Say cheese. Old saying, but always makes us smile. Cheese makes everything better, but the choices of ingredients for food, in general, has shifted from too-exotic-for-you to locally sourced, fresh produce and when we have fabulous indigenous cheese brands doing delish cheeses, the need for processed and mass-produced cheese is also diminishing.
You can’t talk about the uphill journey of artisanal cheese without mentioning ‘cheesemonger’ Mansi Jasani, who founded The Cheese Collective in 2014 and has built a cheese map with chef Garima Arora’s non-profit initiative, Food Forward India. This is a map that you can open in Google Earth, and it represents people, producers, curators, and everyone cheese-related in the country. I’ve tried some of the amazing cheese that Jasani’s own collective makes, and she knows her cheese well.
While the artisanal cheese culture has always existed in India, Arvind Chawla of Darima Farms informs that it was more prominent in the south and west of India than the north. North India’s obsession was with cottage cheese and cream, and not so much with wine and cheese. “The boom came with the wine culture in the mid-’90s, when Sula started, and the game changed. The IT industry boom and travelling abroad contributed to it,” Chawla explains.
Hotels, smaller cafés, chefs, and even hospitality chains are preferring cheese from artisanal cheesemakers. The pandemic saw another such flurry of supporting small businesses, and the need for more small-batch, top-notch quality cheese has started another conversation.
While some cheesemakers have been around since the end of time, there has been a fairly large crop of new ones in the last three years. We speak to them about their ventures and all the factors that matter in making cheese palatable to the Indian consumer today.
Darima Farms was started by Arvind Chawla, a corporate professional and Saurabh Vinayak, a builder of hill homes, as a passion project. They’re based in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand. They went abroad and took a course in cheese making before starting their cheese farm in Mukteshwar. They trained a few locals, and some of them are now professional cheesemakers with the farm. Darima Farms set up in 2017 and started selling in 2018. They’ve adopted 12 villages to source their milk from, and they source from desi, pahadi cows. Currently, they’re making and selling 1.2 tonnes a month.
According to Chawla, because of purer ingredients and smaller batches, the price point is around Rs. 1,500 and upwards, and two per cent of the population engages with it. It’s still a learning process. “The current palate is all of the European varieties, semi-hard and hard cheeses, plain and some flavoured with chilli and such spices, sell. Our Gruyère sells like 200kgs a month,” he says.
Other than the usual cheeses, Darima Farms has two self-created flavours — Zarai, and chilli bomb, which has a heavy dose of chilli in hard cheese.
Principally, like in wines you can’t go wrong with grapes, in cheese, you can’t go wrong with milk. The most basic factors that define the quality of milk are extremely essential, adds Chawla.
Casaro Creamery was started by cousins Freddy and Anu in 2018 in Thrissur, Kerala, and while Freddy handles the business side, Anu is the cheesemaker. They make fresh cheeses mainly — mozzarella, ricotta, cream cheese, burrata, bocconcini, and small batches of hard cheeses of cheddar and gouda, but in small quantities. They also do some cheese-based snacks like herb cheese and pickled feta. The advantage of being in Thrissur, Freddy says, is to be able to source milk directly from the dairy farms around them, so the quality of milk doesn’t suffer. Freddy also emphasises the quality of milk as the biggest role player in defining artisanal cheese.
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