A 4-decade history of cheesemakingFarmers in Imsil county, North Jeolla province, have come a long way: They are now promoting “all-Korean-made cheese” instead of chili peppers, which made the mountainous region famous in the first place.
Enter the county and you will come to a village called Galma. There, you will find the Imsil branch of Nonghyup (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation); in the yard in front of that building stand three giant tanks filled with milk that is gathered fresh at 6 o’clock every morning.
At the factory there, the milk goes through pasteurization and is processed into cheese in the same way that Western cheeses are. This creates five tons of Imsil cheese every day, providing more than 10 billion won ($10 million) in revenue last year. All in all, Imsil cheese accounts for about 15 percent of the cheese market in Korea.
“It is relatively small but the brand is most famous in North Jeolla province, compared to other domestic brands aimed at nationwide sales,” an Imsil Cheese Nonghyup official said.
This small town in the southern part of the peninsula was the site of the first domestic cheese factory in Korea, established 40 years ago. It has gained fame with its brand name, “Imsil Cheese.”
“The Okjeong Lake and Seomjin River nearby make Imsil a perfect place for grazing milk cows,” said Shin Dong-hwan, a senior official at Imsil Cheese Nonghyup. “Such an environment maintains the average temperature at 11 degrees centigrade (52F), which is two to three degrees lower than in other regions in this province. So we have more rain and more green fields, which are good for [raising] healthy cows,” he said.
In the nearby villages of Seongsu and Gwanchon are 120 cattle farms raising over 6,000 milk cows.
So, where does all the cheese go? Ninety-five percent is used as pizza topping, while the remainder is made into sliced or “portioned” cheese.
The factory workers say they are proud to have succeeded in making the type of cheese that suits Koreans’ taste.
They said “Western” cheese is usually “too salty” and “too strong” for Korean taste buds. The flavor of Imsil cheese is similar to mozzarella but with a sweeter aftertaste, the Imsil cheesemakers explained.
Given its success, Imsil Cheese is now looking to branch out.
Recently, new types of cheese were introduced on the Imsil Cheese Web site, including “kimchi cheese” and “ginseng cheese,” both available for 3,000 won ($3) for 200 grams.
By next year, the factory said it will set aside 4 billion won to establish a cheese science research center to create additional cheese products. The factory is also thinking about building a tourist center, where visitors can not only purchase cheese but also experience the cheese-making process, as well as creating a museum devoted to the history of cheese in Korea.
“Imsil Cheese has made itself into a high-quality brand,” said Kim Jin-eok, the head of Imsil county. “(We) want to create a ‘business cluster’ here specializing in cheese, including factories, research centers and tourism sites.”
It took Imsil Cheese four decades to become successful. Its history dates back to when Father Didier t’Serstevens from Belgium came to the Imsil Roman Catholic Cathedral. The priest, now 72, said he had always wanted to “live in a poor country where he could serve and practice his religious beliefs.”
In December 1958 he arrived in Korea after graduating from the Catholic University of Louvain and studying theology at St. Albert Faculty, Belgium.
But he said the land around Imsil was too barren ― it was no good for use as rice fields or for growing crops. “The land was filled with endless fields and I wondered what I could do to help the poorer residents of the town work for their living,” he said.
He adopted a Korean name, Chi Chong-hwan, and was known in the town for raising two mountain goats at the church.
Soon he suggested that the townspeople raise goats for living. He helped them buy the animals, and recommended later that they think of a way to make money out of the surplus milk from the goats.
The answer was cheese, but no one knew exactly how to make it.
So Father Chi visited cheese factories in France and Italy to learn the process and came back to Korea to teach the farmers.
But the Imsil farmers initially were reluctant to make the product. Father Chi said he had to persuade them that cheese was like “tofu made out of milk.” Later, he took a few farmers to view production lines in France and Italy so they could learn for themselves before building their own Imsil Cheese factory.
In 1981, Father Chi handed over the entire cheese business to the cheese factory workers’ union. The factory is now managed by the Imsil branch of Nonghyup, the farmers’ cooperative bank.
Meanwhile, Father Chi left Imsil three years later, moving to the nearby town of Soyang to provide shelters and rehabilitation assistance to the disabled.
In 2002, Father Chi received the Ho-Am Prize in community service, which is awarded annually by the Hoam Foundation, a unit of the Samsung Group. In February 2004, he became an honorary citizen of North Jeolla province.
by Jang Dae-suk, Lee Min-a