I took a break from coffee cupping one day last week to spend some time at Serge’s dairy farm because, well, I like my coffee with milk.
Serge is the tall tattooed fellow, often decked in orange linen and silver necklaces, who owns one of three restaurants in Kigali I’ve actually been keen to eat at more than once. His Italian place, Papyrus (pronounced around here as papy-rus), is up a curvy cobblestone road in the hills and has a romantically colonial feel, with twinkle lights strung around a thatched-roof veranda, lots of dark hardwood and plants with expansive tropical leaves. The first time I saw the menu, pages of pastas, pizzas, and tilapia prepared seven ways, I instantly created some high expectations that dinner might actually have more flavor than my white bread-boiled egg lunch, but I was also a little disappointed. Can you really be on the other side of the world and find a restaurant that might as well be in Berkeley, with references to a specific farm name bolded and sprinkled throughout the menu? So the farmer-as-god gimmick has made it all the way to Rwanda, I probably smirked in my head right then.
But of course I gleefully ordered two dishes, so I could try two different Masaka Farms cheeses, and then I got Serge’s number and called him later that week. Because finding good cheese in Rwanda, especially one produced on a local farm and not imported from a Ugandan factory, is a big deal.
Serge didn’t really seem to care how or why I got his number, just genuinely surprised by my interest in visiting his farm. There’s a small shop attached to Papyrus that sells all seven of the dairy products made at Masaka Farms, also owned by Serge, along with bread and fresh pasta made in the restaurant kitchen. A bonafide boulangerie and fromagerie, in a country that prefers its milk powdered rather than fresh. His response when I told him I had already been to the shop and wanted to go to the farm itself? “Ahh… wow.” Not wanting to inconvenience him on a workday, I asked if I might tag along one morning when he had plans to be at the farm, not having any idea of where this farm was exactly. The better part of Rwanda is agricultural land, after all.
I was expecting typical mid-morning restaurant chaos and only a brief acknowledgement from Serge when I got to Papyrus at 10am; what I got instead was an invitation to sit down for coffee and croissants and have a chat. Sure, the coffee still came with powdered milk and for a few seconds I wished I were back in San Francisco having croissant at Tartine rather than crescent-shaped white bread. And Serge was still confused as to why I was interested in his dairy operation, not that I had a compelling reason to give him.
With English as his fifth language (Swahili and Italian being among the first four), Serge told me that he opened a cheese shop three years ago because an Italian man he met in Kigali had pointed him towards “the way.” This man, “so funny and so, so fat,” had been sleeping at a bar in Kigali when Serge found him, divorced and having spent his life savings on some fun in Brazil. Serge invited the man to stay at his place for a little while. Italian man stayed three years, in the midst of which he had obviously introduced Serge to the virtues of Italian cheese, among other foodstuffs. Serge ended up marrying an Italian woman and spending six months in the Veneto learning the intricacies of cow’s milk cheese (I don’t blame him for the faux-croissant though, no one goes to Italy for croissants).
When the chance came along to take over a small handicraft shop back in Kigali, Serge and Italian man opened Papyrus with a ‘school’ for Serge to teach baking and cheese-making during the day. Most remarkably, he decided to only hire young people who had been orphaned by the genocide. He trained 22 18-25 year olds that first year, instructing them to knead and stir the milk curds and bake wood-fired pizzas, and eventually to be waiters in the restaurant. He pointed to one skinny guy during our coffee, “That boy is so special to me, so special,” he said. That guy had fled to Congo during the genocide in early 1994, walking 1000 kilometers on foot without his family. When Serge found him a few years later, he was living on the streets in Kigali without shoes. Now, he works six days a week at Papyrus as a waiter and Serge is training him to make cheese at Masaka Farms. “If you give them a chance, they will succeed,” Serge says, “I don’t like to demand too much or they will not trust me.” I must have an incredulous look on my face at this point, realizing that Papyrus probably has the best service of any restaurant in Rwanda. That’s not saying much by American standards, but to take a crop of mostly young men who had never even eaten cheese or bread, Italian style, or visited a restaurant and turn them into the waiters I was watching tidy the dining room… well, Serge must be a lot of things, faithful among them.
