Say holy cheese!

Say holy cheese!

Soft, succulent with a salty undertone, a small bite of mozzarella was enough to please my palate and transport me to the streets of Naples. But I wasn’t in Naples. I was right here in Bengaluru, tasting fresh buffalo mozzarella made by a group of unlikely cheese makers. I was savouring this premium artisanal cheese made by Benedictine monks in a quaint little convent, Gualbert Bhavan, in a far corner of the city in TC Palya.

Roman Catholic monks of the Vallombrosan Benedictine Confederation have been making exquisite cheese for the last 13 years and supplying their products to high-end restaurants and five-star hotels around the country.

The monks, under the guidance of Father K L Michael, chanced upon the idea of making cheese as a means for sustainable living. Following the Benedictine tenet of Ora et Labora, which is Latin for prayer and work, these priests have mastered the art of cheese making for the upkeep of the monastery and its students.

Italian connect

As a part of the first batch of priests sent to Italy for higher studies, Father Michael had to choose a vocation for his monastery in India. A man of few words, Father Michael’s face instantly lights up when he starts talking about his cheeses. “In our Benedictine order, each monastery has to find some occupation. Each monastery is given a different kind of work — whether it is wine or herb liqueur making.

The rule was to work from the monastery and earn for the monastery. In our parish in Italy, I met an Italian businessman who said he could never find good cheese during his travels in India. He said the pizzas in India never tasted good because they didn’t have good buffalo mozzarella. Cheese making seemed to be an ideal vocation. So I was sent to Naples in south Italy to learn the process.”

However, once Father Michael returned to India, there were several challenges to face. “We started out by using second-hand machines, as we didn’t want to take any risks in case the venture fails. We got our small scale industry registration and food license. But procuring pure buffalo milk was the biggest of all hurdles. In 2004, we started with 30 litres of milk procured from a dairy in Hoskote. At first, we made small batches for samples.”

The first sample was sent to one of the city’s prominent chefs, Manjeet Singh, who was running one of the popular Italian restaurants in the city, Herbs and Spices, in Indiranagar. “I waited for his feedback. Fortunately, he loved our product, and he was our first real customer. He was probably more sympathetic towards us because we were priests.

He sent the word out to other chefs in the city, at Park Hotel, Oberoi, Leela Palace and several fine-dining restaurants. The word-of-mouth strategy worked, and soon orders started pouring in. We didn’t want to publicise it too much because we are priests and our work is to induct students into priesthood. Cheese making is just for the upkeep of the monastery, and not a business.”

Good cheese is a result of good milk, and finding good quality buffalo milk was an uphill task. “In 2008, I chanced upon a big farm in Hosur, with 2,000-odd buffaloes that produced about 500 litres of milk a day. I used to procure about 200 to 300 litres. Since that shut down, I now source 400 litres of milk per day from a farm in Bannerghatta.”

Cheese making is a science as much as it is an art. Speaking about his learning years in Italy, Father Michael said he had to unlearn a lot of what he had learnt as some of the processes did not suit the Indian conditions. “The weather conditions, milk quality and waterare different in India. By the time the milk reaches us from the dairy farm, the temperature changes and acidity kicks in. Each of these aspects has to be carefully calculated and taken into consideration. Initially, we had to deal with adulterated milk, which was a nightmare.”

Mozzarella mores

A major part of Vallombrosa Cheese’s production is buffalo mozzarella, which is best for pizzas and salads. And the best part about Vallombrosa mozzarella is that it doesn’t have any preservatives. “We use full-cream buffalo milk, which makes the cheese tastier than the other niche brands available in the market,” he says with pride. The other popular product is the pizza cheese, which is a little hard and easily grate-able. However, the most sought after variety is the handmade burrata, which is creamy on the inside with a soft mozzarella outer shell.

“Burrata is a mix of cream and mozzarella. Folding is the key to making this cheese, which is made at 90°C. Your hand has to be cool while you are making it, and it has to be done quickly with swift hand movements. We supply our burrata to five-star hotels in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi.”

What started off as a one-cheese operation soon expanded to 10 cheeses that include buffalo mozzarella, burrata, bocconcini, ricotta, pecorino, mascarpone, parmesan, caciotta and small quantities of goat cheese, made of goat’s milk sourced from Kottayam, Kerala. “As the demand grew, we gradually started producing other varieties. I consulted with the chefs about their needs and soon expanded the range. So we first get in touch with the chefs and ask them for their requirement, like the size of the cheese and so on, and make them accordingly.”

At present, around 80 to 90 kg of Vallombrosa cheese is supplied each day, with supplies going up to 100 to 120 kg during the weekends. While hard cheeses like parmesan and pecorino take a year or a year-and-a-half to mature, the softer ones like mozzarella and ricotta can be stored for almost 15 days in cold conditions.

Mozzarella, burrata and bocconcini are best consumed fresh with pizzas or as a plain component in salads. “Bocconcini is my personal favourite. These are small bite-sized morsels, which weigh 10 gm each. You can just pop one into your mouth.”

But the monks don’t indulge themselves with their own cheese. They enjoy their mozzarella only twice a week with their chapatis and parottas.

Apart from the five-star hotels and restaurants, in the last two or three years, the expat community in Bengaluru has also started approaching the convent for their divine creations. “The Japanese, French, Russian and Italian communities in the city visit the monastery, taste the cheese, and give us bulk orders.”

However, the monks remain true to their faith and don’t want to commercialise their work. “We don’t want to make it into a huge business. We just want to keep it small, without compromising on the quality of cheese. We just want to produce enough to take care of our needs.”

Father Michael is setting his eyes on Italian butter next and plans to get more sophisticated equipment to improve the quality of the products and streamline the process.

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