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Goa says cheese

The coconut tree beckoned — and Maia Donadze gave up her well-paying job as a professional pianist in London. Her husband called, saying that he was lounging under a coconut tree, prompting Maia to join him in Goa in 2003.

The piano is still her first love, but it’s not music that keeps the Georgian national busy these days. Maia, like a growing number of other foreigners in Goa, spends her time making mozzarella and feta cheese.That’s what Federica Di Listri does too. The young Italian can be seen in the blazing Goan sun, ploughing her two-wheeler through stubborn beach tracks, carrying loads of cheese for delivery. Federica used to make cheese from 40 litres of milk a day in 2007 when she set up her company, Cucina Italiana. Today, she produces six times as much.

Federica, who learnt cheese making in Naples, says it is a “vehicle of love,” even though it’s a long and tiring job. “If there is love in food, it can be tasted,” says the trained but non-practising architect.

The growing cheese — and other food stuff such as salad leaves — market is mainly for the local restaurants catering to domestic and foreign tourists. Frenchman Gregory Bazire, who owns Om Made Café on Anjuna beach, says he prefers “reasonably priced” home-made cheeses for his quiches and French delicacies instead of the “highly priced and poor quality” imported cheeses.

The crispy green lettuce leaves in some of the salads in the best restaurants come from Englishman David Gower’s farm. Gower sells organic vegetables grown on a four-acre farm in Changad taluka, in neighbouring Kolhapur. Every week, he harvests 100 kilos of lettuce leaves and 50 kilos of rocket leaves, which he transports to Goa twice a week in boxes.

It’s not just cheese and greens. Near Canacona, the strapping Birmingham-born and bare-chested Jess Johnson sells his home-made buffalo milk ice cream. He started the business four years ago with a few litres of ice-cream. It became so popular that he now makes 10-12 litres of ice cream a day, whose flavours range from chocolate infused with three types of chillies of varying pungency to masala chai, smelling of African rooibos tea. And he offers vanilla ice cream with caramelised whole-meal bread crumbs and mint chocolate ice-cream — made with the longer and sharper spearmint leaves bought from a neighbouring organic farm.

Like ice cream, there are no standard cheese making recipes to follow, says Federica, who spent the first year learning through mistakes. “No two people make the same kind of cheese,” adds Maia.

When Maia came to Goa, she never thought that she’d be spending six years “inside” milk — with hands dipping into a large, red plastic tub to feel the texture of the curd. “The first few weeks were blissful, but I could not go on living like a tourist,” says Maia. So when her restlessness grew, she asked her husband to buy a hundred packets of pasteurised milk for making cheese.

With her first plate of cheese, she went around a restaurant, offering it to guests who “looked at me as though I was crazy,” she laughs. Today she buys 200 litres of cow and buffalo milk, fresh from the local stables, every day. She makes 600 kg of cheese a month — twice as much she did in 2007 — and plans to set up a bigger cheese production unit for her MaiaCheese.

The locals are not greatly interested in the expats’ culinary skills, but the big stores and restaurants are happy. Kirit Maganlal, managing partner, Magsons, a supermarket in Panaji, stocks locally made exotic cheeses made by foreigners. Priced between Rs 400 and Rs 700 for a kilo, Maganlal says they sell well.

The local cheese goes down well with the largely European clients of Sealand, a beachfront shack in Patnem, about 66 km south of Goa’s capital, Panaji. Every other day, Jairam fetches half a kilo of cheese from Maia. “If something is available in the state, why look outside,” says the wiry Maia, trying to keep her wild hair out of the milk.

In plastic pouches, her cheeses sit in the fridge — feta and mozzarella (in whey) for four or five days, and blue cheese and young cheddar for two to three months. Ideally, she would like to sit her cheeses in a cave, lined with wood and stone, which she plans to get constructed. Federica’s cheeses age on marble shelves in a cooling room. The hard and sharp Sicilian-born Pecorino is best left at 16-18 degrees centigrade, while the soft Robiola ripens at 22-24 degrees centigrade.

“Softer cheeses contain less milk and water, unlike the harder varieties which are more concentrated,” she says, slathering a crisp Italian cracker with a lighter variety of green-pepper-infused cream cheese.

Jagran, the Italian owner of Blue Tao, which serves organic fare in Anjuna, makes his own version of the stretchy mozzarella. He adds one part of lemon juice to five parts of “good quality” buffalo milk. The coagulated milk is then strained and left to set in the refrigerator for four to five hours, before it appears in lasagnas and pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens. “It is as good as the real thing, and four times cheaper,” laughs Jagran.

Maia is one of her own customers — she eats about 500 gm of cheese a day. “A doctor in my country said I should eat as much cheese as I could,” she says, smoking mozzarella on coconut shells in her sloping backyard that leads to a field studded with white cranes.

But just beyond her slice of paradise is a reminder of tragedy. On a hill facing her house, Maia’s husband’s skeleton was found after he went missing in the summer of 2007. “Every morning I look at the mountain and feel his presence. Making cheese helps me keep his dreams alive,” she says.

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