From the Alps to the yurt: Swiss cheese meets Tajik milk bowls

The Cheese Exchange, a UN Women initiative, brought entrepreneurial Tajik and Swiss women cheese makers together to share skills and develop new dairy products for Tajikistan.

Date: Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tajik crew producing Swiss hard cheese, semi-hard cheese ‘Mutschli’ and curd together with Maike Oestreich in the village dairy of Präz. Photo: UN Women/ Zarina Urakova
Tajik crew producing Swiss hard cheese, semi-hard cheese ‘Mutschli’ and curd together with Maike Oestreich in the village dairy of Präz. Photo: UN Women/ Zarina Urakova

Adventure-seeking summer visitors to Tajikistan’s breath-taking summits and valleys will soon be sampling tasty new locally made dairy products, thanks to the Cheese Exchange.

A UN Women initiative, the Cheese Exchange recently brought together entrepreneurial Tajik and Swiss women cheese makers to share knowledge and develop new dairy products for the rapidly growing numbers of foreign tourists to alpine Tajikistan and its dramatic, snow-dusted Pamir Mountains.

Donata Clopath, the self-declared feminist Swiss agronomist, hosting the Tajik delegation and showing them her cow farm in Donat in the district of Graubünden: “Although we act in different settings, our goal is the same: We strengthen women’s rights, which we see as a key condition for a well-functioning society”. Photo: UN Women/ Martina Schlapbach

Donata Clopath, the self-declared feminist Swiss agronomist, hosting the Tajik delegation and showing them her cow farm in Donat in the district of Graubünden. Photo: UN Women/ Martina Schlapbach

In February, the Swiss women hosted their Tajik counterparts, from UN Women-supported dairy cooperatives in Sughd Province and the Rasht Valley, for an eight-day exchange of cheese making tips, learning and knowledge. Their Swiss visit kicked off in Graubünden, a mountainous region in eastern Switzerland, very similar to Tajikistan’s imposing Pamir mountains. In the morning, the Tajik crew produced Swiss hard cheese, semi-hard cheese Mutschli and curd with in Präz’s village dairy.

“It is impressive to see how the Tajik women have already internalized the workflow,” said Ms. Maike Oestreich, the Präz’s milk technologist, referring to the Tajiks’ first Mutschli, a small, cows' milk cheese from alpine pastures.

“I couldn’t wait to visit Switzerland to learn Alps milk processing using our Tajik mountain technologies,” said Ms. Andas Jumaeva, who processes her two cows’ milk into products sold by Asamat in Jirgatol.

Tajik cheese makers demonstrating national handicrafts at the public event co-organised by the ‘Glarnerland Agrotourism Group’ and UN Women in the mountain village of Schwändi in the District of Glarus. Photo: UN Women/Martina Schlapbach

Tajik cheese makers demonstrating national handicrafts at the public event co-organised by the ‘Glarnerland Agrotourism Group’ and UN Women in the mountain village of Schwändi. Photo: UN Women/Martina Schlapbach

Later, the Tajiks visited ViamalaMarkt, a women-led cooperative in Thusis that sells local agricultural products. There, they showed off an impressive selection of Tajikistan handicrafts and food and discussed marketing, branding and lessons learned. 

“As in Switzerland, regional networks of women cooperatives in Tajikistan could jointly market their goods to locals and tourists,“ said Ms. Zarina Urakova, UN Women Tajikistan national project coordinator.

“Ten years ago, we were also a loose network of producers – now a clientele knows and values our products sold under a regional brand,” said Ms. Gabi Morhart, of ViamalaMarkt, who shared with her Tajik visitors her many entrepreneurial lessons learned.

Ms. Mafchuda Abolokulova from Tajik “Asamat” self-help group dairy cooperative is learning to make new types of cheese. Photo: UN Women/ Zarina Urakova
Ms. Mafchuda Abolokulova from Tajik “Asamat” self-help group dairy cooperative is learning to make new types of cheese. Photo: UN Women/ Zarina Urakova

Cheese Exchange is implemented by the Government of Norway-funded project Empowering Abandoned Women from Migrant Families in Tajikistan, which helps vulnerable women in the Rasht Valley and Khatlon regions, particularly those abandoned by their male labour migrant spouses, develop job or small business skills and access essential legal and financial services. It is financially supported by Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in cooperation with the Swiss Association of Women in Agriculture (SBLV).

Writing down recipes of hard cheese. Photo: UN Women/ Martina Schlapbach

Writing down recipes of hard cheese. Photo: UN Women/ Martina Schlapbach

The women formed a deep bond when the Swiss women first met their Tajik hosts in December when Cheese Exchange brought four Swiss women dairy product specialists to Tajikistan. The Swiss women taught Swiss cheese and dairy product-making to four Tajik women cheese makers. Together, the women produced Tajik dairy products and Swiss cheese, as the Swiss learned from their Tajik counterparts about local cheese and dairy production and its challenges.

“The Tajik dairy producers and their families gave us an amazing, warm welcome,” said Ms. Michela Esposto, a Swiss who’s made cheese since she started milking goats at 16. “We shared with each other the variety of our national dairy products and types of cheese, then went to the Khujand market, where I had my first taste of Kurut, a bowl of dried milk! I’m fascinated by the broad selection of soured Tajik dairy products.”

The Swiss and Tajik women shared meals and cultural holidays, and turned challenges into opportunities to apply creative, innovative solutions and develop local partners.

Tajik cheese makers: “Tourists and alpinists visiting our mountains have long wanted a durable, hard cheese product, and we now have a chance to meet their needs” Photo: UN Women/ Martina Schlapbach
Tajik cheese makers: “Tourists and alpinists visiting our mountains have long wanted a durable, hard cheese product, and we now have a chance to meet their needs” Photo: UN Women/ Martina Schlapbach

“Tourists and alpinists visiting our mountains have long wanted a durable, hard cheese product,” said Ms. Aisuluv Jenalieva, founder of Asamat, Jirgatol’s first dairy, who plans to tap into the potential of tourism in the Rasht Valley. “Next spring we hope to produce and store milk products in our dairy. The Swiss gave us valuable advice on infrastructure. The new recipes and basic materials they brought such as the harp and rennet are invaluable. In the future, we will produce a hard cheese. “

After an intense exchange ranging from the production of cheese to women’s situation in the Tajik and Swiss society, Tajik and Swiss cheese-makers become like-minded colleagues: “Although we act in different settings, our goal is the same: We learn from each other, empower each other and work to improve women’s rights, which we see as a key condition for a well-functioning society.”