The Terzoi from Western Kenya have traditionally made an unusual yogurt, but they've never turned their milk into cheese. They presented their produce in Italy this year and swapped knowledge with Italian farmers.
Kenyan farmers swapping skills with their Italian counterparts
Leaving the arid plains of West Pokot in Kenya for the rolling green hills of Piedmont in Northern Italy, four goat- and cow-herders from the Terzoi tribe were among the special guests at Cheese 2009. It is the Slow Food movement's biennial fair aimed at protecting and preserving traditional dairy products.
The Kenyans were presenting their unique yogurt, fermented in colorful hollowed gourds. What makes it special is ash – made from burning branches of the local Cromwo tree – that's added to it as a disinfectant and preservative, giving it a distinctive aromatic flavor and speckled grey color.
Traditional Terzoi Yoghurt is fermented in gourds
The community is very poor: They live in mud and straw huts, their animals graze freely, and they don't have any dairy facilities. But, thanks to Slow Food's interest in their product, these farmers have had the opportunity to leave their country for the first time and discover first-hand the techniques and traditions of their Italian counterparts.
A great exchange of skills
"It has been a phenomenal learning experience, for both the Kenyans and the farmers in Italy." said Peter Namianya, a Kenyan graduate from the University of Gastronomy in Piedmont, who coordinated the trip.
"When the Terzoi saw the Italian goats they exclaimed 'Oh, they're the size of my cows!', and everybody laughed." The Kenyan goat and cow herders and their Italian counterparts discovered they have a lot in common.
The time spent with local dairy farmers, cheese-makers and vets was a real cultural exchange. "One of them would say, 'Back home we do it like this', and the other would reply, 'Here you do it like this."
Kenyans and Italians discover how much they have in common
Kenyan cattleherders inspecting Italian stables
The group spent two and a half days on Mario Gala's farm, where he taught them how to improve their hygiene standards and look after their animals' health.
"I think the shepherds from Kenya are more similar to me than any Italian bank employee!", laughed Mario Gala, "We are the same people. Our day is the same, we pay attention to the seasons, the rain, the pasturing, the good health of our animals, my cheese, their yogurt."
Gala's Kenyan visitors were equally enthusiastic. "There are some things that we have not done well, like milking and cleaning, and we are going to improve our standards," said Simon Pkite Lochawan. The group was clearly impressed by the high importance put on hygiene in the stables and the quality of animal fodder in Italy.
Learning the art of cheese making
A cross-cultural culinary encounter
One of the most exciting and precious skills the Kenyans have learned is the art of cheese-making. For countless generations, the Terzoi have been making butter and their unusual yogurt, but they've never turned their milk into cheese. Although you can buy imported cheeses at supermarkets in Kenya's big cities, farmers have no cheesemaking traditions of their own.
"They don't have a culture of cheese but they want to try to make it when they go back home," said Peter Namianya. He added that this is a unique way of conserving milk, instead of just making yogurt and drinking fresh milk.
This could also become another way of reducing hunger in the community."If there is abundant milk, they can make cheese and store it and then use it in a time when there's no food."
Praise for traditional Kenyan yoghurt
Pkite and his colleagues have enjoyed the opportunity to try so many different varieties of cheese at the Slow Food fair. They especially like the taste of soft cheeses like ricotta, and are looking forward to experimenting with their own milk when they get back. The positive reactions to their yoghurt have also made them realize the value of their own traditional product.
The Kenyans' visit has also inspired the curiosity of their Italian hosts, who are now keen to experience everyday life in West Pokot. Namianya already envisions a kind of eco-tourism: "You go to the village, taste their food and taste the real culture of the people."
Reporter: Dany Mitzman (ara)
Editor: Nathan Witkop