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Yak Cheese: Coming to California Soon?

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Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons License


Getting into Tibet is not impossible. But in order to do so, you need to fill out reams of paperwork, get a Chinese visa, obtain a Tibetan permit with a travel group, then cross your fingers and hope they let you in. And if you're granted access, then you get to pay a decent amount of tariff money, follow the same general itinerary as other tourists, and then leave.

Of course, there's another way. You could do what Timothy and Oliver Jolis did: sneak in.

That was not the original plan. Initially, the Jolis Brothers didn't have plans to visit the autonomous region. Their international jaunt started with a flight to Hong Kong, before traversing the wide expanse of mainland China, hiking through the Himalayas, and landing at the eastern border of Pakistan. That was as far as they could get.

"They wouldn't let us cross the border because we didn't have any paperwork," Timothy Jolis said. "So we looked at a map."

Nearby was the western border of Tibet. Whereas the usual entry point into the region starts at the eastern part of China, the western border is pretty remote. So, the brothers hitchhiked and got dropped off a short distance from one of the guard gates in the middle of the night. "We peeked through the window, and the guard was sleeping, so we just walked underneath and into town," Timothy said.

(It wasn't all easy though. "At one point, we did get stopped by a cop," Timothy said. But after charming her by fawning over her excellent English, she let them slide. "My brother is really good at that kind of thing.")

They toured the hills, villages, and monasteries of Tibet over the next month. During that time, they constantly came across one specific animal. "We were surprised at how ubiquitous yaks were when we were traveling," Timothy said.

Photo:Oliver Jolis


Tibetans have been keeping these tremendous creatures -- an adult yak bull can reach 1400 pounds, cows get to 700 pounds -- for over 2,000 years. And they use them for just about everything:

Tibetans are warmed by yak-dung fires and lit by yak-butter lamps; they eat yak meat and yak blood, butter, cheese, and yoghurt; they use yaks for transport and weave clothing, blankets, shelters, and even boats out of yak hair.

One of Tibet's staple dishes is tsampa, which is yak butter pounded together with salted tea then toasted with barley flour. It's an acquired taste, but the brothers took to it almost immediately. "[The monasteries] would push tsamba on us," said Timothy, "And my brother, he's a big athletic guy, he'd eat the monastery out of it."

During their month "at the roof of the world," the two vegetarian brothers realized what their goal would be when they returned home: to bring yak cheese to California.

The current plan calls for a partnership with a dairy in Paso Robles, a location that gives them close proximity to both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Timothy will be handling the cheesemaking aspects (he's been learning the trade in New York), while Oliver will manage the farm and tend the yaks. "He's more of an outdoor person," Timothy said of his brother. The yaks will be shipped in from Colorado.

Which isn't to say this plan is going to be as simple as, say, sneaking into Tibet. First of all, they have quite a bit to go to reach their Kickstarter goal. (As of now, they have nearly $17,000 to make in a tad over three weeks.) On top of that is the amount of yaks they'd actually need to produce enough milk for cheese; yaks don't produce as much milk as cows and funding for the project only affords them to purchase three yaks. "That's definitely going to be a challenge," Timothy said. But even if it does get funded, will Californians want to eat yak cheese?

"I've been getting comments that yak cheese doesn't taste good," Timothy said, "but it's actually delicious."

Taste, of course, is on the tongue of the beholder. If you've never partaken before, according to a review of yak cheese, the flavor is:

[D]isarmingly mild, with a clean, delicate milky flavor, which is totally different from sheep, cow, goat or mares' milk cheeses. After about 30 seconds on the palate, the taster becomes aware of a growing complexity of herbal notes, with the flavor continuing to develop and building to a crescendo in about 120 seconds. The afternotes are a clean, pleasant, fading collection of milky, herbal and sharp-sweet.

There's another selling point in favor of yak cheese that may be particularly important to health-conscious Californians:

[Y]ak cheese had a lower overall fat content and, compared with cow's milk cheese, contained much higher levels of heart-healthy "good fats" such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids.

Also, as Timothy points out, "It's a great protein for vegetarians."

Will the yak dairy in Paso Robles ever become a reality? That'll be mostly up to how deep those wallets of Kickstarter donors go. But if it does, then we'll all be able to give the exotic flavor of yak cheese a try without, you know, risking an international incident.

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