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Who needs truffle cheese when there’s feta in haldi leaves

Artisanal cheesemakers in India are experimenting with desi spices, empowering local communities and winning awards

A cheese platter with products from Darima
A cheese platter with products from Darima

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The charming Anthony Bourdain had said of cheese: “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.” Husband-wife duo Francois and Debarati Laederich would readily agree. The hotelier-cum-cheese-making couple took a leap of faith in late 2019 when they decided to move to the mountains from Puducherry. “After scouting for a dream place, we zeroed in on Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh,” says Debarati. The fresh mountain air, gurgling brooks and miles of undulating meadows was the perfect place to call home and set up an artisanal cheese-making brand, Amiksa. The name is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning cheese curds. François, the cheese master, was born and raised in Paris and is trained in the art of cheese-making in Aurillac, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France. The idea of Amiksa is rooted in offering the best of artisanal European cheese classics, made from fresh Himalayan milk and laced with the flavour of the region’s grasslands.

Some say cheese-making was originally brought to India by the Portuguese. Yet an independent study published in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature in 2020, based on archaeological finds from the Kotada Bhadli settlement (modern-day Kutch district in Gujarat), traced the earliest evidence of cheese-making to South Asia in the mid or late third millennium BCE. The study argues that nomadic dairy tribes have been living in these regions for several centuries, and fermentation and preservation of dairy products were only natural.

In the last six odd years, cheese-making has witnessed a boom in the country with many small brands crafting one artisanal cheese after another. Amiksa prides itself in producing the best smoked cheese, a spreadable, tangy Borsalino made with fresh herbs. There’s also the pepper and vegetarian rennet and Bloomy rind cheese, named Zuri, that is very similar to Camembert with a soft rind and delicate flavour. Käse from Chennai boasts of cheeses with a desi twist. A cheese named the Ode to Chennai is rubbed with milagai podi, there’s another cheese infused with rose petals sourced from Rajasthan, and a feta wrapped in turmeric leaves. To add to their cheese collection, they collaborated with the wine brand Fratelli and developed an aged Cheddar wrapped in vine leaves.

In August 2016, Anuradha Krishnamoorthy and Namrata Sundaresan from Chennai—the former with a background in social ventures and the latter armed with a short cheese-making course—began training two girls with hearing impairment to make cheese. In a month’s time, about five kinds of cheeses were ready. With encouragement pouring in, the duo was invited to participate in a pop-up at Markets by Karen Anand. In less than 24 hours, a logo, website, stickers, packaging, etc was put together, and Käse was in business. Of course, the Chennai weather is a nuisance. “Cheese is not left out on its own. We take help from a temperature-controlled and humidity-controlled environment to mature it. Also, as the days get hotter, we start our work earlier than usual,” says an indomitable Namrata, who has been recently inducted as a trainer with the UK-based Academy of Cheese—a new not-for-profit industry-funded organisation. The Academy has been set up to promote knowledge about cheese and build skills globally.

Also read | The rise of southern cheese

An abiding love for good cheese is what connects all these enterprises. For example, Saurabh Vinayak and Arvind Chawla set up Darima farms in 2016 as a passion project to create top quality artisanal cheese at Village Darima, Uttrakhand. Like Käse, the makers wanted to not only create a world-class product, but also positively impact the community. Empowering the locals in the art of cheese-making has been their biggest achievement, believes the duo, who are known for signature cheeses like the spice-infused Zarai, chilli bomb, Garlic montasio and more. “We want to take it to every quality retail store and hotel in the country. Going beyond just production, we want to create an experience at our new facility in the hills, where one can witness the whole process of pure milk being transformed into cheese,” says Chawla.

There are a few brands that chanced upon cheese-making while creating another product. Such is the case of Prateeksh Mehra and Agnay Mehra who started with beer and home-brewing. When their beers got popular among friends and family, Prateeksh decided to hunt for different cheeses to pair with the brews. No cheese seemed good enough and at times they were prohibitively priced. It encouraged the brothers to start The Spotted Cow Fromagerie from the basement of their Mumbai home in 2015.

For a few of these homegrown brands, the journey towards global recognition has just begun. Mumbai-based Eleftheria Cheese won a silver rating at the World Cheese Awards held in Spain late last year. It is a moment of validation for founder Mausam Jotwani Narang, who started her venture in 2016. Known as the Cheese Olympics, the brand won the prize for its exceptional Brunost—a Norwegian-style whey cheese with a deep caramel brown colour and nutty fragrance. “When I started out, there was a clear gap in the market, as no one was really making fresh Burrata or Mozzarella in Mumbai back then. Restaurants were getting their supplies from across the country or from importers. Chefs started appreciating the quality and freshness of our cheeses and Eleftheria slowly became the preferred choice for artisanal cheese,” says Narang who bats for her brand’s Brunost, Burrata, Halloumi, an aged cheese ball called Belper Knolle and a goat milk Feta-style cheese called Medallion.

Then there are experimental entrepreneurs like Aditya Angelo Fernandes from Bengaluru who craft vegan cheese. He started his business, Angelo Vegan Cheese, in early 2020. During the lockdown Fernandes, whose hobby is painting, channeled his pent-up creativity and love for food by experimenting with local ingredients. It led to the birth of the brand's signature vegan mozzarella. With support from friends and family, he took to social media and began marketing it. “The ingredients are all plant-based, and our products are sold in eco-friendly packaging. We also have a Truffle Oil Vegan Mozzarella, in which the cheese is marinated in a white truffle oil from Perugia, Italy, boasting a luxurious, garlicky and subtle mushroomy flavour,” says Fernandes.

Next time you go cheese-shopping, look out for a small home-grown brand. Encouraging them to remain in business is the best way to pay it forward.

Also read | What to expect from Indian goat cheese

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