Cheese has never really become part of local life in Taiwan, but in 2015, the first Taiwanese brand of cheese appeared on the market. American photographer, Henry Gerard, and his wife, Brenda Foung, have successfully brought knowledge from the West after countless trials and errors. Now they create unique Taiwan-flavored cheese with local raw milk, and have officially launched their own brand, “DIDA Cheese.”
Make Cheese? Start from finding suppliers of raw milk.
Many years ago, Henry came to Taiwan as a photographer, who also filmed music documentaries. He followed indigenous people into the mountains, and went all around Taiwan. The memories of experiencing the friendliness and hospitality of Taiwanese people are still vivid: “Usually when I stood outside of a restaurant with my friend, the owner would treat us and invite us to dine with them. At the end we felt so embarrassed that we didn’t want to get too close to restaurants anymore,” recalled Henry with a smile.
Years later, he joined one of the top foreign advertisement companies in Taiwan. Over the period of time, he saw that “Taiwanese young people were working for long hours with low payment, and they seemed to be so unhappy. I was often thinking about how I could encourage them.” Unexpectedly, now he himself has become one of the good examples for young people who want to start their own business. “All it takes is enough dedication, and enough nerve to jump in and do it!”
Henry always liked hand making. He liked to cook in his leisure time, making pizza and breads, and also growing vegetables on his own. After he found that there was no cheese made from local milk in Taiwan, he decided to try to make his own cheese. Cheese-making is not as easy as buying some milk at a store and just fermenting it. First of all, all the fresh milk sold to normal consumers is pasteurized at high temperatures, and has many additives to increase flavor, so there are no longer any good bacteria left alive for making cheese. Meanwhile, the quality of raw milk is one of the most important factors to making good cheese. Therefore, finding quality raw milk became Henry’s primary task.
However, in Taiwan, most raw milk produced by milk companies was purchased exclusively by corporations. “We had to find dairy farmers directly,” explained Brenda. So, how to find quality raw milk? Henry and Brenda visited dairy farms one after another in person, observing the environment of the farms with their own eyes, and finally found a dairy farmer who agreed to supply them with raw milk that met their expectation. “If we didn’t find such a good dairy farmer, we wouldn’t even have tried to make our own cheese. Without him, DIDA would not have been born,” they said appreciatively.
What were Henry and Brenda’s criteria for quality raw milk? In addition to scientific test results, they cared even more about the life-quality of cows. “The cows seemed happy! I like to see them running around on the grassland, jumping all over the place. I think that it’s precious to really get to know the cows in terms of their living environment and their emotional status.” They believed that the positive relationship between farmers and cows is crucial to producing quality milk.
Any detail makes differences: We can’t wholly count on SOP.
Witnessing how dairy farmers devoted themselves to their work, Henry told himself that he also had to work hard enough to respond to their efforts. Although some of his foreign friends didn’t believe in the quality of Taiwan’s milk, Henry said that was because they only bought the milk by big brands in the stores, and they didn’t know that they could actually buy milk directly from dairy farmers. Those brands over-processed their milk to stabilize the quality, sacrificing the real flavor of milk. “If you have the opportunity to witness how dairy farmers in Taiwan take care of their cows, you would believe how dedicated they are to their job.” In order to make the best use of Taiwanese milk to create good cheese, Henry went to Italy to acquire the knowledge of cheese-making. After coming back to Taiwan, he often made cheese overnight until 5 a.m. “I really wanted to prove that it is possible to make delicious cheese using Taiwanese milk.”
The procedure for making cheese is very complicated. After the raw milk is delivered, Henry and Brenda have to pasteurize it at 63°C as fast as possible, (The nutrition of the milk is able to be kept only with low temperature pasteurization.) and have it saved after quick-freezing. This is only step one. Later on, the milk will be fermented, coagulated, stirred, and heated. After the removal of the whey, it will be filtered and dried, and finally shaped.
What makes the whole process even more challenging is that there is no fixed SOP that they can follow. The temperature and humidity of the environment vary every day, so cheese makers have to rely on their experience to make adjustments to assure consistent quality. Also, the quality of raw milk is different in summer and winter as well, so the whole procedure has to be modified accordingly. Henry further explained that when the quantity of milk decreases in summer, he is not able to make some kinds of cheese, due to its high attrition rate.
When DIDA started last May, they soon faced the short supply of raw milk in summer for the first time. Henry recalled the nightmarish summer, “When we saw customers orders came in, we were so stressed out because there was nothing we could do without raw milk. And when we finally received the milk we needed, we failed to create the same flavor with our production procedure. We were sure that every step was done correctly, but why had the flavors changed?” The only things they could do were calming down and focusing on adjusting every subtle detail of the procedure, trying their best to produce the best cheese they could make. Looking back to that chaotic period of time, Henry and Brenda said, “We really appreciate those customers who supported us in the beginning. We need to thank them for accepting us as an immature brand.”
Insistence on using local milk becomes the support for Taiwan’s dairy farmers
“Through what we do, we hope that we can let Taiwanese people know that there are a lot of good products from Taiwan,” said Henry, who believes that the success of DIDA will show people the value of Taiwanese products. He further pointed out, “This is the great thing about Taiwan that people don’t know. All over the Western world, everyone is trying to get back to know where their food comes from. It’s a huge movement. Taiwan is such a small country, and you can know where everything comes from if you want to. My foreign friends didn’t believe the story of how easily I found the raw milk from the dairy farmer.”
In order to create cheese with even better flavor, Henry and Brenda are continuing to look for raw milk with a higher fat content, which brings a higher quality of coagulation and richer and thicker taste. “The average fat rate of Taiwan’s cows is 3.6-3.8%. However, the fat rate of Jersey cattle (a small breed of dairy cattle which were originally bred in the Channel Island of Jersey) can reach as high as 4%, so we are now looking for locally raised Jersey cattle,” said Brenda with her eyes sparkling. “If we can’t find it here, we hope that we can raise them on our own. In the past, cheese was often made by surplus milk; however, we hope to raise cows specifically for quality cheese. ”
Henry and Brenda’s passion for cheese is infectious. “You have to try cheese added with Taiwan chili. We grow and dry the chili ourselves.” “Look, the butter made by Taiwan’s milk is whiter, and the French butter is more yellowish. From this you can see the feature of local ingredients.” “Oh we are running out of stock for that cheese. We often can’t help but eat up the cheese we made….”
Their enthusiasm makes one believe the cheese will be delicious, even before one has tasted it. .
About Brenda Foung & Henry Gerard
Brenda worked at Wonderful Music Co. Ltd. and Warner Music Taiwan Ltd., specializing in digital music marketing. Henry was a photographer, filming documentaries all around Taiwan, and also worked at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising Taiwan. Six years ago, Henry started to try to use Taiwanese milk to make cheese. After self-learning for a few years, he went to Italy to further study cheese-making. In 2015, Brenda and Henry both quit their jobs and created “DIDA Cheese” brand.