Molnárné Tomi Tünde spent much of her childhood in the kitchen next to her grandmother, learning the local cuisine and the ingredients that people in her part of north-eastern Hungary knew how to find in the landscape, or grow from the region’s fertile ground. Nearly everyone at that time had a garden, some sheep and a few goats.
But successive waves of economic and social upheaval changed all that and many people found themselves out of work and distanced from the land. Many of the old ways of making delicious food from local plants and animals fell by the wayside in a world where the main foods people could afford where industrial commodities produced at a large scale.
No wonder that even this energetic and dynamic woman — a force for various good causes in her community — never conceived that she would end up helping to reinvigorate some of her region’s traditional cuisine as a gourmet cheese master.
“I always liked cheese,” she says. “But I never dreamt of producing it.”
After all, Tünde was a social worker, not a chef. As a Red Cross employee, she was well known for organizing blood drives and other initiatives to help those hardest hit by the changes in the local economy.
Cooking up a new approach
But then the Hungarian Red Cross began cooking up a plan that would change Tünde’s life, while also helping turn around the lives of many people in the area who were going through hard times.
The idea was to create a sustainable social enterprise that would generate enough income to give marginalised people (with mental or physical disabilities, health problems or who are members of ethnic minority groups) a chance to learn new skills, earn a steady income, and find a place to belong.
The product that the Hungarian Red Cross had settled on was goat cheese, which would be produced in a small factory using milk from a small, nearby goat farm. To some in the region, it first seemed like a pretty radical idea.
“This is the first goat farm here in Mezőcsát,” Tünde noted. “The people here were surprised, and even more about the fact, that the Red Cross is doing something like that. Here, the Red Cross is mainly known for blood donation.”
Photo: IFRC/Peter Farkas
The cheese factory and farm got off the ground with funding from the Hungarian government, the European Union and the Hungarian Red Cross, and after many long days put in by Red Cross employees, from the local branch to Budapest, the new cheese brand was officially launched in April 2019.
The idea came from Red Cross staff who wanted to explore new approaches to humanitarian work in which a social enterprise would create a sustainable way of help disadvantaged residents of the region to find their own long-term livelihood, instead of only giving food or other kinds of donations.
At the same time, this new humanitarian business model would give socially conscious food consumers a way to connect the food they love with things they care about: preserving local food traditions, environmental sustainability, acts of kindness and solidarity and, last but not least, tasty and healthy foods to enjoy (all the farm’s cheeses are made with no preservatives and artificial flavors).
In the end, the goat farm was not only accepted, it took off. The Red Cross’s cheese brand, Kis-Hortobágy Major, launched in April 2019, (see here a link to its Facebook page and a recent YouTube promotional video), has already found a home on shelves in markets from Mezőcsát to Budapest.
Photo: IFRC/Peter Varkas
Becoming a master cheese maker
Fortunately, when leadership from the Hungarian Red Cross asked Tünde to consider directing the operation, she did have some experience to fall back on. “My grandmother and great-grandmother used to make cheese,” she says. “They owned cows, so [the process] was not entirely new to me.”
Still Tünde had some homework to do. Just passed her 50th birthday, Tünde reinvented herself, putting all her culinary and people skills to the test. Fortunately, her husband Tibor had some experience with animals and took on the task of running the goat farm. Tünde, meanwhile, sharpened her own culinary talents and studied to become a certified master cheese maker.
“We usually wake up very early, at 4 o’clock,” she says. “We drink our coffee with my husband. We start working at 5 o’clock, I go to the cheese factory, and he goes to the farm.”
In the beginning, there were 10 people taking care of 50 goats and preparing the handmade gourmet cheese in a modern and accessible factory building. Today, Kis-Hortobágy Major is financially self-sustainable and its farmstead houses more than 90 goats, 200 hens and quails and it boasts a large vegetable garden, giving work to the employees who prepare dairy products ranging from smoked cheese to orda, parenica, yoghurt and many other products.
A growing farm, a big family
“I never worked at a farm before, but I like it,” says Norbi, one of the farm workers, whose tasks on any given day might range from feeding the chickens to milking goats or tending the garden.
One of the workers in the cheese factory says she’s also learned a variety of new skills. “I’ve learned how cheese is produced, I had no clue about it earlier,” she says.
Aside from providing jobs to people who really need them, Kis-Hortobágy Major is playing a role in a growing movement that celebrates locally produced, artisanal products as a key part of finding solutions to a range of social and environmental challenges.
But for many of the workers, it’s about even more.
“For me it’s not just a working place, it’s like a family,” says one of the farm workers.
That family spirit comes through during meals when team members sit down together to share the fruits of their labors. Using their own goat cheese to make the meal is only natural since goat cheese is used in a wide range of regional dishes, from salads to pastries and meat dishes.
But it’s not just Tünde’s talents in the kitchen that make this social enterprise a success. It’s also her natural compassion and experience as a social worker that make Kis-Hortobágy Major a special place to work.
“I don’t think of her as a boss,” says one of the cheese factory workers. “I think of her rather as a friend. It is very good to work with her. She listens to me and helps me in every aspect of life.”
The recipe: goat cheese blueberry cheesecake
This story was produced and originally published by the Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine. To learn about the Magazine, and to read more stories like this, click here.