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Say cheese

There’s a slice of Belgium in a village called Bijwasan on the outskirts of Delhi. Does that sound incongruous? Well, just walk into the Flanders Dairy Company in Bijwasan, take a deep breath and get a whiff of the air inside, thick with the tangy smell of whey. Molten ricotta and creamy mascarpone swirl right before your eyes in giant tubs as they are transformed into huge mounds of gourmet cheese.

The cheeses churned out at the farm are strongly influenced by the semi-hard/hard Dutch and the soft French varieties that owner and cheese-master Sunil Bhu learnt about during his stint at a cheese-making farm in the Belgian province of Flanders. “There does not go a day without making cheese. Every batch turns out to be distinct. And the orders are so high that we are busy making 500-600 kg a day,” says Bhu.

Bhu belongs to a small and exclusive group — artisan cheesemongers — who disdain processed cheese and instead believe in producing natural cheeses and are following in the footsteps of small farmers in the heartland of England, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and France, who make their cheeses fresh and sell them locally.

For exclusivity, try out the Pecorino goat cheese made at the famous Parsi-run A.B.C Farms — named after the trio of founders Rohinton Aga, Adi Bathena and Eruch Chinoy — in Pune. It retails for a princely Rs 2,000 a kilo, and flies off the shelves nonetheless. A bit too expensive? Check out the 70 other varieties of natural cheese made within the precincts of the 41-acre spread.

Besides that — and because Indians love to experiment — these cheese-makers are coming up with different types of new cheeses too. On offer at A.B.C, for instance, are ‘alcohol cheeses’. Priced at Rs 250, a kilo of Port Wine cheese, or a vodka and cumin cheese have turned out to be winners. So are the non-vegetarian cheeses — there is everything from smoked ham cheese to nuggets of turkey lodged inside a block of cheese.

“People come to me for something new and I never disappoint,” says cheese aficionado Sohrab Chinoy, son of Eruch and the current owner of A.B.C. Farms.

Alternatively, taste the cheeses made by the Benedictine monks in Bangalore. The chief cheese-maker here is Friar K.L. Michael, who happens to be especially proud of Vallombrosa, his own brand of water buffalo cheese. He and his team of Benedictines handcraft six kinds of cheese — mozzarella, burrata, ricotta, mascarpone, bocconcini and caciotta — hot favourites with restaurants across Bangalore.

“The motto for Benedictine monks is ‘aura et labora’ which translates into prayer and work. All the money we earn goes into charity,” says Michael, who resides at a monastery at Thambu Chetty Palya on Sacred Heart Road in Bangalore.

Variety is also the spice of life at Acres Wild Farm in Coonoor in the Nilgiri Hills, where every day is a different cheese day. Owner Mansoor Hussein Khan’s wife, Tina, handmoulds the cheeses. Mondays are for Gouda, Tuesdays you get Monterey Jack, Wednesdays are for Cheddar, Thursdays for Parmesan and so on. “There’s at least one kind of hard cheese every day. We make about 5kg to 6kg daily,” says Khan.

Before putting them on the market (they’re retailed only around Coonoor, Coimbatore and Ooty) three years back, the couple experimented with cheeses like Cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan, Camembert, feta, haloumi and ricotta for a year. “Tina has just made a batch of blue cheese, which has been put into the cellars for ageing. We will know the taste only two months from now,” says Khan, who marks basic hard cheese at Rs 600. But if you buy a kilo of Camembert, you’ll have to shell out Rs 1,200.

These cheese-makers are a passionate lot — they’re small producers, but that’s what makes them niche. So, they take part in all aspects of production, testing the texture, smell and taste before packaging them into wheels, loaves, blocks and wedges.

The Passion Cheese brand that retails at the Select City Mall in Delhi is a big hit with cheese connoisseurs

Head north to the foothills of the Himalayas, take a trip to Bandel in Bengal or north-east to Kalimpong. Everywhere, locally made cheeses are a hit. Bandel, for instance, must be one of the most unusual cheese stories in India.

A town on the banks of the river Hooghly, cheese-making in Bandel traces its origins back to the arrival of the Portuguese. Now production has shifted to the villages of Tarakeshwar and Bishnupur while it is sold in New Market at J.Johnson, a store selling it for four generations alongside imported cheese such as Danish Blue Cheese and the Dutch Edam. Says proprietor Krishnakanta Ghata: “People come and buy the Bandel cheese in bulk.”

