16 August 2016

The story of Sri Lanka’s Mister Cheese

If I was asked to suggest a name that would go with the word ‘cheese’ I would naturally go for the known brands, which by the way do not always mean quality.  Quality does go with ‘known’ but ‘known’ can come from good advertising helped along by low brand/product-awareness.  We know after all that anything can be sold to the gullible.  How many of us know, for example, that among cheesy products wedges, slices and spreads are at the low end of the preference spectrum of the connoisseur?  People who know of cheeses shun these kinds of products because they know what’s what. 

So, what’s a cheese-name outside of brands?  Here’s one that’s quite incongruous: .  Wait, let’s make it even more doubtful: Ranasinghe Arachchige Kumara Rathna. 

He was born in 1945 in Kandy and attended St Sylvester’s College.  Kumara Rathna wanted to see the world as a young man.  So after dabbling in this trade and that, he went to the Netherlands along with some friends.  This was in 1975.  This was where he came face to face with life and living things in ways that were as hands-on as in an undertaker’s premises. 

In the Netherlands he managed to secure a two year farm scholarship.  This is where he learned the basics of dairy management, poultry farming, how to run a piggery and of course cheese processing.  After completing this program of studies Kumara went to England where he made ends meet by taking on odd jobs.  He returned to Sri Lanka in 1978 and got an opportunity to put into practice all the knowledge he had acquired; he got a job as a supervisor in the National Livestock Development Board farm in Haragama.  Three months later he was hired as a Livestock Officer by the ‘New Zealand Farm’ in the Ambewela complex.  The rest is history.  The rest is cheese. 

In 1980, a team of experts from the Netherlands had arrived to advise the NLDB.  They soon discovered that Kumara Rathna had not only been to the Netherlands but had learned about chess processing there. 

“Mr Nabuurs, a  consultant to the NLDB, said ‘Let’s make cheese!’ I was more than ready to do this.  The first batch was made using 10 liters of fresh milk.  We made 1 kg.  Later we moved to 40 liters and then 100 liters.  It was hand-made cheese.”

Beginnings are always tough and it always takes a lot of courage, patience and sacrifice.  Kumara Rathna was equal to the task. 

“I had the fullest backing from the then Farm Manager, Mr. Tennekoon.  I took the cheese to Nuwara Eliya and sold it to the hotels at 120 rupees per kilo.  Once every two weeks I went to Kandy with samples.  The orders came via telegrams.  After a while I was given two laborers to help me.  They would take the cheese to Kandy.  I realized that discerning foreigners working on the Mahaweli project liked our products, so I went to their homes.  We began with Gouda and added a spicy product in 1982.  Later, in order to deal with the stocks, we produced parmesan cheese.  They were all sold under the brand name ‘NLDB New Zealand Farm’.”

As the production levels increased, the Manager had given Kumara Rathna a vehicle to take the cheese to Colombo.  He supplied to Cargills and also the Mt Lavinia Hotel.  Thereafter, gradually, he succeeded in convincing hotels along the Southern Coast to buy his cheese. 

“The demand became too much for us to handle at a certain point.  But the Chairman at the time, Leslie Fonseka gave us a Delica van and later a lorry.  We also got machines in 1983.  We got new moulds.  Before that we had to make do with S-lon pipes.  As a result we were able to supply cheese to the top hotels in all parts of the island.”

When Ambewela was privatized in 2001, Kumara Rathna had wondered whether it was to be the end of his cheese adventure.  However, the product had by then become larger than its captain.  The hotels demanded and the Chairman asked him to continue.  By that time Mr Cheese (shall we call him?) was producing approximately 3500 kg of cheese per month. 

Now a Senior Assistant Manager, Kumara Rathna is proud of what he’s accomplished, naturally.   Although distribution is now handled by Stassens, he still delivers to Nuwara Eliya.  Today he is assisted by 4 laborers who, along with him, handle the production, packaging and labeling.  The ‘farm shop’ at the New Zealand Farm sells approximately 400 kg of cheese products every month.  The straight Gouda is complemented by flavored cheeses, namely chillie, garlic, pepper, cumin and mustard. 

He is 71 years old.  He is the most senior employee in the overall Ambewela complex.  Mr Cheese continues to make cheese.  He is also a gardener and a vegetable farmer.  He began with just 10 liters of milk.  Now he uses 1200 liters of fresh milk every day.  His enthusiasm is as fresh as it was way back in 1979.  As for quality, it is stamped by the approval of those who are best able to judge.

“There have been people from the Netherlands who have told me that my cheeses are as good as anything they’ve had back home,” Kumara Rathna says with a smile.  That should be a quality assurance certificate as good as any. 

One day when the history of cheese-making in Sri Lanka is written, some unknown chronicler may record his story or perhaps he will not be mentioned.  That’s how it is in the business of chronicling.  

This much can be said though.  He has undertaken a lot, Kumara Rathna has.  He has delivered beyond expectations.  Not a name one might associate with cheese, but still it is a name that is owned by a man who is all about cheese.  Kumara Rathna. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.


Anonymous said...

Cheese is one of the most UNHEALTHY foods in the world. It is also very addictive.

Meat and cheese may be as bad as smoking: https://news.usc.edu/59199/meat-and-cheese-may-be-as-bad-for-you-as-smoking/

The only "healthy" cheese is the Indian "paneer" variety. Even that should be eaten in moderation.

Carmeline Liyanage said...

Mamma, we are so proud of you! All the best from Chicago.