A Cheesy Kind of Guy

Meet the Canadian who’s turning HCMC into a cheesy town

Text by Marianna Daniels

Images by Nam Quan

It is a long way from the icy forests of Quebec to the back streets of Thu Duc District. But Paul Rogers, a native of the Canadian province is bringing the flavors of home to Ho Chi Minh City with his company Saigon Cheeses. An engineer by trade who used to work for the Canadian International Development Agency, Paul now handcrafts cheeses in a small, unassuming factory that overlooks a quiet pond.

It was almost by accident that Paul entered the cheese making trade. He began experimenting for personal use while living in China, attempting to produce the fresh cheese curds that are a vital component of poutine, the national dish of his native Quebec. His first forays into the world of cheese failed, but many years later, after moving to Vietnam, he made a Monterey Jack cheese.

“It didn’t look good. I was going to throw it away, but my friend convinced me to try it,” explains Paul. “It was the best I had ever eaten.” He then began to take cheese to his son’s school for taste tests. When his cheese met with approval from other parents he built a concrete aging room in his house and began producing cheese for sale in 2011. Recently, he moved production to the current location.

His business continued to grow with the help of supermarket heavy-weight Metro. They called Paul and asked him to supply their stores. When Paul insisted he did not have the capacity to supply such a large business, they encouraged him to increase production. He eventually signed his first supply contract with the company and now sells in four Metro stores in Vietnam in An Phu, Nha Trang, Danang and Hanoi.

Today, Saigon Cheeses’ biggest customers are high-end hotels in the city such as the Caravelle and the Sofitel. The company has recently signed a contract to supply Giant supermarkets and Paul also sells directly to customers through his website www.saigoncheeses.com. Business has increased enough that the company is tripling its production from 6kg per day to 18kg per day. This will require adding a second shift of cheese making in the evening.

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Early Risers

If you want to make cheese you have to get up early. Production starts at 4am. Saigon Cheeses sources its milk from a pair of farmers in Thu Duc District, who also happen to be brothers. The cows are milked mostly by hand and the milk is collected right after milking time to ensure freshness. It is brought back to the factory and immediately pasteurized.

“The biggest issue is the hot weather,” says Paul. “It allows bacteria to grow very quickly so the milk has to be used right away.”

After that the milk is heated and a coagulant is added, which causes the milk to separate into firm curds and liquid whey. Some of the whey is skimmed off to make creamy Italian ricotta. A bacterial culture is added which gives each type of cheese its unique characteristics then the curds are cut and pressed into a mold. Weights are put on top to allow the liquid to slowly drain away. The aged cheeses are pressed again in a large wooden contraption of Paul’s own design, before being brined for a full day. Finally, they are placed in a temperature and humidity controlled room to complete the process of affinage, or aging.

“It is not hard to make cheese, you just have to know a few tricks, and be patient,” he insists.

Most cheeses here are aged between 20 days and two months, although they do make a small amount of parmesan that is aged for up to a year and a half. This can create problems for such a small business. If a customer makes a large order it takes a long time to produce more cheese. The company has room to grow as it has just installed equipment that can process up to 400 liters of milk per day. It currently uses about 120 to 140 liters per day. Paul designed the equipment himself and had it manufactured here in Vietnam.

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Saigon Cheeses offers four main cheese varieties. Paul’s personal favorite is the St. Paul in Vietnam, a semi-soft cheese similar to the famed Oka cheese of Quebec. It is creamy and rich with a pungent, orange rind. The Tomme Thu Duc is based on cheeses originally made in the French Alps. It is firmer than the St. Paul with a milder smell. The Baby Swiss is very flavorful and nutty with a firm texture. Last is a Pepper Jack, Monterey Jack flavored with plenty of roasted, Vietnamese peppercorns that give it a pleasant bite to complement its smooth texture. There are two cheeses available for special order – a creamy, rich ricotta is sought after by local restaurants and supply is very limited. And for Quebecois and their fellow poutine lovers, the company makes fresh cheese curds. Paul creates them specially in the morning and delivers them the same day to ensure the rubbery cheese is absolutely fresh. All of the cheeses are made with vegetarian coagulants which, along with the bacterial cultures, are imported from Europe and Canada.

In the near future he’s looking to expand his products to include more fresh cheeses that don’t require a lot of time to age.

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4 thoughts on “A Cheesy Kind of Guy”

  1. Paul, I will be visiting Saigon late October-early November. I make cheese here in Australia and would love to visit your factory, have a beer, cheese & talk cheesemaking.
    Richard Thomas
    Melbourne, Australia

    Reply
    • Hi Jurgen,

      I checked the website we had in the article and it’s no longer working. I believe this business is now closed.

      Reply

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