"Tibetan Yak Cheese". The name itself sounds a bit mysterious and more than a little absurd.
I first heard about Yak cheese in May, during Tibetan Yak Cheese Week. Ironically, having to sell cheese prevented me from going to the event, but I kept the thought in the back of my head. When I found out iGourmet* carried it, I had to try some.
Is Yak Cheese nothing like any cheese you've ever tried before (as I hoped when I heard about it)? Well, yes and no. Texture-wise, the cheese strongly reminds me of French Pyrenees sheep cheeses like Ossau Iraty; firm and dense with bits of crunch throughout. It is not quite as lush and rich, though. In fact, Yak Cheese is a bit hard and dry. I can only assume this is due to the difference in the yak's milk.
It's no surprise that there are similarities, since both are mountain cheeses, although the Tibetan Plateau overshadows the mountain valleys in France just a bit. To make a comparison with a familiar flavor, I found the taste to be most like sheep, with a strong grassiness (not that odd considering the yak's diet consists completely of wild grasses with no silage) and a gamy flavor I can only classify as “yakky”. I don’t see myself using that term again anytime soon. The cheese was actually pretty complex, managing to be both mild and layered with flavor at the same time.
Almost more than the cheese itself, the story behind it peaks my interest. The development of this cheese is due in no small part to Jonathan White, member of the Grassland Cheese Consortium and one of the cheese makers at Bobolink Dairy, who went to Tibet to help develop a cheese suitable for the export market. Truthfully, it seems the nomadic yak herders who produce this cheese have no history of cheese making, though yak milk is often used for butter. The idea was to give the nomads a chance to earn additional, sustainable income, not some haute gourmet ideal. It’s a cheese you can get behind morally as well as culinarily.
If you're interested in learning more I'd strongly recommend checking out the information available on the Grassland Cheese consortium . here.
After that, head on over to iGourmet, where it's available for 10.99 per 1/2# chunk, and you too can use “yakky” in a sentence!
*As a side note, this also represented my first cheese shipment from iGourmet. Due to their vast selection of cheeses, I've recommended them here many times, but never actually tried them myself. I am happy to report that it came within 2 days of ordering, surrounded by ice packs and tightly shrink-wrapped. Though the shrink-wrap made it feel a little clinical, the cheese arrived in excellent shape. I received this order as a present, but I would not hesitate to order any cheese that was not available locally from them. Though their prices are good, they do not outweigh the hefty shipping costs, which takes them out of the running for everyday cheese sources, since I live in New York.