The Korean peninsula was somewhat of a latecomer to cheese. Unlike those in Europe, Korea had to wait until 1958 before its population unlocked the dairy delights of curds and whey. It was that year that Belgian priest, Didier t`Serstevens- who went by his Korean name, Ji Jeong-hwan, arrived in South Korea’s North Jeolla Province, to carry out missionary work.
Six years later, in 1964, Jeong-hwan’s missionary work took him to the rural Imsil County. The governor of Imsil-gun implored Ji to extend his assistance beyond the local Catholic population and help the local community. Seeking a novel way to benefit the local population, he acquired two goats and began to produce goat’s cheese.
Father Ji immediately realised how ambitious his cheese-making venture was. He later recounted, “I was raising two goats that I had received as a gift… I thought the milk could produce revenue. Of course, it didn’t turn out the way I had planned.”
There was almost no demand for his product. He was also highly inexperienced, “it looked like cheese, but the quality wasn’t good enough to put on sale”, he remembers. He was able to raise US$2,000 from his parents to build a factory with the capability for fermentation. But three years after launching the project, Father Ji and the farmers had nothing to show for their efforts.
The priest returned to Europe, spending more than three-months touring France and Belgium’s cheese factories. Armed with the knowledge of cheese manufacturing, he returned to Imsil determined to relaunch his cheese-making venture and make it a success.
Finally, in 1969, it took off. The cheeses Father Ji produced were good enough to sell, and the Korean population developed a taste for the rich and creamy flavours. Today, Imsil has 12 different brands of goat’s cheese, including string cheese, and raspberry-infused cheese.
In 2004, Imsil took its love for cheese to the next level. It opened the Cheese Theme Park. The 130,000 square metre complex allows visitors to explore Imsil’s history of cheese, revel in the cheese playground, take selfies in front of the cheese-shaped buildings, and even try their hand at making cheese.
The park draws more than 200,000 visitors annually, no small feat for a county with a population of just 30,000.
Pay the park a visit in October for the park’s annual cheese festival. More details are available on the official website in Korean.
Father Ji still lives in Korea today, receiving his South Korean citizenship in 2016.
Featured image from Flickr by Republic of Korea
Image of women making cheese from Flikr by Republic of Korea
Image of cheesemaking from Flikr by Republic of Korea
Image of theme park display from Flikry by Republic of Korea
Image of Imsil Cheese Theme Park from Flikr by Republic of Korea