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Talking Cheese in Asia: Who is Brenda Foung?

A creamery born out of love - Brenda Foung and Henry Gerard made a life-changing decision in 2015 to create a creamery in Taichung and to have more time watching their son grow up. I talk to Brenda about the challenges and rewards of life as a cheesemaker and their aspirations for the Taiwanese cheese industry.

“If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.” So when Californian Henry Gerard was frustrated with not being able to find good quality cheese in his adopted home Taiwan, he decided that he would make his own. 

A media project took Henry to Taiwan where he met his native Taiwanese wife Brenda Foung at a mutual friend’s Thanksgiving party where Henry was the guest chef.  It did not take them long to realise that they complemented each other perfectly: Henry is a passionate amateur chef and Brenda is hopeless in the kitchen! Soon after they got married about 10 years ago, Henry decided it was time to address an issue that had been frustrating him for a while. 

He took up the challenge of cheesemaking, initially as a hobby. Brenda’s sister identified for them a source of raw milk in the south of Taiwan. [In Taiwan, dairy farms typically sell their milk to large dairy corporates.  It is uncommon for a dairy farm to conduct business with individuals.]  It was early 2015 when both their full-time jobs, Brenda’s in music media and Henry’s in advertising, came to a natural conclusion.  Despite the “hardship”, they had found cheesemaking fun and inspiring.  Together Brenda and Henry made a life-changing decision to make cheese full time so that they could spend more time with their young son.

Henry Gerard and his son in the Dida workshop
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

The first consideration was space.  To make cheese on a commercial scale requires a bigger space which would be costly in Taipei.  They eventually decided to relocate to Taichung where Brenda’s sister also lives. The other advantage about Taichung is that it’s much closer to the source of milk – it still takes Henry a 4-hour round trip for milk collection.  [CWHK: Transporting raw milk over a long distance can negatively impact the quality of milk for cheesemaking.]

The second consideration was finding a name for their new venture that would suitably resonate their family-oriented values, a name that would convey a warm, fuzzy feeling, as Brenda put it. They eventually decided on “Dida” (pronounced “Deeda”).  When their son was little, he could not pronounce “Daddy”, instead he would say “Dida”!  Thus, Dida Creamery was born.

Dida Creamery in Taichung
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

Four years on, Brenda and Henry are still loving their second career and treasuring the time they enjoy together as a family.  I talk to Brenda about being a pioneer artisan cheesemaker, the challenges of finding the right quality milk and their aspirations for the Taiwanese cheese industry.

CWHK: Was it a difficult decision to launch yourselves into cheesemaking?

BF: Taiwan provided us with the right environment to do something crazy. Here there is a strong sense of identity, a sense of belonging to a community that nurtures creativity, and the freedom to express one’s entrepreneurial spirit and creativity and individual ideas.  The setup cost is also relatively low here.

CWHK: Did you do any market research before you launched Dida Creamery?

BF: No, we didn’t! We just thought that people would get excited about our products. At the time, we were the first artisan cheesemaker in Taiwan.

Apple pie with Dida creme fraiche
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

CWHK: What was your biggest challenge when you scaled up from home workshop to commercial production?

BF: We had lots of challenges scaling up, but I would say our biggest challenge was maintaining the consistency of our products. Henry only went to study cheesemaking in Calabria, Italy for a couple of weeks before he started making cheese.  He mostly fine-tuned his skills through trial and error. However, he had no one to consult if something went wrong. He would be following the same procedure but not getting consistent results.

About two years ago, we came across this Master Cheesemaker from Turino, Italy – Rolando Giovannacci. Rolando has spent most of his career roaming the globe to consult cheesemakers in different countries, including France, Mexico, USA, Japan and other Asian countries. He is now 74 years old and showing no signs of slowing down. Mozzarella is his specialty but I think of him more as a living cheese encyclopaedia.  You name the cheese and he’ll give you the recipe of how to make it on the spot! 

Rolando first came to us two years ago to help Henry with the issues in Mozzarella making. At the time Henry’s Mozzarella was not soft enough and the result was not consistent. Then he stayed one month.  Rolando came back a second time and stayed two months, at our tiny home!  Earlier this year, he came and stayed three months.  I think he’s coming back end of the year for another visit. 

Rolando’s visits have made such a big difference to Henry’s cheesemaking, to be able to have someone to bounce off ideas and to consult. In a way, it’s as if Henry is now experiencing the internship that he never had the chance to do when we started out.

Dida burrata with rocket salad
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

CWHK: Has it been easy identifying a steady source of quality raw milk?

BF: When we first moved to Taichung, we were very happy to have found a farm that would sell us raw milk, about 40 minutes drive away. Then something happened to their son and we had to identify another source. This just shows how vulnerable these farming businesses are, that their sustainability could be easily affected by family issues. We switched to another farm but we were not too happy with the quality of the milk. So last year we moved to another farm – in fact it’s one of a number of farms owned and run by someone with a scientific background.  The owner recruits students from the Animal Science discipline to work on the farms. They adopt a scientific approach to breeding and raising the cows to optimise their well-being, productivity and lactation life.  However, the most important thing for us is to see that the cows are happy and healthy in a clean environment.  This farm is a bit further away, about 2 hours away.  Henry typically leaves home at 4:45 am and collects the raw milk in our refrigerated van.  He does it 3 times a week.