Riding on the success of Papyrus, Serge received grant money to begin a similar project just outside Kigali, this one employing ex-child soldiers from the war. From two different enemy groups. Forty young men now working side by side to make pizza, boys who had once aimed to kill each other with machetes during a war that they were probably too young to even understand.
But what about Masaka Farms, I asked him, who’s working there? This dairy project has only been up and running for the past two months, though Serge started clearing his land for pasture two years ago. Over 100 people worked to do that for six months, cutting brush and planting grasses. Some young people kept showing up to work, even though he couldn’t pay them (he was already paying everyone else $1 per day, a small fortune for Serge). They kept coming back though, hoping for a paying job, and eventually Serge was able to give many of them permanent employment. Last month, he doubled the salary of everyone working for him; one girl had been cleaning Papyrus every day for the past two years, for around $30 per month. “She had the courage to keep coming back,” Serge shook his head in disbelief, “and now I can pay her $60 every month.”
We drove out to Masaka Farm in the bright yellow Masaka Farm van, with decals of cheese wheels on the side. Ten minutes from the city center along a heavily pedestrian-ed road lined with mud huts, we pulled up to a gently sloping pasture bordered by a white log fence. Without the banana trees scattered around, it might as well have been summer in Vermont. A few men have been building a brick stable to house his 12 cows, black and white imports from Germany (when I asked him about the variety of cow, having only seen horned African brown cows or Holsteins in Rwanda, the only part of the answer I understood was “German seminal, do you know seminal?”). He feeds his cows chopped up fresh grass from an abutting piece of property when they aren’t out to pasture, though the grass looked more like palm fronds. Tropical grass, native to Cameroon, Serge said. It looked like East Coast grass on steroids. All 12 cows were munching on their colossal grass pieces when I visited them, except for the one-week old calf that was being fed milk from a bottle by a stick-wielding herder (there’s plenty of beef in Rwanda, but veal isn’t on any menus yet).
Over in the dairy house, three men in rubber boots were making mozzarella. One stirred a three-foot wide basin with his hand, swirling the curds. With the other two silent and slim guys, he scooped the curds into large cheese-drainage baskets, letting the water splash on the tiled floor (that explained the rubber boots, but not the lack of floor drains in the building). As the curds dripped, Serge showed me his cheese-aging room-in-progress, where he’s been working with montazio, a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that he tosses on pizza. A dozen moldy wheels were stacked in his aging room, the air much warmer than cellar temperature; he said one French ex-pat family had ordered an entire wheel from him. He was asking 6,000 francs for the wheel, he told me. About $12.
He also makes a few hundred cups of yogurt each week, flavored with vanilla and fresh strawberry as a thick and silky alternative to Rwanda’s watery Nyungwe brand, and he makes ice cream. Serge stuck his finger in the crème fraîche dripping from a filter bucket while we waited for the mozzarella to drain, apologizing for not having any yogurt or ice cream there for me to taste. But ah, he said, “we will make some ice cream fresh for tonight!” And with hardly a word spoken, one of his workers filled an empty water bottle with the flowing crème fraîche, which he tossed on the dashboard as we left the pastures in the yellow van.
Serge insisted I come over to Papyrus for a pizza before heading home, though he’s forgotten to bring the fresh mozzarella back to the restaurant. I had watched him twirl elastic sheets of warm mozza into 28 fist-sized balls, plunking them then into a bucket of cold water. He was planning to stock the shop with containers of the stuff, and of course use the rest for pizza that night. But as we sat back at the restaurant, cutting up our nearly-Neopolitan pizza with montazio cheese and smoked ham, his cell rang three times with orders. One for yogurt, the next two for fresh mozzarella. “Eh,” Serge sighed and shook his head as he hung up on Solé Luna, another Italian restaurant in Kigali, “they bought all the mozzarella we made today.” So much for stocking the shop.
Later that night, ending my third meal at Papyrus for the day, another skinny waiter brought my English friend James and I goblets with vanilla ice cream. “Please,” he said. “For you.” Dense and silky, it was proper, old-fashioned ice cream, and James nodded sideways with approval. For many Rwandese though, to whom owning one cow is a luxury to aspire to, Serge’s dairy is not proper but exotic, and Serge himself the lord of the land.