The cheese revolution

One of the world’s oldest dairy traditions is cultivating a brand new culture. Meet the men and women behind India’s quiet cheese revolution


Agnay Mehra (left) and Prateeksh Mehra of The Spotted Cow Fromangerie at their home in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Agnay Mehra (left) and Prateeksh Mehra of The Spotted Cow Fromangerie at their home in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In 2014, newspapers reported that archaeologists working on a site in the Taklamakan desert in north-western China had discovered mummies from the Bronze Age, dating back to 1615 BC. This wasn’t particularly remarkable, except that these mummies had clumps of cheese around their necks and chests. They seemed to have been buried with a bit of food to see them through to the afterlife. And so, the world’s oldest preserved cheese had been found.

Chances are, as you were reading that story, the word “cheese” would have brought to mind a slab of Amul processed cheese. You weren’t thinking of a whey-soaked ball of mozzarella, wobbly in your palms, or a disc of baked Brie, its buttery gold heart begging to be scooped with a cracker.

Over the last few years, though, a curious series of circumstances has conspired to replace the processed cheeses at the top of our minds, and in speciality stores and restaurants across urban India, with hand-crafted Cheddars, mozzarellas, Gruyères, Bries and fetas, all made locally. Cheesemakers have enthusiastically embraced Make in India.

Last year was Anno Uno for cheese in India—local cheesemakers came to public notice as we discovered cheeses that had been living in the shadow of paneer. The spread was everywhere—in newspapers, magazines, listicles online, long-form musings, interviews with chefs. Cheese found itself lumped with food fads—cupcakes, frozen yogurt, cronuts, nut butters, molecular Indian gastronomy, artisanal coffee, craft beer, sourdough bread. Some of these had their 15 seconds of fame; some lingered.

So is artisanal cheese a food fad? Physicist-turned-cheesemaker Aditya Raghavan rolls his eyes. “Dairy is so important to India; we have all been consuming it from such a young age. This is not a big leap. Bread, cheese and coffee are more fundamental than, say, cupcakes. It won’t just disappear.” Raghavan should know. The 36-year-old has spent the last three years chasing cheese across the country, helping artisanal cheesemakers set up factories, overseeing and fixing production lines, troubleshooting, cheesemaking, learning and documenting obscure dairy practices and, essentially, being the consultant the fledgling Indian cheese scene didn’t know it needed.

India is the world’s largest producer of milk. According to the Economic Survey 2015-16, the country produced 146 million tonnes of milk— that’s 18.5% of the world’s total output. A September USDA Foreign Agricultural Service report expects milk production to increase to 160 million tonnes. We churn it into butter, culture it into yogurt, slowly caramelize it to make khoya. Cheese though—cultured, rennet coagulated—seemed to have largely escaped our purview.

 Mukund Naidu with his collection of cheese. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Mukund Naidu with his collection of cheese. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

This puzzled cheese expert Will Studd—you know him as the man behind the show Cheese Slices on TLC or from his battle with the Australian government to import raw-milk cheeses into the country. “The question that fascinated me was, why does this country have only one cheese? I know there are a few others, but essentially one cheese—paneer.”

One factor, Studd says, is the religious connotation of using animal rennet—the enzyme that separates milk into curds and whey, the first step in cheesemaking—which comes from the stomach of two-week-old calves. To extract the rennet, the calf has to be killed. That alone doesn’t explain the lack of cheese varieties in the country, however. “India was one of the first countries to develop a culture of preserving butter, maybe 2,000-3,000 years before Europe, in a very sophisticated way, but didn’t develop cheese.” The answer is practicality: India’s tropical climate doesn’t allow for bacterial preservation. “The reality of ghee is it doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold, it keeps. And it fulfils its purpose for cooking.”

Amul was the first company to make an attempt at an Indian processed cheese in the early 1960s. “Protracted and arduous pioneering research went into the formula for making a standardized Indian variety of Cheddar cheese, once again belying expert opinion, which stated that it could not be made from buffalo milk,” Ruth Heredia writes in The Amul India Story (1997). “Easier, said some experts, to get shoe polish from it, and, indeed, the earliest experimental samples did taste a bit like wax polish.”

Amul’s cheese—easy to melt and store—would go on to flood the market. Today, the processed cheese market is dominated by brands like Amul, Britannia, Gowardhan and Mother Dairy, which make variations of processed Cheddar, hard mozzarella “pizza cheese” and cream cheese, but smaller players like Exito Gourmet (Impero) and Dairy Craft have waded into the market, too, with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone, scamorza and Cheddar.

