Cheese Special – Dairy Traditions in Africa

The Green Hills of Africa conference held today – one in a series being held by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity at Cheese – introduced visitors to yogurt producers from Kenya, shepherds from southern Morocco, and beekeepers from the Ethiopian Highlands.

Producers from the West Pokot region in Western Kenya described their ancient traditions and offered a tasting of their unusual yoghurt which is soon to become a Slow Food Presidia. Yoghurt has traditionally been a way for this community to preserve milk, especially by adding ash from the local cromwo tree, which has antiseptic properties. Traditionally made in long hollow gourds, the yoghurt was made in Italy this week using local milk, but the ash was brought from their hometown to give the yoghurt its unique smoky flavor and pale grey color.

While in Italy, the producers have participated in a training course on animal and milk hygiene and visited four artisan diary producers in the region. Simon Pkite Lochawan, who herds goats, sheep and cows in his community of Kalenjin, said that the farm visits had taught them simple techniques to improve the quality of their production and that they had also had the opportunity to learn about making fresh cheeses for the first time. ‘When we return home we will start experimenting with fresh cheeses, using the simple techniques we have learn in the last week,’ he said.

Brothers Lahssen and Youssef Mertou from the Ait Atta Berber tribe from southeastern Morocco spoke at the conference about their semi-nomadic lifestyle which relies heavily on milk from their 200 goats and 40 camels. Among other uses, the milk is made into goat butter and a dehydrated milk product that they conserve and grate over the top of soups and bread.

Together with up to forty other herders, the two brothers graze their animals over an area stretching 100 km from their home. 22 year-old Lahseen spoke about his desire to continue this traditional way of life, but that there was an urgent need to improve the value of their product in order for their traditional ways to continue to be sustainable. Among the problems they face, Lahseen spoke about increasing desertification and water shortages, and the need for more veterinary support to ensure the health of their herds.

The brothers have also participated in training on animal care and hygiene whilst in Italy, and meet with the Foundation’s President Piero Sardo. Sardo spoke about the history of dairy in Europe and the impact of the industrial approaches that made pasteurization and breed selection commonplace, emphasizing the importance of keeping their local breeds and traditions which are adapted to the territory.

Serena Milano, director the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, reiterated this in the conference today, explaining the Foundation is focused on identifying small steps which can be made to improve certain aspects of production – which will help eliminate problems or inconsistencies – while preserving the characteristics and nature of local, traditional products.

Visitors to Cheese have the extraordinary opportunity to get to know these and many other producers. More than 60 cheese Presidia are representing more than 10 countries on three continents from Europe, Africa and America at Cheese.

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