After 17 years making cheese and drowning in the stress of running a small business, I took a sabbatical to ride horses on the Mongolian steppe. Last August, I had the incredible opportunity to live with Mongolian herders and ride their horses as a competitor in the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest horse race. As a Maine cheesemaker who’s only worked with three species of milk (cow, sheep, and goat), I’m fascinated by the rich herding culture of Mongolia. Mongolians milk seven species—yak, cow, goat, camel, sheep, horse, and reindeer—and were among the first people to domesticate the horse. As a lifelong equestrian and career cheesemaker, I had no choice but to go.
Established in 2009 and held annually since, The Mongol Derby is a 1,000-kilometer (~621-mile) race that loosely recreates Ghengis Khan’s ancient postal route across Mongolia. In 2023, 43 expert riders came from around the world to compete, self-navigating with a handheld GPS and staying with Mongolian herding families in their traditional yurts (gers). For 10 days, I rode 29 horses (averaging 3–4 horses per day and 25 miles per horse). The race crosses steep mountains, treacherous bogs, arid deserts, forests, wetlands, and rivers. 25 riders finished the race, and I came in 13 th place.
Tasting notes from the steppe:
Sitting in an ornately decorated ger painted bright orange with intricate designs, I was handed a ceramic bowl of freshly fermented mare’s milk (airag), prepared only in the summer. Its high sugar content allows it to ferment quickly without starter culture because it’s stirred hundreds of times inside a cowhide. It’s slightly alcoholic, and if you drink too much, you’d visit the steppe toilet way too frequently.
Mongolian hospitality is unsurpassed. Every family offers guests a tiered platter filled with candy, unsalted fresh cheese (byaslag) made from yak or cow’s milk similar to queso fresco, and aaruul, a brick-hard, tart and floral dried-curd cheese that’s easily transportable on long horseback journeys.
After the race, I traveled north to the taiga, a swath of Siberian Forest that spans from Russia to Mongolia, to stay with the Tsataan tribe of reindeer herders. Fewer than 300 families remain, primarily relying on reindeer for survival. During my multi-day horse journey, I milked a fluffy yak, enjoyed freshly baked bread slathered in urum (clotted cream) and fresh yak cheese with the Darkhan family that guided my group, milked a reindeer, drank salty reindeer milk tea, and ate rich, aged reindeer cheese. Its deliciously high fat content lives up to its legend!
To be able to check off milking all seven species, I just need to go back and milk a mare and a camel.
Editors Note: After 12 years of cheesemaking, Jessie is hanging up her hair net in favor of riding chaps, pursuing horseriding full time. Fuzzy Udder Creamery is for sale, and you can learn more about purchasing the property and creamery here.
- Maine Creamery Seeks a New ‘Passionate’ Owner
- Mongolian Milk: Nomadic Cheesemaking in Mongolia
- Interview with A Mongolian Cheesemaker