise, Yanzi and Mike have embarked on a long and challenging journey to give socio-economic and ecological sustainability to nomadic communities and to develop Mongolia into a world-recognised producer of cheese. Currently more than 95% of Mongolia’s own cheese consumption is met with imports.  The journey has been fraught with challenges but also filled with rewards, rewards of being recognised by the privileged few who have had the opportunity to taste their products.  The success of MACU will be Yanzi and Mike’s legacy to this landlocked country.

I started my conversations with this amazing couple back in February. I recently caught up with them again for their updates. Summer is their peak season for cheesemaking and also cheese plant construction.  While they just welcomed on board a new member to their cheesemaking team, a 66-year-old lady cheesemaker in search of nomadic lifestyle, they also lost some staff. According to Mike, staff disappearance at the beginning of July is not uncommon in Mongolia, with some never to reappear!  

I spent some more time with Yanzi. She was very kind to share with us her background, experience and thoughts on cheesemaking for Asians.

Yanzi is MACU’s Operations Manager and cheesemaker.  She originally comes from Ying Xian 应县in Shanxi 山西 province, China.  Her village is famous for the “Muta” 木塔, the tallest and oldest fully wooden pagoda in China, built in 1056 by the Khitan people, ancestors of the Mongols, when they led the Liao Dynasty. Fate had her sent to Mongolia from Beijing, while working in a different industry.  In 2014, her husband Mike decided that cheesemaking would become the family business after his encounter with Tumurkhuyag Urtnasan.  Mike had the vision but not the ‘touch’. So Yanzi took up the profession and enrolled into a number of training programmes to get up to speed in the shortest time possible. She completed most of her training in France and the UK.  Her expertise is fresh, soft, bloomy rind and semi-hard cheeses.  She created cheeses such as “Tsaagankhar”, “Piko” and “Larch” for the White Mountain Cheesemaking Plant’s major hotel clients, such as Ulaanbaatar’s Shangri-La and Kempinski Hotels.(2)

MACU cheeses served at an upmarket hotel buffet
Image courtesy of MACU

IN: How and when did you decide to become a cheesemaker?  Was there a particular incident or personality that triggered your interest in taking up this career?

YZW: I began to get interested in 2014. In 2016 we set up an experimental atelier in an abandoned student cafeteria near the Mongolian Agriculture University. We tried to train others but they did not stay. [During this experimental phase], I discovered I had a feel for the milk and my cheeses weren’t so bad.

IN: Do you remember how you felt when you tasted the first cheese you made?

YZW: Being Chinese from the countryside, it was all new to me. At first, I didn’t like any cheese. It was more the challenge of making cheeses that people liked that got me to begin paying attention to smell, taste and texture – especially that of Mozzarella and Brie. I discovered that I’m pretty good at it. I have a sensitive nose and acute taste buds and I can ‘feel’ the curd!

IN: Which is your favourite cheese amongst the cheeses that you make? Please tell us what it tastes like.  And why it is your favourite? 

YZW: I am happy with my Mozzarella and bloomy rind cheeses. But I kind of invented a semi-hard cow-milk cheese we call “Larch”. It’s buttery and a little acidic when young, but gets progressively more nutty and fungal. I like to let the rind harden rough and brown like a Pecorino. It’s my favorite because I worked it up myself and I like tasting it myself, and because others like it too.

IN: Is making cheese in Mongolia very different from making cheese in Europe or US, using France, UK and USA as examples?  What are the principal challenges and advantages?

YZW: I studied in France with MONS for less than a month, made Cheddar for a couple of days in England, and spent a few days visiting small cheesemakers in the US. I don’t know much. We are beginners. Everything here is difficult, but also everything is open. We also have good quality whole milk directly from the animals. We have yaks, goats, sheep and camels as well as cows. Mongolia is one big grassland with various micro environments and wild grass of various kinds everywhere. It’s paradise for creative cheesemakers if you can put up with all the problems and the climate, which is sunny but harsh.

IN: Historically in Europe, cheesemaking was a woman’s job at the farm and the technique was passed from mother to daughter. Would you recommend cheesemaking to other women in Mongolia as a profession?  Why or why not?

YZW: It is the same here. Unlike Chinese, Mongolian women have a long, rich association with milk animals, milking and making things from milk. Cheese in the European sense didn’t develop because of the nomadic lifestyle and very cold and dry climate, but cheesemaking comes easily to Mongolian country women. We don’t have to recommend cheesemaking to women here. Some are already making European cheeses. We are training more. More will follow naturally as artisan cheesemaking gets better established here.