Yet, cheese still only accounts for a fraction of dairy product sales. In 2014, retail sales of packaged dairy products in India were estimated at $10.2 billion (about Rs66,700 crore now) by market research firm Euromonitor—cheese accounted for about $244 million of this.

Rise of the local fromagère

The early 1990s saw the rise of a few local cheesemakers. Film-maker Mansoor Khan, director of two blockbusters, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, moved to Coonoor in 2003, where he has been making Gouda, Colby, Gruyère, halloumi and more on his farm Acres Wild. In Pune, ABC Farms, established by Rohinton Aga, Adi Bathena and Eruch Chinoy (hence the name ABC) and now run by Sohrab Chinoy, has been producing versions of Gorgonzola, Cheddar and mozzarella for over 30 years. ABC Farms’ owner claims they sell 10 tonnes of cheese a month, or about 300kg a day on average, to Vivanta By Taj—President in Mumbai, Marriott Suites in Pune, and Sun N Sand hotels in Mumbai and Pune. Acres Wild produces 8-10kg a day and only sells at two stores in Coonoor.

Then there is Caroselle Dairy Products Pvt. Ltd Kodaikanal. Bengaluru-based Mukund Naidu quit engineering studies in 1991, moving to a farm in the Tamil Nadu hill town. “In those days, we were out in the boondocks, about 17km from town in a hilly area. Access to transport was minimal and we found it difficult to ship fresh milk to town every day, so we decided to make some cheese.” Naidu and New Zealander David Hogg set up the cheese unit and are suppliers of European-style artisanal cheese to a number of restaurants in the south. “I was one of the first people to make ‘pasta filata’ mozzarella in India, way back in 1994,” says Naidu. This soft Italian mozzarella, made by stretching hot cheese curds, is not the same as the industrial version that is made hard enough to grate over pizzas and pastas. “I showed it to chefs back then who had no idea what to do with this ball, how to apply it to their dishes,” laughs Naidu.

All that changed with the Internet. Cheesemaking is now just a click away and a search for a mozzarella recipe on YouTube throws up no less than 300,000 results. You could be making cheese in less than an hour. It’s how Mumbai-based Prateeksh Mehra learnt to make his versions of Brie and Camembert.

Mehra, a commercial food photographer, caught the brewing bug in 2014, when the craft beer craze in the country was cresting. “I used to play around with cheese and beer pairings when it struck me that the process of making beer was very similar to that of making cheese.”

Much in the way he learnt his brewing—online—he began to teach himself about cheeses. Soft cheeses in particular caught his fancy, partly because he didn’t have a lot of patience, he says. “Hard cheeses, like Cheddar, need at least six months to reach maturity, and that’s a long time to wait to see if it has comes out right. If not, it’s six months of work gone to waste.”

He roped in his brother and began making a Brie-style cheese, something no cheesemaker was doing in India then, and which would take just over three-six weeks to mature. They surprised themselves with the result—a soft rind Brie with a profound buttery note, without the faint ammoniac tang of French Brie de Meaux. They marketed it at the BBC Good Food Show in Mumbai in 2014, found a few interested chefs, and it took off. Today they sell in units of 150g for Rs300 each under The Spotted Cow Fromagerie brand. The brothers make almost 250kg of cheese a month in the basement of their home in suburban Mumbai, supplying to chains such as Indigo Delicatessen and Salt Water Café in their city, and Toast & Tonic in Bengaluru.

Travel is the other factor that’s influencing both the consumption and production of cheese. Well-travelled customers are now demanding the same quality of cheese they eat on their trips abroad. Cheesemakers are applying the knowledge gathered abroad to meet this demand.

Mansi Jasani, who was pursuing a master’s in food studies at New York University, signed up for a three-day cheese boot camp at Murray’s Cheese, New York’s best-known artisanal cheese retailer. “I learnt about different styles of cheese, milk chemistry, cheese chemistry, how it’s made, terroir... basically everything related to cheese. After those three days, people around me were done, they were cheesed out. I, on the other hand, was like, where can I eat more?” She quit studies to focus on cheese and landed a three-month internship at Murray’s, where she was put to work in the cheese caves. “My daily chores were cleaning, vacuum packing, unwrapping cheeses, sorting them, turning the harder cheeses…and on my birthday, they let me have the cheese trier (an instrument that lets you take a sliver of cheese out to test its ageing without cutting out a slice) to try any four cheeses in the caves. It was the best day of my life.” That was also when she realized that though she enjoyed cheesemaking—she currently sells chèvre, or goat cheese, from her home in Mumbai—what she wanted to be was a cheesemonger, to curate, collect and sell cheeses made by local cheesemakers and help develop a cheese culture. In 2014, she founded The Cheese Collective, which curates cheeses from across the country and supplies it to parties, corporate events and restaurants. Now, she is in the process of setting up her own cheese cave and factory in Lonavala, near Mumbai.

