The Golok Prefecture is at the center of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, an enormous oval plain with stretches of land so long and flat that the nomads thick yak wool tents can be seen from miles away. At this altitude of 4,500 meters, the lush green meadows are broken by hundreds of hardy low-flowering plants and by the tall, arched backs of grazing black and white yaks. Eagles are a regular sight overhead, and flocks of goats and sheep also feed on the high plains grass. The yaks graze the pastures in the plains surrounding Maqin County in Golok Prefecture and in the high, deep valleys that extend from the plains. These animals are the main resource of the nomadic herders, supplying meat and milk for food, wool for canvas and tents, and dung for fuel.
The milk from the female yak, called dri is often drunk fresh or made into yogurt. The most important product made from the milk is butter, which is usually eaten fresh or can be preserved for long. It is also used in butter tea, made from tea leaves, yak butter and salt. At a small dairy located about an hour’s drive from the renowned Ragya monastery in a magnificent valley near Golok, Tibetan cheese makers produce a range of cheeses from dri milk that arrives in the dairy just an hour after milking. At the Snowland dairy, copper cheese-making vats are heated by burning thick dung paddies and the cheese is made twice a day.
The cheeses made in these extreme conditions showcase the excellent pasture of the region. Yaks yield low quantities of dense, rich milk that can have as much as 7% fat. This milk is skimmed for cheesemaking and retains a splendid flavor similar to that of springtime sheep milk. The cheese can taste like a rough pecorino, and the aged forms develop strong, grassy scents tempered by the milk’s natural richness.
Traditionally, local products include the aforementioned yogurt, butter and hard cheese designed with long nomadic hikes in mind. Fresh products cannot be distributed easily, as the nearest market is a long ride away. In order to produce a cheese that showcases the excellent quality of the milk from the pasture-fed yaks and to provide a viable income for the region's nomadic herders, it was therefore decided that the best product would be a medium-to-long-aged cheese that could be easily transported. To do this, Trace Foundation and Slow Food started a collaboration with Avec-pvs (Veterinary Association for Cooperation in Developing Countries). Italian technicians, cheesemakers and veterinarians were sent to the Snowland dairy and worked alongside Tibetans for several months, testing different techniques and providing training courses. A small aging facility was built to provide optimal conditions for the aging of the cheese.
Maqin County, Golok Prefecture, Qinghai Province
Avec-pvs (Veterinary Association for Cooperation in Developing Countries)