Nakhon Pathom is better known for its universities than for its artisanal dairy products. Located about 60 kilometers west of Bangkok, it doesn’t feature on many tourists’ itineraries or in the consciousness of most people outside it, but it does have two well-regarded cheese companies.
Rachanikorn Srikong, better known as Kai, is a vet-turned-academic-turned-cheesemaker. She has been making goat’s cheese in Nakhon Pathom after a research project she carried out identified that a string of DNA particular to one breed of Thai goats made their milk suitable for cheesemaking.
“I completed my PhD on the alpha-s1 casein gene and hoped by research would interest farmers and encourage them to make more products out of goat’s milk,” Kai told DairyReporter.
“But when my research was published I couldn’t get them to listen. It appeared in a journal and very few people reach these articles. I wanted the farmers to understand my results, but they found the work to be quite unimpressive.”
At the same time, goat’s milk is even less popular than cow’s milk, in a market that has traditionally had little time for dairy. According to a 2017 study by the Food and Fertiliser Technology Centre for the Asian and Pacific Region, Thais consume an average of 28.7kg each per year, compared to more than 10 times as much in Europe.
“Thai people don’t like goat’s milk, so they’re not really going to try goat’s cheese. It’s super-difficult to persuade them,” said Kai.
As a result, all of her cheese is sold directly to western expats, or farang as they are known in Thailand.
The 42-year-old former vet taught herself cheesemaking as a hobby while working as a researcher, using YouTube videos to learn the craft. For now it’s her main business, through which she is proud to replicate the findings of her study into Thai goats by producing cheese in higher quantities per animal.
Compared to average milk production of roughly one or two liters per goat, Kai has managed to achieve three or even four liters by using animals she found to have the milk-producing gene, coupled with good feed management.
Now, with more than 30 goats, she focuses on the small-scale production of soft cheeses and spreads that take a short time to ripen and be ready to sell.
She charges 120 baht (US$3.85) for a 90-gram jar of soft white cheese spread, while a 150-gram wheel of ripened cheese comes to 220 baht (US$7). Kai is currently working on a Brie, once she can find a way to maintain a stable price. While most of her cheese is delivered to customers, she plans to start selling at farmers’ markets in Bangkok.
“I wanted to prove my results. But the work amounts to nothing if you can’t take it to the market. I’ve changed my hat from a vet to a researcher and then a researcher to a cheesemaker. If one day I will have a success story that the farmers will be impressed with,” she said.
Not far away, Austrian Reinhard Matheis and his wife have been using cow’s milk to make double cream Bries, Reblochons and Munsters for more than a decade in Nakhon Sawan.
The former confectioner, baker and ship’s cook missed the taste of quality cheese when he moved to central Thailand in 2005. He started using supermarket milk to make his first cheeses before turning to fresh, locally produced dairy three years later.
Though his Heaven on Cheese products are not available locally, they are distributed to hotels and restaurants across Thailand.
Matheis believes Thai milk makes for notable cheese flavors that have a good consistency that can be softer and more ‘gooey’ than those back home. A 230g wheel of Camembert costs 295 baht (US$9.40), while a Rebruchon weighs in at 350 baht (US$11.20).
News of his cheese production spread through word of mouth, online forums and suppliers to extend to some well-known Thai restaurants and hotels, including M-Club Lounge at the Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park and the Sunday brunch at Le Meridien, both in Bangkok.
Thai cheese production isn’t confined to the hinterland, however, with increasing numbers of cheesemakers setting up in the country, especially in the nation’s capital.
“Bangkok isn’t known as a hotbed for cheese, never mind artisanal Italian cheese,” Jacopo Bioni, who founded Antica Luna in Bangkok over a dozen years ago, told DairyReporter.
Now he imports milk into Thailand from Italy and uses traditional cheesemaking methods to produce varieties including mozzarella, burrata and ricotta fresh cheeses, as well as pecorino, scamorza and gorgonzola from the cellar.
“We produce cheeses as a traditional dairy farm, using the same equipment and techniques that have been used for generations to make the best products,” he added.
All products are sold to the food service industry, with hotels and restaurants finding that local cheeses made the Italian way are cheaper and more readily available than Italian imports.
“It’s a very good business. It’s growing every day. We are more in retail and not direct to the consumer, though probably by June we will have launched an online buying platform straight from the factory to the house,” Bioni said.
Move to retail
Antica Luna is now planning to introduce a line of dairy nutritionals, to be launched at the end of March or soon after. The probiotic drinks were on the anvil after the company realized how many fake probiotics were being sold in Thailand. Having identified promising results through market research, the organic beverages represent Antica Luna’s first foray into retail.
Though each of these cheesemakers is tiny, they are certainly making an impression in local circles, especially as cheese-loving expats are often heard criticizing the lack of decent cheeses available outside of upmarket supermarkets in Thailand.
It will be a long time before Thai consumers take to their offerings—if at all. Until then, though, their products have been capturing the imagination of farang as their quality and ranges improve.