Historically the first goat cheese dates back to 7,000 BC when prehistoric nomadic goat herders made a version to store surplus goat milk. In the last five years, there has been a great deal of interest in bringing “village" foods to the urban table, and a number of small enterprises have sprung up to fill the gap. Indigenously crafted goat cheese is gradually beginning to replace the expensive French chèvre in gourmet menus across the country.

Goat milk contributes 3% of total milk production in India, says Sagari Ramdas, veterinary scientist and member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance India. Goats yield 0.5-2 litres of milk per day for a little over half a year, and it takes a litre of raw milk to get 100g of cheese. Most goat breeding is done by small enterprises which don’t have the means required for pasteurization. They find it easier to sell the milk locally rather than attempt storage and transport, thereby risking bacterial contamination. In fact, the scale of operation is so limited that the department of dairy, animal husbandry and fisheries does not even have a production estimate for it.

Goat farms concentrate on meat, not milk, so the supply of milk is both small and intermittent. Travel across rural India and you will find goats and sheep grazing. Indigenous breeds like Jamunapari, Tellicherry, Beetal and Jakhrana are reared for their meat value, and this is seen as a stable livelihood for many communities.

Goat milk is traditionally left for the kid and only a fraction is used by herders or by those who believe in its specific health benefits. Ramdas says milk and cheese dairy farming is a high investment and high-risk enterprise for a small and marginal farmer, and so only those with deep pockets or specific interest in goat milk are likely to get into it. Till then, most goat rearing will be done for meat.

Naturally then, in the hallowed world of dairy products, cow’s milk cheese dominates the market. Cheesemakers such as ABC Farms, Kodai Cheese and Bengaluru-based Vistara Farms are butting their way in and looking to up their share in the goat cheese business from the current 1-5% to a respectable 15%. Not only is its image as a health food going to help, but it is also considered a safe alternative for those with cow’s milk allergies, although there is no last word on this.

Goat cheese has similar “health" benefits as milk, but can be stored for longer. Tangier and creamier than cheese made from cow’s milk, it has a peculiar smokiness and tartness. “It has notes of hay and smells of the barnyard. It’s a very real smell of earth and ‘goatiness’," says Mumbai-based Aditya Raghavan, a cheesemaker and physicist who has created artisanal cheeses from not just cow, buffalo and goat milk, but also yak (churu) and camel milk. “Very few goats are stall-fed, they mostly graze in the outdoors. This is a plus because their milk is seen as ‘free range’ and organic," he adds.

Artisanal cheeses using milk from small farms, from a single species of animal, worked by hand and often custom made, are preferred. In the last few years, bulk cheese made from cow’s milk has become very price sensitive. Hari Shankar, managing director of Kodai Cheese, a 15-crore cow’s milk cheese business in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, made a radical decision to quit the bulk cheeses industry almost 10 years ago, as margins were being continuously squeezed. He has since moved into artisanal cheeses, including goat, where he says margins are much better.

Artisanal cheesemakers in search of new ideas are finding possibilities in goat milk beyond feta and chèvre. Pune’s ABC Farms already has a Gouda and a Gorgonzola made of goat’s milk and is experimenting with more custom cheeses.

The growing supply of goat cheeses is matched by the changing profile of the consumer who is tired of mozzarella and cheddar, now seen as everyday cheeses. Travel abroad has coaxed open our taste buds. Food shows, well-stocked high-end grocery stores in metro cities, and the fact that even your neighbourhood kirana is likely to stock more than just simple cheddar, is making us acutely aware of the
difference between pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Sohrab Chinoy, managing director of ABC Farms, describes his enterprise as a “cheese boutique" and says he makes goat cheese on demand, as he does most of his other cheeses—70 varieties in all. He has tried a goat milk Rocquefort (originally made with sheep’s milk) and a French-style chèvre with great success. Having a restaurant business alongside the cheese factory allows him to experiment with different flavours and work on feedback.

The newest artisanal cheesemaker experimenting with goat cheese is Bengaluru-based Vistara Farms, which has invested in two goat farms near Mysuru. They are educating consumers on the strengths of goat milk products by providing literature at all their sales points; they also offer samples. “Unless people sample and see there is no unpleasant smell, we won’t get sales," says R. Chetan Kumar, marketing manager, Vistara Farms.

Shankar of Kodai Cheese is upbeat about the future of goat cheeses. He says, “The market is ready; just look at how well imported goat cheese sells. There are only a few players so it’s a great business opportunity. " He has two goat milk cheeses on the market—the softer chèvre and a feta made with 10% goat milk and the rest cow’s milk. He says the local hill station consumes his entire production.

Vistara Farms started with selling goat milk in a few stores in Bengaluru but quickly realized that milk is the most perishable of dairy products, and, without a stable market, they would not survive. They directed their milk output to cheese, which has a longer shelf life. Cheese is expensive and they had to bring the price of their 100g packet down from an initial 465 to 310 to encourage sales. The company also looked at longer shelf-life products, such as goat milk chocolate and lower priced yogurt to gain a hold in the market. Their yogurt has already taken off under the brand name Basta in flavours like chikoo, tender coconut, honey banana and custard apple. They also plan to ramp up from the current 250 goats to a 3,000-strong goat farm in the next few years.

On the demand side, goat cheese has got off to a good start, but supply could prove to be a bottleneck. “If someone asks me for 50kg of cheese, where am I going to get 500 litres of goat milk?" says Chinoy.

Manufacturers say they get calls from city chefs asking for regular supplies and the retail market is picking up. It may be niche for now, but given its growing popularity, it’s unlikely to stay that way.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Goat cheese stuffed apples

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 large apples
100g chèvre (soft goat cheese)
1/2
tsp cinnamon powder
1/4
cup raisins and walnuts, chopped
4 tbsp raw honey

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Soften goat cheese in a bowl by pressing several times with a fork. If the cheese is dry, add 1-2 tablespoons of yogurt. Mix in cinnamon powder. Using a small knife, cut the tops of the apples. Save them.

Carve out the cores of the apple and fill with the goat cheese mixture to the top. Cover the apples with their tops and bake for 30 minutes in the oven*.

Take out of the oven, remove the tops and add the chopped raisins and walnuts. Bake for an additional 4-5 minutes, till the walnuts get toasty.

Serve warm and drizzle 1 tablespoon of honey per apple, on the top and sides.

Note: If the apples do not stand, place them in individual ramekins.

—Aditya Raghavan

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