“I couldn’t believe it, fresh buffalo mozzarella here in Laos,” says Marc Comparot, the executive chef at the Pullman Hotel Luang Prabang, recalling the moment three months ago when his sous chef told him about a nearby farm making just that. “We jumped in the car and went straight there. I’ve been using their product ever since.”
Comparot’s disbelief is perhaps understandable. After all, Laos is not known for its high-quality dairy products. Indeed, the Laos Buffalo Dairy is the country’s first and currently only farm using swamp buffalo milk to make a range of cheeses and yoghurts, as well as a rather delicious lemongrass ice cream.
“Most people here didn’t know you could even get milk from buffaloes,” laughs Rachel O’Shea, one of the co-founders of this unlikely venture. Its success is particularly remarkable when you consider that O’Shea, along with friend Susie Martin and her husband Steven McWhirter, had originally moved here from Singapore to open a guesthouse. That all changed after a craving for fresh cheese coincided with a trip to the local market.
“I saw lots of buffalo meat for sale but no buffalo curd,” remembers O’Shea. “I’d seen it in Sri Lanka so we knew it was possible.”
Inspired, the friends decided to give it a try. The first hurdle? Finding someone willing to rent them a buffalo to milk.
“All the farmers thought we were going to just barbecue them,” explains the straight-talking Martin.Fortunately, the local village chief, Somlith, managed to persuade a farmer living nearby to rent the team three buffaloes for a six-week trial back in April 2015. Every evening, the milk was delivered to O’Shea at the guesthouse, where she stayed.
“There were a lot of tears on my part,” says O’Shea, a trained chef, as she struggled to find the recipe to turn the milk into creamy mozzarella. With no prior experience, she had to rely on the help of Google, YouTube and an Australian water buffalo dairy before she was able to produce a first batch in the guesthouse kitchen in June 2015.
From those humble beginnings, the dairy has diversified to produce not just mozzarella but also feta, ricotta and blue cheese. Handmade in the dairy’s state-of-the-art kitchen, these are now a feature on the tables of Luang Prabang’s leading hotels such as the Avani + and Four Seasons as well as a number of restaurants.
Indeed, the whole project has grown into something much larger than expected, with a full-time staff of 35, mostly graduates from the local agricultural college. They care for up to 140 buffaloes at any one time, each rented for 5,000 kip (S$0.81) a day from 150 farmers across 17 local villages. The dairy also provides weekly English lessons to the community and conducts animal husbandry workshops for local farmers.
In December 2017, the dairy went one step further, offering farm tours to visitors. As well as getting to meet Ferdinand, the friendly 750kg bull, there’s also a chance to try your hand at milking a buffalo and making your own cheese. Round off your visit with a delicious cheese platter served in the charming sala (pavilion) by the farm’s duck pond.
A growing culture
Three other artisanal cheese makers to try around the region
Wanaprasta Farming Cooperative, Bali – Based out of Ubud, they make a range of goat’s cheeses that eschew European flavours in favour of local options like the Kering Dhur, a very hard cheese that’s wrapped and cured in fresh durian pulp.
Himalayan French Cheese, Kathmandu – Frenchman François Driard uses pasteurised whole cow’s milk and – since last year – yak’s milk to create a range of cheeses that are flavoured with wild local herbs.
Malagos Farmhouse, Davao – Filipina cheesemaker Olive Puentespina whips up over a dozen cheeses, made with milk from her own goats. Last year, Malagos expanded to open a second branch selling their products in Cebu City.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.