Say cheese. Old saying, but always makes us smile. Cheese makes everything better, but the choices of ingredients for food in general has shifted from too-exotic-for-you to for locally sourced, fresh produce and when we have fabulous indigenous cheese brands doing delish cheeses, the need for processed and mass produced cheese is also diminishing. You can’t talk about the uphill journey of artisanal cheese without mentioning ‘cheesemonger’ Mansi Jasani, who founded The Cheese Collective in 2014 and has built a cheese map with chef Garima Arora’s non-profit initiative, Food Forward India. This is a map that you can open in Google Earth, and it represents people, producers, curators, and everyone cheese-related in the country. I’ve tried some of the amazing cheese that Jasani’s own collective makes, and she knows her cheese well.

While the artisanal cheese culture has always existed in India, Arvind Chawla of Darima Farms informs that it was more prominent in the south and west of India, than the north. North India’s obsession was with cottage cheese and cream, and not so much with wine and cheese. “The boom came with the wine culture in the mid-’90s, when Sula started, and the game changed. The IT industry boom and travelling abroad contributed to it,” Chawla explains. Hotels, smaller cafés, chefs, and even hospitality chains are preferring cheese from artisanal cheesemakers. The pandemic saw another such flurry of supporting small businesses, and the need for more small-batch, top-notch quality cheese has started another conversation. While some cheesemakers have been around since the end of time, there has been a fairly large crop of new ones in the last three years. We speak to them about their ventures, and all the factors that matter in making cheese palatable to the Indian consumer today.

Darima Farms was started by Arvind Chawla, a corporate professional and Saurabh Vinayak, a builder of hill homes, as a passion project. They’re based in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand. They went abroad, and took a course in cheese making before starting their cheese farm in Mukteshwar. They trained a few locals, and some of them are now professional cheese makers with the farm. Darima Farms set up in 2017, and started selling in 2018. They’ve adopted 12 villages to source their milk from, and they source from desi, pahadi cows. Currently, they’re making and selling 1.2 tonnes a month. According to Chawla, because of purer ingredients and smaller batches, the price point is around Rs. 1,500 and upwards, and two per cent of the population engages with it. It’s still a learning process. “The current palate is all of the European varieties, semi-hard and hard cheeses, plain and some flavoured with chilli and such spices, sell. Our Gruyère sells like 200kgs a month,” he says. Other than the usual cheeses, Darima Farms has two self-created flavours — Zarai, and chilli bomb, which has a heavy dose of chilli in a hard cheese. Principally, like in wines you can’t go wrong with grapes, in cheese, you can’t go wrong with milk. The most basic factors that define the quality of milk are extremely essential, adds Chawla.

Casaro Creamery was started by cousins Freddy and Anu in 2018 in Thrissur, Kerala, and while Freddy handles the business side, Anu is the cheese maker. They make fresh cheeses mainly — mozzarella, ricotta, cream cheese, burrata, bocconcini, and small batches of hard cheeses of cheddar and gouda, but in small quantities. They also do some cheesebased snacks like herb cheese, and pickled feta. The advantage of being in Thrissur, Freddy says, is to be able to source milk directly from the dairy farms around them, so the quality of milk doesn’t suffer. Freddy also emphasises on the quality of milk as the biggest role player in defining artisanal cheese. “If you source grass-fed cow milk, the flavour is influenced by the kind of cows you have. All these are all minor points, but it makes a difference in the end product. We feel that geographically, Kerala is a little more expensive when it comes to milk, as compared to other states,” he says, adding that geographically, as per his understanding, the main difference is the flavour profile, as milk produced by cows in a colder region would be higher in fat percentage. Freddy has observed a lot of awareness increase in the time that they have been around, and, like many other businesses, social media has played a role in this change. “NRIs who have been abroad are coming back and trying out the recipes that they have done there, looking for cheeses of the same quality. That’s one reason why artisanal cheese is becoming big. Palate wise, I feel we still have a bit of a road ahead. People still use branded, processed cheese at home. But, there are a lot of people who are giving us consistent orders. I think it’s all about knowing how to use different cheeses. People are also asking us for cheese platters, so slowly, party cheeses are becoming popular,” he adds.

Cheesemakers

Cheese makers Shruti Golccha and Pooja Reddy, along with chef Manu Chandra, started Begum Victoria, an urban and artisanal cheese brand in Bengaluru, in 2018. All handmade, Begum Victoria does a variety of handcrafted cheese like brie, Gruyère, feta, a proprietary orange-rind Bel Paese, fontina, cloth-wrapped cheddar along with cheese with various herbs, truffle, edible flowers, and more, and are ripened in their cheese cave in their facility in Victoria Layout, which is a temperature and humidity-controlled cave. The idea started off as a passion project, and to fill the void of great cheese tasting in India.

