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The rise of southern cheese

Sushmita Sundaram
The artisanal cheese revolution is fermenting in fromageries in towns and cities across South IndiaImported foreign cheeses are facing competition from handmade small-batch Indian cheeses

In the 1990s, suspicions about the origins of dining options provided by Indian Railways meant summer holidays would kick off with the unwrapping of home-made cheese sandwiches in a gently rocking train compartment. Waxy and oddly sour, the fillings were most likely products of India’s White Revolution—seemingly built more for durability over a long journey than taste. Back then, imported cheeses, found only in a handful of speciality stores, were expensive and one couldn’t trust that timelines and logistics would ensure maximum freshness.

Today, the situation is different. Data from the Union ministry of commerce and industry says India imported cheese worth 27.2 crore in 2018, more than ever before. These range from processed cheese built for a consistent taste to specialized varieties like feta and halloumi, often used commercially for the large-scale production of fast food consumer products like pizzas and pastas. And artisanal cheese distributor Sharad Madiman of Caroselle Dairy Products believes the market is ready to move beyond delivery chain cheese and leapfrog to more locally produced, specialized products.

“There are already artisanal cheese producers capable of supplying the product to every city in India. If even a small percentage of the cheese being imported into India were replaced with artisanal cheese procured locally, it would really make the industry grow,” he says, pointing out that while artisanal cheese has been around since the 1990s, it has not yet become mainstream. “It started off with about three-four local fromageries back then and now I would say we have 20-25 producers who are established—that is, those who have managed to sustain themselves for three years or more,” says Madiman.

A change on the retail side is helping. Most gourmet supermarkets and delis now have counters where large wheels of foreign cheeses lie cheek by jowl with small-batch local alternatives.

And south India is the site for this revolution. Brie or fontina are no longer alien names in supermarkets in the smaller towns of the south.

Many of the better-known artisanal fromageries lie south of the Vindhyas and some of them churn out up to 300kg of cheese daily. A few years ago, go-to artisanal cheese came from Puducherry-based La Ferme Cheese and Mango Hill. Now these emerge from a tiny cheese cave in the heart of a techie city like Bengaluru, home to chef Manu Chandra’s latest food project, Begum Victoria cheese. In another corner of the city, in KR Puram, Father KL Michael and his fellow Benedectine monks make fresh Italian cheeses like mozzarella and bocconcini under the banner of Vallombrosa Cheese—a nod to the order’s origins from the town of Vallombrosa in Italy.

Smaller towns are not far behind: the popular Curemonte Cheese comes from a goat and dairy farm in Mysuru. The blue hills of Coonoor are home to Gray’s Hill—whose cream cheeses are the go-to dips for one’s chips—and Acres Wild, which offers one of the only cheese-making courses in the country. The two-decade-old Caroselle Dairy Products can be found in Palani Hills, Tamil Nadu.

In Coonoor, away from the commercial hustle and bustle of Mount Road, Baker’s Junction could be mistaken for just another convenient kirana store servicing the bungalows up the street. But this unassuming grocer doubles as a home-grown version of a speciality gourmet store, offering everything from local breads baked in the nearby National Bakery’s wood oven to a cheese section with a mix of commercial varieties, as well as a robust selection from local fromageries.

Madiman estimates that over 80% of all serious cheesemakers are based in the south. “The north’s consumption of milk is skewed towards eating a lot of malai, butter and ghee, leaving no surplus to be converted to cheese. In the south, the dairy culture is different—we don’t consume it as widely, so there is raw material to convert into cheese,” says Madiman. The origin story of his own brand is a testament to his hypothesis—Caroselle Dairy Products started off in the 1990s as a way to preserve surplus milk. Today, it makes an assortment of soft and hard cheeses like Gouda, Camembert and Parmesan.

Chandra says bovine and human demographics might be a factor. “Most cheeses are made with cow and not buffalo milk.” The south’s propensity for cows, over the north’s love for buffaloes, makes access to raw material much easier. He adds, “Places like Kodaikanal, and Puducherry have always had an expatriate population settled there. That could be another reason that has contributed (to this skew).”

A more cosmopolitan consumer base is also a factor. According to Chandra, south Indians are a lot more adventurous in their eating habits. Bengaluru-based cheese retailer Christopher Albuquerque of 10 Cuts of Cheese, food consultant and writer Monika Manchanda, and Madiman all suggest that there is a proliferation of well-travelled, well-heeled consumers with a better developed palate across southern cities. With IT and tech still reigning supreme across urban centres, buyers are often young, westernized, eager to experiment—and have the disposable income to do so.