Chef Shaun Kenworthy is a great fan of local cheeses. “While Bandel cheese is unique because of its dry, crumbly and smoky flavour, Kalimpong cheese is one of the most delicious ones — it’s a dying delicacy though because it is made in small batches now.”

At La Ferme in Auroville, Pondicherry, a team of professional Indian, Dutch and French cheese-makers produce about 100kg of handmade cheeses in over 10 varieties daily. Apart from the usual crumbly old Parmesan and a three-month old Cheddar, Olivier and Benny, two of the cheese-makers here also produce a 12-month old, piquant Auroblochon, a Blue d’ auroville cheese with a blue mold covering and a young, nutty-flavoured Lofabu. But you can’t buy these anywhere except in Pondicherry.

At the Cinnabar Farms in Kodai-kanal, owner K. Balakrishnan makes Cinnamano, a hard Italian style cheese, and Cinnableu, a creamy blue cheese very like the English Stilton. He also makes a yellow cheese and a washed curd cheese, called the Cinnabar Colby.

Does that sound delectable? Look out for Chinoy’s French after- dinner cheeses that include the smoky flavoured Aisy Cendre and the Banon a la Feuille which is immersed in wine.

But what does fresh really mean? The answer inevitably is the milk used for the cheese. Most niche cheese- makers milk their own Holstein Friesians — these are European dairy cows known for their high milk production — but cross-bred with Indian cows.

K. Balakrishnan’s Kodaikanal-based Cinnabar Farms doubles as a B&B and is a haven for cheese lovers

But others like Bhu have given up on having their own cows though they emphasise on a steady supply of high quality milk. “The entire process from procuring the milk to making sure it doesn’t get contaminated is the biggest challenge,” says Bhu, who sources his milk from farmers in the nearby villages.

Like him, Rajan Dhawan, director of Himalaya International Co. which makes cheese exclusively for export, says that the factory at the foothills of the Himachal in Paonta Sahib gets milk for its water buffalo mozzarella from vendors. The milk used is carefully tested with an instrument called a ‘milk analyser’ that detects problems.

Being a dab hand at making these delicious cheeses comes from extensive training abroad.

At the Cinnabar Farms, Balakrishnan travelled to the West Coast in the US and stayed with a cheese-maker there for a few months, milking cows and learning the basics of making cheese.

And Bhu picked it up from a professional cheese-maker, Mark Dournez, at his farm in Diksmuide, Flanders, in the early ’80s. While on the farm, he travelled to and fro between The Netherlands and France along with Dournez to add to his experience.

It’s no wonder that he swears by the slogan ‘tasty cheese is Belgian’. Bhu returned to start his own cheese brand ‘Flanders Dairy’ in Delhi in the ’90s and his mother gave him a cow to start him off. But sales were slow to get going.

Chinoy has a similar story to relate. Having completed a Master’s in Dairy Technology at an institute in Gelnhausen, a town in Hesse, Germany, he got to work in cheese factories in places like Itzehoe (near the Danish border), Frankfurt and West Berlin. But right after that he returned and decided to sell cheese on a small scale. Only there were almost no takers for it. “Even if I offered them for free, cheese would be turned down. It was tough, yes,” he notes ruefully.

The Benedictines meanwhile have Friar Michael who spent eight years in Naples, Italy, studying theology and thereafter decided to learn cheese-making. He says one of his greatest triumphs was in 2005 when he got ‘Vallombrosa’ going.

In a village on the outskirts of Delhi, Sunil Bhu churns out cherry mozzarella at his Flanders Dairy Company

If it is hard to churn out fresh cheese, these cheese buffs are ready to share their skills with you. Some have an open door for visitors who can watch cheese-making sessions or even get a taste of rural living and have farm stays in the form of bed and breakfasts. You can walk in anytime for a chat with the affable Bhu at his farm. Cinnabar Farms offers bed and breakfast if you want to see cheese being made daily.

And keep an eye out for the annual cheese fair that Chinoy holds any time towards the end of the year at ABC Farms when he offers free cheese tasting sessions.

“I have a cheese board on which we serve a variety of cheeses with chilled veggies and olives,” he says. He uses the exhibit for feedback on his cheeses and watching people’s faces as they sample one of his products. He adds: “I like to see the expressions flit over their faces when they taste my cheese,” he says. “That way I know when I’m onto a winner.”  

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