AS recently as three decades ago, good quality cheese was a rarity in Thailand. The best you could expect was packets of bland-tasting slices made from reconstituted milk. It was a bad time for expats brought up on this delicious and highly nutritious food. Then, thanks mostly to overseas travel, Thais gradually developed a taste for cheese and to the delight of homesick foreigners a whole new market quickly opened up.
In addition to a mini-avalanche of imported cheeses now sold through local supermarkets, a number of entrepreneurs saw the potential of locally made versions of this great food and decided to cash in.
Among them was Jo Stevens, a Brit who has spent most of her life living and working in Asia, including Thailand for the past 17 years. Her introduction to cheese-making came improbably enough while visiting a friend in Ooty in southern India. The lady had established a small dairy farm that took advantage of the old hill station’s cool climate to make a number of cheeses such as parmesan, feta and mozzarella, and over a period of just two weeks happily passed on her tricks of the trade to Jo.
Equipped with this new know-how, Jo returned to Bangkok and set about creating her own cheesery. With zero background in the food industry, it proved a tough assignment involving many different, delicate and time-consuming processes, from pasteurizing the milk (delivered fresh to her doorstep from a small farm on the outskirts of Bangkok) to adding appropriate cultures and vital ingredients like imported rennet to the mix while ensuring that all surfaces and containers are thoroughly sterilized and preparations areas temperature controlled.
Two and half years’ experimentation later, she now makes not just one cheese but many varieties, traditional as well as spicy, and some that are spectacularly exotic and probably unavailable elsewhere in Thailand.
Today, under the label ‘Jo’s Artisan Cheese’ her output includes established varieties like mature cheddar, ‘Bangkok’ blue cheese, feta and Caerphilly.
Among the more adventurous varieties is a Spanish porcini manchego cheese with truffles, several smoked kinds of cheese, as well as cheeses with porcini mushrooms, garlic and smoked paprika. Jo has also created a range of cheddars with rum and port, along with Wensleydale with mango, and Fromage Blanc infused with smoked paprika, herbs and garlic.
Working alone from her Sukhumvit home, she currently produces 32 kilogrammes of cheese a month. In addition to a legion of friends, Jo’s customers include Bangkok restaurants and hotels. Buyers are split, more or less, equally between Thais and westerners. Interestingly, Jo has noted that her cheeses are proving popular with young Japanese.
She’s also a regular fixture at local farmer’s markets, where her prices start from roughly 200 baht per 100 grammes.
Jo, who has three daughters and three grandchildren, says the next step is to expand her workspace and output. “I want to get out of my kitchen at home and double my production. This could mean opening a deli-café selling other things like bread and chutneys. But I want to keep it simple.”