It’s hard for us to grasp how a young Brazilian mother managed to spend 2 days making cheese with a nomadic Mongolian family! But, she did and now all of us here at NECS want desperately to do the same thing. It was the adventure of a lifetime and we’re delighted that Mariana Veiga shared it with us:
Moscow to Beijing with a Stop in Mongolia to Make Cheese
By Mariana Veiga
I’ve been making cheese as a hobby for about 5 years. Although I love doing this, I live in a small apartment in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and I don’t have much room to make a big batch or to store some nice supplies like a press or a dedicated fridge. I make my cheeses – mostly brie – on weekends on the kitchen counter and mature them in the fridge side by side with the groceries. Yet, I am very happy and proud of my production. 🙂
Traveling is another hobby of mine and every year my husband and I pick a new place to visit. In the past three years, we bring along Francisco, our son born on Nov. 27, 2013 – almost the same day as baby Jocelyn (the Cheese Queen’s grandchild)!
Last June we took the most amazing journey of our lives: the Trans-Siberian railway. We crossed the entire of Russia, Mongolia and finished the trip in Beijing, China.
The highlight of it was by far the cheese making experience I had with a nomadic family in Mongolia.
As soon as I learned Mongolians have an interesting tradition in making cheese, we rescheduled some of our plans to spend two days and one night with the nomads and to have a glimpse of their traditions.
And this is what I wanted to share with you:
The whole trip (from Moscow to Beijing) took us 25 days and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, was our only stop in the country.
From there, we hired a company that made the arrangements with our hosting family and drove us to their ger, a traditional felt round tent where the nomads live. They were settled at the Hustai National Park, a protected area in the Mongolian steppe.
The family kindly welcomed us with some chunks of their typical curd. It was very acidic, a little hard and light brownish. Although nothing similar to what I am used to, it tasted interesting and somehow initiated that amazing chapter of our journey.
No one from the family spoke English. Our guide did but I wasn’t next to him 100% of the time. When he wasn’t around, we tried to communicate through mimics and smiles. All of them were very lovely and as curious about us as we were of them.
As I had previously stated, I loved making cheese and wanted to be part of their dairy-related chores, I was invited to make yogurt.
Usually the families have a single ger (tent) but in our case, our hosts had one that served as a large bedroom and another with a wood-burning stove and other kitchen supplies. Through mimics, I added a culture to the warm milk, stirred a little and poured another batch into a cloth sack.
It was nice to bond with them but the yogurt wasn’t very different from the one I make at home.
The coolest part came right after that, when I started to work on the curds, on the ground, and under the sun. I was amazed with their “cheese press:” a heavy rock pressing the cloth sack against the ground.
The whey drained directly on the grass and that’s it. No fancy wood working or technology. I thought to myself that I should be more creative before complaining I didn’t have room for a cheese press!
A family member carefully opened one cloth sack and removed a big round piece of fresh curd. He took a string and showed me how to cut the curd with it.
Using gestures all the time, he helped me with the right size and to lay the pieces on a straw shelf under the sun. It felt really good being there, with no concerns in my mind, with my son playing with their child and my husband taking pictures of my own private cheese adventure.
It was mid-July and the temperature was around 85F. The curds laid there along with the curds from previous days. The older ones were a little darker, harder and tasted bitter.
After that, we milked their cows.
As we understood, they breed their cattle throughout the year and slaughter them only during the fall, in order to get ready for the winter (which can get as cold as -5F!) By the time we stayed there, the single family had about 900 goats and 300 cows/oxen. The idea is to store as much curd as they can. In the winter, they pour hot water in a bowl with the curd and have their daily dairy serving.
After the milking process, we had something similar to yakisoba for dinner, with more curd and milk. By the way, they had milk at every meal: from breakfast to supper.
Most of the family members decided to sleep at some relatives’ and the remaining ones went to bed early. We put our son to sleep and went outside our ger to take amazing pictures.
The moon was full and we took our sleeping bags outside to sleep under the moonlight. We tried to sleep for about one hour but the ground was very hard and we were not properly equipped for that. Yet, we went back inside thrilled with the whole experience.
In the morning, we had breakfast that included the yogurt I made the previous day. It tasted very bitter and the sugar cubes we were given didn’t dissolve much. But – again – it just made the experience more fun. We started packing and saying goodbye was very hard. After spending almost 24 hours with them, I felt a heart-warming connection which I’ll cherish forever. Our son didn’t want to leave and hugged their son until the last minute.
Well, I thought you might like this report. I thought of your website the whole time we stayed there. I even allowed my husband to take pictures of me (which is something I hate) just to show you how the experience was like.
Here’s a video I made with our faces changing along the way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?