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Cheese tasting and knowledge sharing


Keeping dairy cattle at the periphery of the busy city of Cochabamba in Bolivia is a challenge in itself. If you then see the market for your milk starting to shrink, then you need to be creative. Together with the Fundaprolec foundation and two food engineers, PUM expert Hans van Pijkeren investigated the possibilities for producing cheese and yoghurt.

The location where the 170 milk producers at Fundaprolec farm their cattle can at best be described as remarkable. Here, on the outskirts of the city, there is a shortage of space, fresh feed and healthy water. The cause of these problems dates back almost one hundred years. In around 1920, the Bolivian tin baron Simón Patiño discovered that his mine workers lived longer if they were given milk to drink, and so he imported cows into the area. When the tin mines closed down, the farmers continued to sell their milk to PIL Andina, Bolivia’s largest milk producer. Two years ago, however, PIL Andina shifted its focus to other products, and the market for the farmers on the outskirts of the city collapsed entirely. The Fundaprolec foundation was established, to assist these small-scale producers by supplying cheaper animal feed, and lobbying for government aid. 

‘Allowing cheese to mature longer was a foreign concept for them’

The farmers turned to other solutions, to earn money from their milk. For example they started producing quesillo, a traditional Latin American fresh cheese. The wives of the farmers had learned the technique from their mothers, but knew practically nothing about processing temperatures and degrees of acidity. The possibility of maturing cheese for longer was a foreign concept for them. To assist the farmers further, Fundaprolec called in support from food engineers Seleni Baptista and Vania Antezana. During his mission, PUM expert Hans van Pijkeren was joined by the two young Bolivian engineers and he used the opportunity to share his knowledge and experience, and to help them to prepare workshops for the milk producers. 

The most important reason for calling in PUM was the lack of knowledge. As Vania explained, “The farmers have insufficient funds to purchase good feed and equipment. These people are living in precarious circumstances; they have difficulty in taking care of their cattle and have limited knowledge. There is no one to offer them assistance or support, not even the government.”

Cheese making

Her colleague Seleni added, “Any knowledge available in Bolivia is mainly in books. At university, they teach nothing but the basic skills. The level of knowledge that Hans can offer is quite different. We are delighted with the new knowledge and expertise he can contribute.” Hans recognised the situation in Bolivia from his previous visits to Ethiopia, Sudan and Brazil. “All around the world they use the book by the American food expert Frank Kosikowski about making cheese. However, you can’t tell by looking at a photograph whether a cheese is good or not. You have to taste it, let it melt on your tongue and then say what you think of it. That is the difference between practice and a book.” 

Experiment with yoghurt

With that in mind, Hans tasted the quesillos of the producers he visited, visited the market with the engineers to test older cheeses, and together with Vania and Seleni, launched an experiment for producing yoghurt, which besides cheese is another product that could raise the value of milk for the farmers. Hans above all went in search of possibilities for moving forward, but in small stages. “It is not possible to achieve huge technological advances here, due to the absence of both funding and knowledge. It is above all important to focus on hygiene, temperatures and the practical assessment of the products. And to pass on knowledge to the local people like Vania and Seleni, so that they in turn can teach the farmers.”

Hans van Pijkeren (66) is a food technologist. He has acquired more than forty years experience in various dairy-related businesses in the Netherlands and abroad, specialising in product development and the training of local staff in processing milk, quality control, maintenance and marketing. Hans has already completed two missions for PUM, both in Bolivia.