Calcutta Calabrese from Toast &Tonic, Bengaluru. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Calcutta Calabrese from Toast &Tonic, Bengaluru. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Grating issues

Challenges have remained pretty much the same since the early days of Indian cheesemaking. Cold-chain logistics remain the weakest link in the supply chain. Cold-truck breakdowns, unreliable shipping and a total lack of knowledge at food stores has hobbled the reach of these cheeses. Stephen Kairanna, who owns the Nadur Goat Farm, about 25km from Udipi, and who, with his wife Priya, began selling goat’s milk feta in 2016, found that the cheese leaving his factory was not the one reaching customers. “I put my cheeses in a reputable chain of high-end food stores and found that they weren’t even refrigerating it. As a result, customers would eat cheese that’s gone off and imagine that’s what it really tastes like. They would obviously never buy it again.” Last year, he began shipping it directly to interested customers and restaurants, so he could control the quality.

Lack of customer knowledge is still a major hurdle in retailing local cheeses. “I have got a lot of strange questions from people over the years,” says Jasani. “One of the more popular ones is, ‘Is there egg in this cheese?’”

Arbitrary government regulations have actually helped local cheesemakers though. In 2011, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) decreed that animal-rennet cheeses could not be imported—this accounts for the majority of cheese produced in Europe. “We have a bunch of issues importing cheese with certain ingredients into India. It’s not country specific, but there are certain parameters and guidelines defined by the FSSAI regarding the source of rennet used in making cheese, ingredients used, and various other factors, due to which restrictions come in play,” says Swasti Aggarwal, food strategist at the Foodhall chain of stores that stocks both Indian and imported cheeses.

FSSAI regulations also decree that milk and milk products imported into the country must be heat-processed to kill bacteria, which automatically disqualifies raw milk cheeses. “Once that happened, it eliminated about 80% of the world’s repertoire of good quality cheeses, because it’s just not made that way; it changes the nature of the product,” says chef Manu Chandra, the man behind the Monkey Bar gastropubs and Bengaluru’s Toast & Tonic. “So what we’re inundated with is a lot of supermarket style, highly processed variants of famous cheese. Instead of a beautiful French Brie, you will get a Danish pasteurized pack that, like a McDonald burger, you could leave out for three years and nothing would happen to it.”

Local cheesemakers were happy to step in to fill this void, and restaurateurs were happier paying a premium for local cheese made right than using lower-quality imported cheese.

And yet, while we’re all celebrating the rise of the small great Indian cheese industry, Raghavan sounds a note of caution. “I’m not convinced I want to be a cheesemaker in India; I have travelled all over Europe and eaten and made cheese there and I don’t think it’s possible to make that quality of cheese here.”

It’s not just the quality of milk, or the terroir, he says. “They (Europeans) have a tradition of dealing in raw milk. In India, everything we do with dairy is boiled.” This culture of boiled milk hasn’t made Indians vigilant about raw milk and inculcating it in the farmers who supply the milk is difficult. “Who am I to go tell a farmer, ‘Do it like this, your parents were wrong?’”

The other factor is the use of vegetarian rennet. “Vegetarian rennet is made in a laboratory and you train bacteria to produce chymosin, the active enzyme, and the way it deals with the proteins in milk lends it some bitterness and when you make enough cheese or taste enough cheese, you can feel it. Anything you do to fix that changes the cheese.”

He also doesn’t see small farmers and dairy owners being able to sustain themselves on cheese alone. The working model is to have a hybrid dairy, one that makes yogurt and supplies milk, alongside the cheese. We have a long way to go, Raghavan says, before we can even think of competing with international cheeses.

Over the last two years, however, there has been a steady push by restaurateurs towards local produce and greater respect for home-grown ingredients. Trends like foraging and slow food have found enthusiastic proponents here. So while restaurateurs are happy sourcing from Indian cheesemakers, they’re also looking to revive lesser-known Indian cheeses.

