Thursday, January 1, 2015

Karen Hartmann in Battambang, Cambodia

Karen Hartmann fits nicely into our file of fascinating cheese makers!  She is both an entrepreneur and a missionary, selling her own yogurt and Tzaziki while she and her husband are doing missionary work in Cambodia.

When she lived in the States, she had wanted to make cheese for a long time, but never had the time.

When she moved to Cambodia, she found she had the time, but not the supplies she needed.  (We do ship to Cambodia, but it takes a very long time.) 

That didn't stop her, however.  She made her own Greek style yogurt and Tzaziki and began to sell it.  (There are a lot of ex-pats in Cambodia and they were eager to buy it.)

Karen was somewhat discouraged when she first wrote to us a month ago, because she was trying to promote her products at a local store and she could not persuade one Cambodian to try them.

Apparently dairy products are not popular in that particular area yet. (We say "yet" because if Karen has anything to say about it, they will be soon.)

Shortly after that day, Karen explained to a Cambodian mother how beneficial yogurt would be to her young son's intestinal tract and the mother gave her son some of Karen's Yummy Greek yogurt. He LOVED it! We hope this is the beginning of a trend in Cambodia and, if so, Karen will be a dairy trendsetter.

How did you come to be making cheese in Cambodia?

The idea to make cheese came to me when we still lived in Connecticut, but I didn't get around to trying my hand at it until after we moved to Cambodia. Once we had settled in I had a little more time than back in the US to focus on the project. However, I soon found out that some of the essential ingredients for making cheese are not available here, at least not in this part of the country which is so far off the beaten path.

So, instead of making cheese, I experimented with making Greek yogurt. The result was of phenomenal quality, but not one Cambodian I offered it to would try it, since dairy products are quite alien to Cambodians (as I wrote you previously - they wouldn't even try samples offered). However, there is an ex-pat community of Westerners here who recognize good dairy products and they were gung-ho about my Greek unadulterated plain yogurt and started to buy it regularly. After a while, I had the idea of expanding my "product line" to include Tzaziki, which also quickly found ready takers. We shall see where this leads.

How long will you be in Cambodia?

We will be here at least another 2 years.

My husband and I are Jehovah's Witnesses and are doing missionary work here in Cambodia. We learned Cambodian to help people here to learn about Jehovah, God and Jesus. Most Cambodians are Buddhist and know next to nothing about the Bible and the promise that Jehovah will solve all of our problems by means of His Kingdom that we pray for in the Lord's prayer. When they read in their own Bible God's personal name Jehovah and that His government will wipe out sickness, pain and suffering and that even "death will be swallowed up forever" they often want to learn more.

It is heartwarming to see how those that really study and follow the Bible's teachings quickly improve their quality of their lives and benefit tangibly from Bible education. This country has enormous problems and is still trying to recover from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime when approximately a quarter of the population was deliberately killed off. By the way if you are curious about Jehovah's Witnesses, our beliefs and our international work you can find a wealth of good information on our fabulous website ""

I was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut. I got married to a German, lived in Germany for several years and had a successful career as a model. I am also an artist. In the mid-80s we moved back to Connecticut, and in 2012 we left to support a small group of Jehovah's Witnesses here in Battambang. And we are enjoying our ministry here in Cambodia tremendously.

How different is life in Cambodia from the US?

Their approach to nutrition and food stuffs is very different from our Western culture. For example, there is no substitute for rice. Some foods which are indispensable to us are utterly alien to them and visa versa. A prime example is a fermented fish paste called "Brohok." It is a staple in many recipes. The smell is unbearable but frankly put, a soup or meat dish without it is really missing something.

One day while in our ministry we were walking along a small dirt road when all of a sudden 4 gray water buffalo came out of bushes. I was frozen solid in my tracks. My husband was not phased at all. I didn't know what to do. They are huge and so intimidating. I remained still and they just looked at me and walked on. They had found a nice grazing spot in the bushes and then decided to move on. Eventually two small children appeared out of the same bushes who were their herders.

Are there many regulations in Cambodia for producing cheese?

Cambodia is in many ways still quite unregulated and unstructured which, of course, has its pros and cons and in my case makes it easy to pursue my yogurt interests. I purchase all of the ingredients either here at the local market or in Phnom Penh or Bangkok.

Making Greek yogurt is a fairly simple process. Please don't forget I am not running an industrial operation. There are only a few hundred foreigners around so I can produce my yogurt out of my small kitchen.

It's truly amazing what you can produce when your supplies are limited. The same is true for my artwork. In the states I had the "Rolls Royce" of equipment. Here, I work with whatever works and the results are either the same or better. I have come to appreciate things more than I did before. Being here has been a true reality check and eye opener in so many ways.

What kind of milk are you using?

I am using pasteurized cow's milk. There are goats here but they don't milk them. I don't know why. You will see some Cambodians drink pasteurized milk either plain or flavored with chocolate or strawberry.

They use some of the cows for the meat which is expensive and also tough. Cambodians make all kinds of absolutely amazing soups, so beef is perfect for those recipes. Every now and then we like to eat a good tender steak. We order several kilos from Phnom Penh. That beef comes from Australia. Cattle are mainly used in the field since agriculture is done in the old traditional way.

I am currently working with a large pot that allows me to produce about 12 retail containers of yogurt or Tzaziki at one time. Normally I make this amount twice a week. November through January, being the tourist season with more foreigners coming through Battambang, I step up production accordingly.

Where do you buy supplies (other than from our website)?

We go to Phnom Penh every few months for cooking supplies.   It is a 6 hour bus ride from Battambang.

I start with plain yogurt and save a portion for the next batch. It is a fairly simple process. After bringing the milk to the right temperature, I let it cool and then I add the "mother" yogurt. Next, I pour the liquid into jars. I then start the controlled temperature process for the yogurt.

The following day the yogurt is ready. I strain the whey for about 2-3 hours or longer depending upon the amount of yogurt that I am making. I use a simple 100% cotton cloth.

The challenge lies in the initial heating process. You have to keep an eye on it or your mixture will get too hot and kill the bacteria. I've gotten sidetracked by other things and come back to find the milk all over the stove. Otherwise there's nothing to it.

As with many things one learns by experimenting. It took me about 4 months to figure out how to make a perfect Bavarian sourdough loaf. After understanding the chemistry of sourdough starter, it was easy.

The jars containing the yogurt have to be kept warm in a large pot of water at 110F for 4 hours. Using a thermometer, I check the temperature every thirty minutes. If it falls below 110F, I turn the heat back on and bring it up to 110F again.

What is your goal for the business?

My goal is to continue. Since we will be here for the next 2 years, my goal is to solidify and possibly expand it. I am always full of ideas and so I may experiment with other products. I'll be happy to keep you posted as time goes on.