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Chak and Cheese

Story of one man’s dogged pursuit of a secret cheese recipe that led him to Chak Chand village in Bankura

Paromita Sen   |   Published 27.11.22, 03:35 AM

It was unexpected; among the mozzarella in olive oil, brie, Camembert, Edam and Gouda of the cheese platter at the five-star Sunday brunch buffet was nestled a bowl of half moons immersed in a milky fluid. It took 63-year-old Nima Dasgupta a while to work it out — Bandel cheese, a delicacy she had been introduced to at an Anglo-Indian friend’s house. Now, neither she nor her friend lived in India and a five-star hotel in Calcutta was the last place she had expected to come across it.

That the Portuguese were responsible for introducing Bengalis to chhana or cottage cheese is now well-known. “They [the Portuguese] loved cottage cheese, which they made by ‘breaking’ milk with acidic materials,” writes food historian K.T. Achaya in his book Indian Food, a Historical Companion. The queijo fresco, literally fresh cheese, is a mild cow milk cheese that is very popular in Portugal; it is what the Portuguese wanted to replicate in Bandel, the then port city where they got permission to settle in 1580.


“The cheese they made is called Bandel cheese. To make it in large quantities, the Portuguese employed local people. That is how Bengalis were introduced to the process of making cottage cheese,” explains academic Purba Chatterjee, who is studying the intangible heritage the Portuguese left us.

The Bandel cheese, sold in small roundels an inch across and one fourth inch thick, is available in two varieties, smoked and plain. Both versions are heavily salted for preservation’s sake.

According to Thomas Bowrey’s book Geographical Account of the Countries Around the Bay of Bengal 1690-1780, the Portuguese did brisk business exporting the cheese along with ghee and butter to present-day Java. The smoked variety is possibly a contribution of the Dutch, who lived in neighbouring Chinsurah and had a pronounced love for smoked Gouda, believes Saurav Gupta of The Whole Hog Deli, an online delicatessen he started to fill the gap left when the beloved Calcutta delicatessen Kalman shut shop a few years ago.

Not only does The Whole Hog Deli deliver home Bandel cheese in Calcutta, it has also networked with others to deliver it anywhere in the country. “The product speaks for itself. I just helped Palash get in touch with the right people,” Gupta says. Palash Ghosh is an 11th-generation cheese-maker in the only family that still makes Bandel cheese. And how Gupta got in touch with him is a story in itself.

A lawyer by training and a history buff, a decade ago, Gupta started to track down the current makers of Bandel cheese. It took him one-and-a-half years but he traced the migration of the original cheese-makers — at one time there were 500 families — from Bandel to Chinsurah to Tarakeswar to Arambagh to, finally, Chak Chand village in the Kotulpur block of Bankura district, where the Ghoshes now live.

“You need good quality, unadulterated cow milk to make Bandel cheese. So the makers would have to have their own cows. Historically, it was dairy farmers who learnt the art of making cheese,” explains Gupta.

He also found six families in Arambagh who knew the closely-guarded secret recipe of Bandel cheese but shifted to making paneer when demand for the cheese fell as the numbers of Europeans and Anglo-Indians dwindled.

Meanwhile, another man elsewhere was also taking an interest in Bandel cheese. Tipped off by food blogger Rangan Dutta, Debabrata Bera, now an assistant professor at the food technology department of Jadavpur University, decided he wanted to base his project on optimising and standardising the process of making Bandel cheese and packaging it the right way. “When you are thinking of putting a product on shelves, homogeneity matters,” says Bera, who is now part of the group pushing for a GI tag for Bandel cheese.

Believe it or not, Covid-19 too had a role to play in the resurgence of Bandel cheese. As the lockdown shut shops, Palash had no takers for the 12,000 roundels of cheese he had stocked. The Ghoshes used to then produce 6,000 roundels of cheese every month. With his total capital mouldering in the godown, Palash did not see a way forward. When Gupta, who had finally built a bond with the suspicious Ghoshes after working on it for years, came to know of this conundrum, he gladly added Bandel cheese to The Whole Hog Deli’s offerings.

A shaken Palash eventually informed Gupta that he had decided to take up a job as a caretaker of a resort in Lataguri at a salary of Rs 10,000 a month. That spurred Gupta — who felt the weight of the Bandel cheese’s history rather more than Palash did — into pulling out all the stops in his campaign to market Bandel cheese.

“I got in touch with chef Ranveer Brar, who was gracious enough to promote it on his YouTube channel,” says Gupta. That video had 3,46,000 views when last checked and the subsequent petition Brar started on asking for support for a GI tag for Bandel cheese had 18,000 odd signatures. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and restauranter A.D. Singh of Olive fame also threw their culinary muscle behind it as did the chefs of the five-star hotels in Calcutta.

Gupta is taking the logical next step. He is currently in Delhi working out what permits and licences he will need to export the cheese. As for the GI tag, it will take a while. To qualify, the Bandel cheese-makers will have to first set up shop in Bandel to qualify.

Hamara Fromage
  • Chhurpi: Sikkimese cheese made with yak milk and sold in cubes
  • Churu: Found in Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim; it has a mouldy blue rind and an earthy, pungent flavour
  • Kalari: Known as the mozzarella of Kashmir, it is stretchy but dense and made with both cow and goat milk. Also known as ‘Maish Krej’, it is made by the Gujjar tribe and usually had deep fried
  • Qudam: Salty, chewy, mellow; it is made by Kashmir’s Gujjar tribe
  • Topli na paneer: Available only at Parsi ceremonies. The wobbly globes of paneer are soaked in salty whey and served in small, leafy baskets, usually before the fish course.

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