As a cheese lover, before travelling you naturally think about what places you could add to your itinerary that involve cheese, so much so that strategizing your way through a new city by making your co-travelers think you passed their desired destination by fortunate accident can become quite a tricky task.
But when we decided on a trip to Taiwan, the last thing I expected to see or try was cheese. And let´s be honest, who would think that in this country, full though it is of wide-eyed life-size comic figures, dogs in strollers, and garbage trucks that announce themselves twice a day to the music of Beethoven, cheese is something you can actually find.
Well, it is. But I am not speaking of a well-sorted fromagerie, packed to the top with international delicacies by the famous makers.
No, an adventurous couple started their own journey to bring the white gold to the terrain of Taiwan.
In 2015 Henry Gerard, a photographer from California, and Brenda Foung, a Taiwanese digital music marketer, both quit their jobs to follow their passion of cheese making and created their own cheese label, “DIDA cheese”.
But how do you manage to organize and sustain a creamery in a country where cheese has no historical tradition? How do you gain the tools to produce and sell something no one knows they want? The answer is you have to be creative, innovative and very brave.
Since space on the peninsula in general is limited and due to the lack of grassy areas, the farmers have to import hay at high costs. The price of cow’s milk – up to four times higher than in Europe – therefore raises the costs of cheese production. The cheaper goat milk, on the other hand, gets more expensive during the winter months because the Taiwanese like to drink it during the cold season as part of a health program. And sheep’s milk does not really exist at all.
To find a farmer who understands how to deliver a constant quality of milk that met Brenda and Henry’s standards and who still would keep the cheese affordable for the consumer was therefore the first task the couple had to take and they most certainly managed to overcome it.
(Although they keep him in such constant work that he now apparently drives a Mercedes.)
As if this wouldn´t be enough, Taiwan with its Taifun season, non-existent basements, and total lack of natural caves makes the maturing of cheese a true adventure.
And Brenda and Henry don´t want to play it safe and just produce fresh cheeses. They experiment with the aging of cheese under tough conditions, using aging fridges and a humidified aging room. But holding stable conditions even with technical help is often a draining undertaking.
The “Frankencheese” is an example of their alchemistic approaches as it developed out of a breakdown of the humidifier; Henry, instead of giving up on the batch, wrapped a cheese from that batch and one from a batch where the humidifier functioned into a bundle and ended up with an interwoven and wonderfully oozy couple.
So how do Taiwanese people react to the new dairy that reached their country?
“People who are new to cheese – people from the neighbourhood – they are curious.
Some people, if they are new, start from very fresh cheese like mozzarella or maybe younger, like a young goat cheese. Because they can take that. Because it´s actually somewhat more like a bread dough, mild and easy-going. That´s also a reason why a big part of our cheese is fresh. So people come in and get invited.
And they can actually relate the washed rind cheese to a traditional food here, which is the bean curd. Fermented. For example a grandma the other day tasted the washed rind and was like…’oh, this is similar to what I know.’ And that´s how they get in. “
Henry: “The wonderful thing about Taiwan is that it is so small. You can do these kind of things. Little projects. You can do it and they then say – oh, that´s really weird. But let´s try it. People here are open to trying new things.”
Following this credo, Brenda and Henry also tried new things and are still doing so every day. They managed to be almost entirely self-taught cheesemakers, to find milk producers that met their standards, and to successfully train their employees who up to that point had never even tasted cheese. They deliver to stores and restaurants and are planning on their own herd of goats.
Among their 14 different kind of cheese you find Mozzarella, various goat cheeses, a hickory woodchip smoked Scamorza, a very tasty cow’s milk “pecorino”, their special Sierra Madre al Monte, a manchego-recipe 3-month aged cow’s milk cheese smeared with olive oil and organic Californian paprika – and our tasting heroes the washed rind and the white washed rind cheeses, both of which stand up to international comparison.
There is much to see in Taiwan and lots of incredible food to try, but make sure not to miss out on a visit to Brenda and Henry in their Dida Creamery, to be found in Taichung about one hour south of Taipei.