Mongolian ladies milking goats
Image courtesy of MACU

IN: As the MACU logo suggests, cheesemakers in Mongolia work with milk from different animals – goats, sheep, cows, yaks and camels.  You learnt cheesemaking in France and the UK.  Could you share with us how you have had to adapt certain techniques to work with different milk origins?

YZW: I personally only work with cow’s milk. But even that is different. As a result of the wild, hardy grasses and the dry conditions, the cows may give only 4 liters of milk instead of the normal 40 litres, and the dry climate makes cheesemaking very different here. The milk smells stronger and earthier here. I also feel it when I run my hands through the milk. Perhaps it is because we only use whole milk to make cheese here.

Mongol Alatau Nomadic Pastoral Cow
Image courtesy of MACU

Other of our [MACU] cheesemakers are making cheese with whole yak milk. It’s got up to 8% butterfat.  These are great cooking cheeses. Mike is busy developing cheeses from other animals with other cheesemakers, but so far I only eat them!

I make cheese at our own White Mountain cheese plant on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.  To get yak and goat and sheep milk one has to go to other parts of Mongolia.  We’re working with local partners in such places. They come to White Mountain for training. Maybe this summer I will get a chance to go to them and make cheeses from other milks.

I like Pecorino so I am most interested in trying my hand at sheep milk cheeses.

Milking yaks
Image courtesy of MACU

IN: Which cheese do you admire the most from Europe? Why do you admire it?

YZW: I like Pecorino. It’s so many cheeses in one, changing from one to the other depending on how you age it.  It also seems to change noticeably from one locale or cheesemaker to another. Also, most people seem to like it.

I make an imitation peppered Pecorino from cow’s milk. We call it “Tsagaankhar” (White-Black). It is a great buffet cheese. The serving dish empties quickly.  But if I teach someone else to make it, it won’t be the same cheese.

IN: What motivates you?  What drives you?

YZW: Survival. My husband is crazy.

IN: Who is your hero?  Is there a personality who has inspired you the most in your life?  Or a cheesemaker you would like to create a cheese with?

YZW: Susan Sturman is not a cheesemaker exactly, but she arranged my training in France and helped me when I had difficulty because of the language barrier. She is an example to me of how cheesemaking can be more than a business, how it can be an activity that builds understanding and friendship from one part of the world to another.

Yanzi’s hero Sue Sturman

IN: What is your vision/ambition for Mongolian cheeses?

YZW: We have worked very hard to establish Mongolian cheeses. Our goal is to develop a network of 100 cheese plants and at least 200 good cheeses.

IN: What will be your advice to fellow Mongolians or Asians who wish to enter into the cheese profession, either as a cheesemaker or cheesemonger?

YZW: Don’t do it if you aren’t prepared for a lot of difficulties and frustrations. Don’t forget it is a business. But also make it more than a business. Focus on being as good as you can be. Quality precedes quantity in artisan cheesemaking.

IN: If you were a cheese, which one it would be?  And why?

YZW: I already answered that — a Pecorino. It’s a cheese for all seasons, an interesting cheese that most people like.

Pecorinos!
Image courtesy of MACU

Notes:

(1) Opening hours for The Formagerie, MACU are 0730-2200 Mondays-Fridays, 0930-2200 on Saturdays and 1000-1700 on Sundays.

(2) The current MACU product offering includes:

Khustai Gouda made by Tumurkhuyag Urtnasan’s Ligiin Ukhaa LLC,

Uyanga Yak Cheddar made by Ov Suu Cooperative; and

the following cheeses made by White Mountain Cheese & Diary:

Khaan Brie, Khus Camembert, Uul Reblochon, Tsagaankar (a peppered Pecorino-style cheese made with cow milk), Larch (a washed rind tomme), Sar, Tosgon, Mongolian Blue, fresh mozzarella, pizza mozzarella, quark, cream cheese (for the Fromagerie’s cheesecakes only) and ricotta.

They are currently developing other washed rind cheeses and scarmoza.

All cheeses are made with cow milk, except for the yak cheddar that is made by Ov Suu Cooperative and aged by White Mountain for up to two years.

About the author:

Ivy is an independent cheese and wine educator based in Hong Kong. At Cheese & Wine HK (https://cheeseandwinehk.com) she collaborates with quality suppliers of both cheese and wine to organise educational and creative tasting events. Talking Cheese in Asia is cheese specialist Ivy Ng’s interview-based series on the movers and shakers in Asia’s burgeoning cheese world. 

 

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