French cheese maker finds a niche in Nepal

Francois Driard enters a cave dug into the steep Himalayan hillside, scares off a mouse and, in a twice-weekly ritual, wipes mold from several plate-sized wheels of cheese sitting on crude shelves against the wall.

Voila! High-end French cheese has reached a new level, literally, with Driard's farm an hour from Katmandu, where the 32-year-old has become what he believes is the only French cheese maker in the Himalayas.

He acknowledges that it's not the by-the-book operation you'd find under Europe's rigorous hygiene and certification requirements.

"If it's too clean, there's no life," he said. "Well, no real danger of that here."

Raised in a Parisian suburb of sidewalks and shopping malls, Driard knew nothing about cheese making until a few years ago. Now he's getting rave reviews from mostly foreign customers in one of the world's poorest nations. Trekking companies even carry his cheese up Mt. Everest to serve on expeditions.

"He's quite famous, the French cheese king of Katmandu, and his cheese makes life more comfortable," said Henrik Hansen, a Dane working for the United Nations in Nepal. "I was in Yemen before, where it's difficult to get anything but Kalashnikovs."

Driard's first interest was living in Nepal, with cheese production a pungent afterthought. A few years out of French business school, after taking time off to read and working three years writing business articles, he decided to act on his loathing for offices.

The entrepreneur, with deep-set eyes, brown hair and a roundish face, had been coming to Nepal on vacation almost every year since he was 18, and had picked up Nepali living with a local family. So he tried to figure out a way to move back for good.

Over the years, he'd noticed more and more once-unavailable Western products appearing on shelves in Katmandu — personal-hygiene items, wine, pistachios. One niche remained unfilled: the raw, smelly cheese he gorged on back home.

The traditional 19th — even 18th — century technology used in making cheese would work well in an area with bad infrastructure and frequent power outages, he reasoned.

Unabashed by his artisanal ignorance, Driard hitchhiked around France, especially the Chaine des Puys region, knocking on doors and asking cheese makers to divulge their family secrets.

You'd think they would have told him where he could stick their cheese. But because he was setting up in far-off Nepal, and presented no immediate threat to their business, people were generous. Many loved the idea of their traditional methods being used to push back at the plastique-tasting supermarket cheese in other countries.

Driard admits to a certain impatience, which created another problem. "Here's something they've spent generations doing just perfectly," he said, "and I'm trying to get them to tell me everything in 20 minutes."

Within a few weeks, however, he had the basic idea. Although it's an exacting process, he said, it's hardly rocket science.

He spent three months searching for a suitable farm, which he bought with Nepalese partners. (Foreigners can't buy land in Nepal, although a company can.) Then he spent more time trying to get a business visa the official way before giving up and paying a "fixer," who had it in a week.

"In Nepal, you can make your reality," he said. "In France, you need six weeks' obligatory training, licenses, bureau approval for everything. It's endless."

The one-acre farm has a three-bedroom stone farmhouse and a shed full of cows surrounded by a landscape of terraced fields, thatched roofs and marigolds. Ducks quack and goats frolic, even though, Driard said, "I hate goats. They eat everything."

The village is a lush mountainside community of farmers tending modest fields. But upscale houses, cellphone shops and other tendrils of development are creeping in from the capital.

Driard has trouble sitting still and spends a lot of time in Katmandu, leaving much of the manure shoveling, milking and feeding to hired hands who, in a bit of management-speak carryover, he refers to as his "team."

"Running a farm is boring," he said. "I'm a farmer with an iPhone."

His neighbors are a bit mistrustful of this wacky Frenchman, hardly the embodiment of pastoral bliss, in their midst. "I have a girlfriend. I come and go at odd hours. Lots of friends come over," Driard said.

He makes more than 6,500 pounds of cheese a year in the style of France's Tomme de Savoie variety, which he calls French Himalayan and sells to retail customers for about $9 a pound. Some customers take it home to Bhutan, Thailand, even mother France.

"He's definitely the best around," said Hansen, the U.N. worker, "and the most expensive."

For your average local just scraping by, such extravagance for a bit of old milk is unthinkable.

"We wouldn't buy that kind of cheese," said Bhaktamaya Nepali, 39, a Katmandu homemaker whose family lives on $275 a month. "It's expensive, and the money is better spent on clothes, food, education, basic necessities."

Driard sells some of his cheese to restaurants catering to tourists.

"French customers are very pleased and surprised to get real cheese here," said Christine Regnier, owner of the Delices de France restaurant in Katmandu. "You know the French and their cheese."

But the real gold mine for him is five-star hotels. Get them to add it to their breakfast buffet, where the plate-pilers aren't paying directly, and those cheese wheels disappear like magic.

Initially Driard would purchase milk to make the cheese. But local farmers often dilute it with unhygienic water, so he started producing his own. That created new problems.

Cows must get pregnant to produce milk, and inevitably that leads to male calves. But in Hindu-majority Nepal, you can't kill cattle. And keeping them gets expensive.

Some farms turn them loose to wander. "When I first came, I thought, cool, holy cows," Driard said. "But it's a very sad situation. That's why you see old bulls in the street, bloody, eating plastic bags. Cars hit them."

So he's thinking of switching to water buffalo, which are not considered sacred and can be killed, eaten or sold.

Already, with his business just 3 years old, the restless entrepreneur has expanded his horizons. "Doing the same thing every day drives me crazy," he said. "Starting new projects is the interesting part."

He's begun producing sausage, foie gras and apple cider, is mulling a delicatessen and a vineyard, and is buying a larger farm farther from Katmandu and at a higher elevation, adding pigs, sheep and other animals. He's helped start a weekly farmer's market. And he and his sister — who left Paris to work with him –- have turned the farmhouse into a bed and breakfast.

But he's not forgotten his beloved cheese. In the works are blue cheese, ricotta and goat cheese. And then there's a really out-there idea: cheese from elephant's milk. ("They must have so much milk," said Driard.)

He runs through the hurdles. Most pregnant pachyderms lactate in the jungle. So you'd have to find them. You'd need to pacify them, which requires a tame elephant on each side.

Then there's milking them.

Hmm, maybe he'll hold off on that one. "I'm not sure," he said. "Going under them could be quite difficult and dangerous."

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