99% of the cows in Taiwan are Holstein cows and they are only fed on hay, hence the lower lactose and beta-carotene content.  Cows do not have the luxury of grazing on pastures here.  We would love to have access to milk from Jersey cows for their higher fat content.  But in the summer time, even the milk from Holstein cows can achieve around 3.8% fat content, which is pretty good.

We do our own pasteurisation here, at 63°C for 30 minutes (Low-Temperature-Long-Time pasteurisation). 

Dida shop fridge
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

CWHK: Do you take 100% of this farm’s milk supply?

BF: This farm produces about 2 tons of milk a day.  We need to make much more cheese to take 100% of the supply!  It would be great if the farm would supply 100% of the milk to us though. We could then have some influence over the type of feed for the cows to give more complexity to our cheese.

CWHK: And how about goat milk?  Where do you source it?

BF: We have two sources of goat milk.  One is about 40 minutes away, and the goats feed on garlic husks.  The farmer believes that this gives stronger flavour to the goat milk.  We use this milk in our Crema Goat, which is like feta cheese.  It gives it a tangy yoghurt-like flavour.

The other source is further away and the goats feed on edamame. As a result, the milk has a sweeter taste!

CWHK: Dida now has a wide range of cheese products Which is the cheese you are most proud of?

BF: We now have about 30 different products. I guess our favourites are the aged cheese. However, I would say where we do best is our ability to create our own recipe.  We do not necessarily follow traditional recipes.  For example, one of our best-sellers “Red Kite” (previously known as “Reddy Rite”).  It was originally based on the recipe for Saint Nectaire.  Henry adapted the original recipe to create our own version.

Red Kite
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

Another one is “Saison”.  It’s now a different version to the one that you (ie CWHK) tried earlier. The new version will have the Penicillium Candidum mould injected into the culture and then it will be washed in beer during its ageing in a controlled environment. This would allow the bacteria and yeasts to overcome the Penicillium Candidum.  The previous version had the cheese vacuum packaged and this limited the growth of bacteria and yeasts.

Cheese Tower by Dida
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

CWHK: How many people work at Dida?

BF: Henry currently has two assistants for cheesemaking but he looks after the affinage (ripening) part himself. I look after the sales and marketing.  And Henry collects the milk.

Henry is getting old [CWHK: No, he is not!].  He cannot do everything himself. We are going to France during Chinese New Year – hopefully we will be able to find someone to come and work with us.

CWHK: What are your future plans for Dida?

BF: Looking ahead, we need to maximise our output and streamline our cheesemaking processes and product offerings.  We also want to expand our white mould cheese offerings (surface-ripened).  We love mushrooms! [CWHK: Brie-type cheeses develop the mushroom aroma and flavour complexity during the ageing process.]  At the moment, we do not make it in the summer because it’s too hot and it would be too costly to get it right.

Dida raclette melting onto a dinner plate
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

CWHK: What is your aspiration for the cheese industry in Taiwan?

BF: I hope that we will see more “MADE IN TAIWAN” cheese, that we can all be proud of our products made locally.  Unlike other countries, Taiwan does not have a cheese history. Hopefully one day we will identify the one cheese (or cheeses) that best represent(s) Taiwan.

Formosa Black Pepper
Image courtesy: Dida Creamery

CWHK: If you were a cheese, which one would it be and why?

BF: It would have to be a washed rind cheese. On the surface, it’s stinky and hard to approach. Once you get to the inside, it’s all soft and gooey, and it’s fabulous!

We ran out of time before I could ask Brenda about the next generation for Dida……I will save this question for our next interview!

Follow Dida Creamery at Facebook: @didacreamery

 

Author’s note: I had planned to visit Brenda and Henry in Taichung during my trip to Taipei. Unfortunately, my plan was scuppered by the approach of a super typhoon that caused the suspension of the train service to Taichung and the closure of businesses in Taipei. I was not able to reschedule my flight to visit them the following day.  Thanks to Brenda’s help, I managed to procure a small selection of Dida cheeses at a French wine shop in Taipei. The shop was closed but the staff kindly let me do some shopping while they caught up on their work.

My tasting platter of cheese by Dida Creamery

My selection included Chupie Goat, Saison, Reddy Rite (now renamed Red Kite), Sierra Madre and Formosa Raw.  My favourites were Reddy Rite and Sierra Madre.   

Aged for about 4 weeks, Reddy Rite/Red Kite has a dry natural tan/golden rind, showing specks of white mould. The ivory-coloured paste has a supple texture.  The taste is balanced, with buttery/sour cream notes, and a hint of nuttiness. For me, it is between a Saint Nectaire and a Port Salut.  I would pair this with a cider.

Aged for 5 months, the Sierra Madre is almost like a Manchego. It has a brown/grey dry rind, with specks of white mould. It is quite dry, with a firm texture. Earthy, with pineapple fruity notes.  Some quince paste would be perfect with this cheese.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. 


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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