A cheese cave in the heart of Bengaluru
- Begum Victoria, a new artisanal cheese brand, is experimenting with producing high-quality cheeses from scratch
- Chef Manu Chandra and his partners will use this cheese cave for R&D to create different kinds of varieties
It’s a rare moment when uttering the phrase “say cheese!" is less than, well, cheesy, but we are standing in the cheese-making room of Begum Victoria, a new artisanal cheese brand based in Bengaluru, and it seems impossible to resist the cliché while taking a group selfie. Near us, two young men are scooping out freshly made cheese curds from a large vat into perforated moulds and stacking them in trays to drain out the whey—one of the intermediate steps of making a soft, aromatic Brie. Earlier in the day, they had added a bacterial culture followed by vegetarian rennet to start the cheese and coagulate the milk. Once the whey has fully drained out and the cheese is soft but not crumbly, it will be allowed to rest in the cheese cave of Begum Victoria for a couple of weeks till it develops a rind.
The room smells milky and faintly acidic, but not in an unpleasant way. Someone takes a sip of the whey with a pinch of salt added to it, and says it “smells like a baby’s breath".
Begum Victoria takes its name from its location—Victoria Layout in central Bengaluru, an old neighbourhood that’s close to the business district but retains its own identity, with small independent houses enclosed within tiny handkerchief gardens. The cheese-making facility is, in fact, an old bungalow which was falling apart till the Begum Victoria team took it in hand and started renovation. A year or so later, it has the look of a country cottage: a small white house with blue trim, a patch of lawn where chillies grown in the kitchen garden are drying, and a greenhouse to one side for growing herbs. Inside, the space is divided mainly into the cheese-making room and a cheese cave. We are allowed precisely 5 minutes inside the cave—it’s impossible to stay longer anyway because the temperature is maintained at a chilly 10 degrees Celsius. The cave has cheeses of various types and ages—cheeses take wildly different times to mature, with some, like the Brie we earlier witnessed being made, ready to be consumed within three weeks, while others need up to a year to mature fully.
Given the complexity of the cheese-making process and the fact that it’s not really an Indian speciality, the founders of Begum Victoria took a considerable leap of faith when they decided to start their own artisanal cheese brand— especially so since none of them had any experience in cheese-making. “We just took the plunge and decided to figure it out through experimentation. There was, of course, a lot of trial and error, a lot of things that went wrong, because cheese-making is an extremely delicate and complex process, but there’s also a lot of joy in making something from scratch and finally getting it right," says Manu Chandra, a co-founder of Begum Victoria along with Shruti Golchha and Pooja Reddy. The founders roped in cheese consultant Aditya Raghavan, who spends time in India and Canada, as an adviser.
It all started over a year ago, at a lunch where Chandra and Golchha were present. The conversation veered to the unavailability of good cheeses in Bengaluru, and, suddenly, the two were discussing setting up an artisanal cheese-making facility in the city. Soon after, Golchha roped in her friend Pooja Reddy, and the three started scouting for the right location, which they found at the house in Victoria Layout. As they started perfecting their cheeses, they realized they had ready-made customers in Olive Beach and Toast & Tonic, where Chandra is executive chef and partner. It helped that the cheese-making happens a mere kilometre or so away from both restaurants, so it all fell into place rather neatly, says Chandra. A month ago, he introduced a Begum Victoria cheese platter at Toast & Tonic—four kinds of fresh in-house cheese with assorted relishes and a delectable smoked honey along with home-made breads and lavashes. As the platter gained popularity, customers began to show interest in buying the cheeses for home consumption. Begum Victoria now sells small batches to people from the roughly 1,500 kilos they make each month. The three founders plan to scale the operations to around five times the current capacity by the end of this year.
While Chandra is pretty hands-on, dropping in every two-three days to taste and inspect the cheese, the everyday operations are taken care of by Golchha and Reddy with a staff of three. “We feel like dairymaids by the end of each day," says Golchha. Their day starts at 7.30am, when around 200 litres of fresh A2 milk arrives from a farm near Hosur on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. The milk is from grass-fed, free-range cows. “The cheese is only as good as the milk. If you get milk from cows that are pumped full of antibiotics, that’s going to go into your cheese and interfere with the bacterial process," says Chandra.
Golchha and Reddy have their work cut out through the day as they pasteurize the milk, supervise the curdling and draining processes, and inspect the ripening cheeses in the cave. “Some need to be dusted, some have to be turned over every few days, some need to be wrapped in cloth, some need to be taken out of the cloth…it’s a time-consuming process," says Reddy.
“Cheeses are like babies. They need to be looked after," says Golchha.
ON THE BEGUM’S PLATTER
A northern Italian staple, this cheese is soft, mild and slightly acidic as you get to the rind. Best paired with fruit and wine.
A rich, creamy cheese with a mild flavour and a proprietary orange rind. Best paired with apples, pears, figs and fruity wines.
A semi-soft cheese from Denmark made with cow’s milk with a buttery aroma. Can be had grilled or melted.
A soft cow’s-milk cheese, it can be baked or paired with fruit and berry preserves.