Chandra, for instance, shaves smoked Bandel, an intensely salty, crumbly cheese that he sources from Kolkata, over sourdough toasts. Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, at his Armenian restaurant Lavaash By Saby in Delhi, serves a cheese platter composed entirely of indigenous cheeses—salted and smoked Bandel and a sharp Kalimpong. At Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, Thomas Zacharias serves topli-nu-paneer, a Parsi cheese with a wobble like the lightest panna cotta. And at Mumbai’s Masque, a farm-to-fork restaurant that leans heavily on foraging, chef Prateek Sadhu is bringing back kalari, a “pasta filata” cheese from Jammu, not unlike mozzarella, that he grew up on. Well-known chefs abroad have been vital in driving food trends, so the great push for local cheese could possibly come from our own well-known, home-grown chefs.

In the meantime, though, we can revel in our local cheeses and hope that in a few decades, we will have a lovely Indian cheese of our own to be buried with and bamboozle scientists with in the future. Somebody please remember to pack the crackers.

***

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Going local

The Spotted Cow Fromagerie, Mumbai

Prateeksh and Agnay Mehra produce Bombrie, Camembay and Rombay, versions of French and Italian bloomy rind cheeses like Brie, Camembert and robiola. These are available on Thespottedcow.in and also retail at Foodhall Mumbai.

Himalayan Cheese, Srinagar

Dutchman Chris Zandee works with local Gujjar and Bakarwal pastoralists to make Gouda, Cheddar and the local kalari and build a sustainable, community-based business in Kashmir. Order these on Himalayancheese.com or from Foodhall stores.

La Ferme Cheese, Puducherry

Originally started to supply handmade, artisanal cheeses to the residents of Auroville, La Ferme’s products today are available in speciality shops all over the country. These all-natural cheeses are made from milk supplied by local farms and include styles of Cheddar, Parmesan, feta, Gruyère and a pungent auroblochon. Buy them on Auroville.com.

Vallombrosa Cheese, Bengaluru

Authentic buffalo mozzarella, bocconcini and burrata are turned out daily by the monks of the Vallombrosa Benedictine order on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Set up by Father K.L. Michael in 2004 to take advantage of India’s buffalo milk production—the largest in the world—and to sustain the monastery, these are now available at some of the country’s finest restaurants, and retail stores in Bengaluru. For more details, visit Vallombrosacheese.com.

Flanders Dairy Products, Delhi

Sunil Bhu brought a little slice of Belgium to Bijwasan, on the outskirts of Delhi, when he set up Flanders Dairy in 1991. They now produce flavoured Gouda, goat’s cheese, mozzarella, mascarpone, ricotta, scamorza and kwark that retails from their own cheese store, The Cheese Ball, on Lodhi Road. For more details, visit Flanders-dairy.com.

***

Mansi Jasani at her home with her favourite cheeses and dips. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

‘Desi’ cheese

Get to know a few local varieties across the country

Chhena

Bengal owes the Portuguese a great food debt. When they first made landfall on the east coast of India and discovered they couldn’t get their beloved cottage cheese here, they set about making it by acid-curdling milk and treating the curds to form three different kinds of cheese. Chhena, that ubiquitous base of Bengali sweets, is made by splitting milk—just like ‘paneer’—then kneading the curds until it becomes soft and pliable, to be shaped into ‘rasgullas’ and ‘sandesh’.

Cheese platter from Lavaash By Saby. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Bandel

Also, in the east, the ‘chhena’ is pressed to form circular discs, then salted and dried to form its savoury cousin Bandel, a milky, chewy cheese. This is also smoked for a deeper, stronger-flavoured Bandel.

Chhurpi

A cheese that’s travelled across the Himalayas, ‘chhurpi’ is made from yak milk, specifically yak buttermilk. Much like ricotta, the buttermilk is boiled until the milk solids separate from the whey, before it’s drained to make soft ‘chhurpi’. To preserve it though, it’s drained further, then pressed under weights till it forms a hard, chewy mass.

Courtesy: Himalayan Cheese

Kalari

Native to Udhampur in Jammu, ‘kalari’ or ‘maish krej’ is a soured milk cheese that uses a hot pan to stretch the curds and shape it into ‘chapati’-like discs. These are then sun-dried, so it’s hard on the outside, but still moist inside.

Kalimpong

A hard, crumbly, mild-flavoured cheese that shares similarities with Gouda, Kalimpong was made by a priest in Sikkim. It’s sold locally in Sikkim, though if you are lucky, you may land a bit of the 10kg made by four families in Kalimpong and retailed every day in Kolkata.

More From Livemint