From MASS to artisanal cheese

Despite the new entrants, through, the market for mass-produced cheese has been growing every year—market research by Euromonitor shows a 44.5% growth in market size between 2016-18. But while data specific to artisanal cheese is not available, research on it reports a rise in demand for handmade, small-batch products among the more conscious consumers.

While high-end restaurants and cafés have traditionally been the primary buyers of local artisanal cheese, and continue to be so, the rise of the individual customer is a newer trend. Both Madiman and Chandra confirm this spike, which includes curious first-timers, who try a cheese, like it and then become repeat customers. Albuquerque’s clientele largely comprises expats who “won’t touch the imported cheese”, preferring their weekly delivery of fresh local mozzarella, and locals looking for their cheese fix. Although he does have a selection of imported hard cheeses, there are as many local brands as well. Albuquerque also hosts regular events focused on cheese appreciation, and has, over the years, been witness to a “definite increase in a desire to experiment with different kinds of cheese locally”.

Unlike higher-end retail chains that stock local cheese, Albuquerque is aiming to build a cheese culture in the city and capitalize on the consumer desire to explore. In addition to regular events across the city to introduce new kinds of cheese, he offers a curated experience to customers. Stocking up on cheese accompaniments ranging from confitures to crackers, Albuquerque says more customers linger over the buying of cheese. They sample the stock, discuss potential pairings and more, sometimes over the course of an hour. “Ours is a more personalized approach and we use our knowledge and experience to not only talk about the type of cheese but also the story behind its making,” he says.

Manchanda believes consumers have also evolved to appreciate the value of spending on artisanal cheese, based on what they see stocked in gourmet stores and delis. “Stores like Foodhall and Nature’s Basket have shown us that quality cheese is not cheap,” she says. And that small-batch cheese is obviously expensive to make.

The economics of perishability

Some gourmet brands have gone commercial. Take the case of Kodai Dairy Products’ range of flavoured Gouda, Cheddar and Parmesan found at high-end grocers’—reports say they process 4,000 litres per day, on average. Other artisanal cheesemongers, however, have no plans to scale up. Hand-making small batches is often the only way to maintain quality.

It is this attention to detail that makes local cheese comparable to, if not better than, imported alternatives.

One must also consider the economics of selling a perishable product. Imported alternatives can be the death knell for local producers, but Chandra points out that things aren’t as straightforward with cheese: “Market economics in different parts of the world dictate how products would be moved. If a glass of wine in Australia, for example, wasn’t selling, their reaction would be to dump it in other markets at a very, very cheap rate because they can’t afford to hold on to it and not sell it. So dumping becomes a very pertinent threat to the artisan market in India and takes the wind out of the sails of local producers—who can’t possibly compete. But creating a line of cheese that’s difficult to import and sell owing to its highly perishable nature provides a little immunity from any dumping—because they’ll be slaves to delayed logistics and cold storage and transport issues. So local artisanal producers still have an edge, because we are making highly perishable cheese in styles that are not easily available in India.”

The artisanal industry seems to be at a tipping point. While quality baselines are now being hit more consistently, what will make the difference is innovation. Reliable ricotta isn’t enough, instead producers need to experiment to grow. European-style cheeses with desi flavours are already turning up on charcuterie boards at slick suppers, alongside imported cured meats and preserves.

There is also a fair bit of experimentation with local flavours. Gray’s Hill soft cheeses are flavoured with roasted garlic and paprika. Then there is molagapodi-crusted young Cheddar from Chennai-based Kase.

“People get bored of these very soon, so you need to keep innovating,” says Madiman. There is talk of a blue cheese emerging from Begum Victoria’s cheese caves, in addition to their Bel Paese and a double cream Brie, becoming what could be one of the first steps in innovations to form.

On a sweltering day in Bengaluru, a cool stream of whey gushes out of specially imported moulds made to shelter the curds that will finally make the Brie. In a week or so, these glistening beauties will be covered by a white fuzz that its French founders endearingly call le poil de chat, or cat’s fur. Legend has it that when Charlemagne encountered this fresh new cheese at a priory in the French countryside in the eighth century, he immediately ordered an annual delivery to his palace in Aachen, now in Germany. Not too dissimilar to the response local foodies have had, bemoaning the selling out of Begum Victoria’s cheese in Bengaluru on social media last month. This fromage is a far cry from the cheese sandwiches eaten in a railway carriage in the 1990s, but likely as memorable—and for much more delectable reasons.