I had a Cheese Slices moment deep in the belly of Auroville. With freezing cold water lapping around my bare feet, I took a long metal needle and poked it into a creamy golden wheel. “Go on, make more holes,” urged Benny, “the more the oxygen that enters, the more the mould that is created and the tastier the Gorgonzola.”
Say cheese: Cheddar moulds wait in intermediate rooms till they turn firm. Sumana Mukherjee
Mould is good. But having Benny (he prefers using one name) explain why is better. Talking us through the process of cheese-making, the Dutch-born Aurovillian is alternately self-deprecatory and impassioned, as if he can’t quite figure out why the magic of milk and bacteria and rennet should interest anyone but him.
“Are you sure you want to know the chemistry?” he asks repeatedly. We nod, secretly wishing someone had told us in school that this is what compounds and coagulants and controlled temperatures could end up doing.
Apparently, no one told Benny either: A chemist by training, he found himself one day in France, making cheese from raw goat milk. When he moved to Auroville in 1998, he brought his experience with him and soon found himself at work at La Ferme (literally, The Farm). Together with Olivier, a professional cheese maker from France who has since left the commune, Benny experimented with milk collection and enzyme introduction to expand the bouquet of products and today is in the happy position of having more demand than the farm can meet.
Among La Ferme’s seasoned cheeses are Lofabu (mild, nutty, somewhat similar to Edam or Raclette), Swissly (strong, comparable to a sharp Pyrenees), Cheddar (firm, with a distinct taste), Auroblochon (piquant, akin to a young Parmesan), Gorgonzola (of course) and Bleu d’Auroville (the first blue-veined and the other mould-covered, soft, creamy and white cheeses) and Parmesan, while their fresh cheeses include a Ricotta cream (excellent in quiches and sauces), a crumbly feta, a moist mozzarella and a Philadelphia herbed spread. It’s somehow peculiarly appropriate that all these world cheeses should be reborn in Auroville, Sri Aurobindo’s “universal town”.
“La Ferme is actually at the crossroads,” Benny says. “We have to take a decision soon whether we stay a cottage industry or grow bigger.”
In the outside world, that would be a non-question. But La Ferme takes pride in its local/artisanal label: The milk—up to 500 litres a day, producing 50kg of cheese—is sourced from Auroville’s own dairy and from local farmers, the fuel for pasteurization is biogas (the cow comes in handy in more ways than one) and a windmill pumps water.
When we arrive, on a Friday afternoon, the workshop has just been washed, the burners are off and all activity is confined to bacteria. “I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible to have visitors during the morning work hours,” Benny shrugs, a half-smile making disappointment impossible. We walk into a water-filled hollow—as commonly found in temples—at the doorstep to divest our feet of all dust, and confront the five or six large vats sitting silently on gas hobs. This is where the milk is cooked at individually pre-determined temperatures for various cheeses and the vegetarian rennet introduced. The milk cools in a specially appointed cooling room and, once it has “set” (thanks to the rennet), it is “cut” with a wire implement that looks like a cross between a rectangular badminton racket and a gardening tool. The whey is drained off (to be used elsewhere) with lengths of cheesecloth, the solids salted and stuffed into perforated round moulds—that’s how the “wheels” are formed—and weighted down with 25kg of wooden blocks. Variations in this basic process create the various cheeses.
On Friday morning, Benny’s team had finished working with Cheddar—they usually make one kind of cheese a day—and in an intermediate room, blocks relieved of their weights sit in their moulds till they are firm enough to be removed. The wheels are then stored in the cold room—the water on the floor is yet another improvisation to maintain an ideal ambient temperature—each stamped with their production date.
But Benny’s greatest triumph, he’s certain, is the Goaty. In Europe, he tells us, goats have been reared for milk since the early Middle Ages; over the years, their milk-providing capacity has grown, the cheese production, too, has been refined. Goat cheese typically has a strong, distinctive flavour, a fallout of the tangy taste of the milk itself, and is much prized by food connoisseurs. In India, with no history of goat milk consumption, it takes much larger herds to provide a quantity of milk that can be profitably turned into cheese.
“A few years ago, we heard of a breed of goats in Kerala that provided good milk. We went down and procured about 10 and now their number has grown to about 30. Milk production is still low, however, but we have successfully processed their milk into cheese,” says Benny. What he doesn’t say is that this is the only goat milk cheese produced in India.
It has the same delightfully squidgy consistency as European goat cheese and a strong taste. It spreads delightfully, though a little goes a long way, and is brilliant sprinkled on bruschetta or crostini. A little bit of history in a mouthful, in fact, that Will Studd would be proud to record.
For a tour of Auroville’s cheese unit, call 04132-622212 for an appointment.
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