Begum Victoria sources A2 milk from farmstead local cows grazing on grass. They make all their cheeses from cow’s milk, as the South has a propensity for the same, vis-a-vis the North India, which is primarily buffalo milk. “Various cheeses have developed in different regions influenced by their unique culture and environment. Cheese has numerous variations in their characteristics, including colour, aroma, texture, flavour, and firmness, which make them distinct. There are different cheesemaking techniques such as the type of culture used, cutting and stirring of the curds, the temperature it is heated to, the pressing time, the ripening and ageing of the curds, all contribute to the pronounced texture, flavour, and taste of the cheese. Begum Victoria primarily focuses on aged cheese, it is the ripening period that helps develop flavour. The ageing period can be anything from several days to one or more years, the cheese then develops a stronger flavour and becomes harder and more crumbly in texture,” they add.

Geographically too, Begum Victoria, according to its cheese makers, has a location advantage. “Bengaluru is very conducive to cheese making, being 1,000 metres above sea level, with the additional aid of mimicking certain alpine conditions when it comes to temperature controlled caves for ageing and other factors such as milk quality etc.,” they explain. They believe a change on the retail side has supported this farm-to-fork movement, and now, most popular gourmet supermarkets not only stock imported commercial foreign cheese, but also wheels and varieties from fresh artisanal fromageries. “Handcrafted artisanal cheeses are still niche, but no longer extremely expensive for customers to procure, as was the case earlier,” they add.

Cheesemakers

Similarly, The Yellow Slice was started by a Pune-based couple, Salil and Tarul Ranade, when they saw a market and started supplying the usual, in-demand cheeses to cafés. In 2020, due to the coronavirus uncertainty, their business halted for a bit, but eventually, they got into retail. Their cheese and cheesecakes received great response, and they started their own store in June 2020. Their milk is sourced from a local dairy in Khadakwasla near Pune. “The demand for artisanal cheese has increased because people have travelled abroad a lot, and then try to find that quality of cheese here, and it’s not easily available. Even when you go out and have pasta or pizza, you are going to end up with processed cheese on it. When you’ve had good cheese, you can’t do with processed cheese items. Good and local cheese should be available to anyone and everyone,” says Tarul Ranade. Ranade explains that many times, people know names, but don’t know much about the quality of the cheese. “People don’t know that cheese can be had by itself, and ask what to prepare with the variety of cheeses. When I tell them that it can be eaten directly, they’re a bit puzzled. We’re also the first to do fresh mozzarella in Pune, and it’s like people have just discovered it, because many don’t know that mozzarella is not just a block. Even our Italian cheeses do well,” she adds.

Speaking of Italian, there’s been an Italian entry into the cheese market in 2018, as Crèmeitalia decided to make high-end Italian cheese available to the Indian consumers. Prateek Mittal, along with his partner Rajas Dhote, decided to turn their passion project into a business, and provide their customers with authentic Italian cheeses. Soon, they began supplying cheese to some of the best hotels and restaurants across the country. Sourcing their milk from Europe, Crèmeitalia makes and sells burrata, Fiordilatte pizza cheese made from 100 per cent cow’s milk, aged mozzarella, scamorza, etc. They also do more interesting variants such as stracciatella, mascarpone, sour cream, fiordilatte bocconcini, burrata, etc. Mittal feels that so far, the Indian consumer was exposed only to the generic processed and salty cheeses available in the market. But slowly, a trend shift is emerging, with demand for fresh and authentic cheese flavors. “People are now conscious about the quality and freshness of cheese, and want to ensure that they consume preservative-free and local made authentic cheese over imported and overprocessed cheese,” he adds. Explaining how geographical factors weigh in, Mittal explains these factors are more for aged cheeses, whereas fresh cheeses rely more on the quality and consistency of milk. “Also, with modern day technology, all geographic temperatures and atmosphere can be created, hence removing the hindrance,” he says.

Cheesemakers

Not leaving out cheese made from nut-based milk, Samyukta Kartik, a vegan chef and the founder of Yume Culinary, an online vegan culinary academy, chips in. She launched the platform in 2019, and has been teaching through her classes online. Samyukta has developed dairy-free recipes for a wide variety of cheeses such as paneer, mascarpone, parmesan, aged cheddar, ricotta, mozzarella, bocconcini, nacho cheese, feta, and prefers making everything from scratch, including the nut milks. She explains how nuts are widely used in making plant-based cheeses, especially cashew, for its creamy texture. Talking about consumers who are looking for dairy alternatives, Samyukta says plant-based versions of mozzarella, cream cheese, and paneer are the most sought-after cheeses. “The demand for plant-based cheese is certainly on the rise. With increasing awareness of the reality of how cows are treated in the dairy industry, and of how our food choices also impact our health and the environment, people are beginning to look to healthier, kinder, and more sustainable alternatives,” she adds. You can say your cheese, and eat it too.