The long Diwali weekend turned out to be a momentous one for Mumbai-based artisanal creamery, Eleftheria Cheese. Its unique Brunost became the first Indian cheese to bag a silver at the prestigious World Cheese Awards 2021, held in Spain. For founder Mausam Jotwani Narang, it had always been a dream to put India on the global cheese map, and she managed to achieve that last week. In fact, Eleftheria Cheese was the first to make a brown cheese in India. Modelled on the Norwegian whey cheese, it was created with cheese-making whey, a little bit of milk and cream.
The Eleftheria Brunost has been a work in progress, with Narang having started on it in 2018, finally launching it in 2020. “Over the years, our production increased and we started selling a lot of burrata and mozzarella in the city. So, I was left with a lot of whey. After all, cow milk is 87 percent water and 13 percent solids. So, what do you do with all the whey that is left? I didn’t want it to go to waste,” elaborates Narang. Internationally, this leftover whey is given to pig farms to feed the animals. However, with Eleftheria being an urban creamery, that was not an option. And that’s how the idea of a brown cheese came about.
It took her a lot of time to perfect the texture and flavour. “It was exciting as I could use up all the whey to create such a fantastic product, which is so unique to the Indian market. Artisanal cheese making at that time, and even now, is in a nascent stage in India. And here was a product that no one had made in the country before,” says Narang. She tested the cheese on her friends and family, who felt it was very reminiscent of a peda, although it had a mineral salinity to it. Even though they had never had this cheese before, there was a comforting, nostalgic feeling about the flavours.
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“Though India is one of the largest producers of milk, the only cheese we ever make is paneer, or we eat processed ones. Indigenous cheeses have gone out of the system. We shouldn’t be making copies of our Western counterparts,” says Narang. “Our cheese should stand out on its own, and hold its own. People should say, ‘This is good’, and not ‘It is good for India’.”
Meanwhile she is feeling quite overwhelmed with the win, especially since she wasn’t even sure if the cheese would cross the border with the tonnes of documentation that had to accompany it. Narang started making cheese as a hobby in 2013 when she got back from the UK after getting her Master’s degree. Whatever time she got from her corporate job was spent in making sourdough and cheeses. “I used to miss eating good quality cheese. And I wondered how difficult it could be? Turns out it wasn’t that simple,” she says. It took a lot of time to figure out the raw material. Narang spent months educating farmers on the kind of milk required for making cheese. “I was sure that I didn’t want to use anything but the best. For cheese, you can’t heat milk to a very high temperature, and it can’t be pumped with hormones. Once farmers understood that, it was smooth going,” she says.
So, she launched the brand Eleftheria in 2014, and soon after set up a micro creamery in 2015. Then Narang started supplying to the HORECA (establishments which prepare and serve food and beverages) segment in 2016. Between 2014 and March 2016 she was selling at farmers' markets and pop-ups. The idea was to supply fresh cheeses to Mumbai, as an alternative to imported ones. When she shared the samples with chefs, they really liked the concept.
She opened up direct-to-consumer only during the pandemic. “When the pandemic struck, everyone wanted gourmet ingredients, including cheese, delivered to the doorstep. Also, we didn’t want to let any of our staff go, who had been with us since the beginning. And, as soon as we put the news of direct-to-consumer retail on Instagram, it really blew up. Not only could we retain all our staff, but our team size actually increased. We are now sitting at 25 people,” elaborates Narang. Her business has doubled. She doesn’t just supply to over 50 restaurants across Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Delhi such as O Pedro, Cin Cin, The Table, and more, but also to select Foodhall outlets as well.
Even with the increase in orders, Narang hasn’t let go of her ethos of never taking shortcuts or adding preservatives to her cheeses. “In Italy, if you buy a burrata, you eat it the next day or within two days. Even in India, would you keep paneer or dahi for 45 days? Now people are more aware, so they understand the fragility of artisanal cheeses, and they appreciate it,” she says.