Living: It’s a cheesy affair

Discover the world of artisanal cheeses

Breaking news! India is turning cheesier by the day! Albeit, artisanally. All across the country, artisanal cheese shops are filling the streets with the heady milky scent of this coagulated dairy product. These cheeses are handmade using the traditional methods with absolutely no preservatives.

Dhvani Desai, founder, Casa Del Cheese, a gourmet cheese creamery in Mumbai, says, “The principle of artisanal cheeses goes back to the times before the Industrial Revolution when everything was made by hand. The main difference between artisanal cheese and processed cheese is that the latter contains vegetable oil and emulsifiers. This means that you are buying a dairy product which is not even dairy per se.”

All natural

According to Hari Shanker, owner, Kodai Cheese, another natural cheese company down south in Kodaikanal, “Artisanal cheese is made using small-scale production methods that give it definitive characteristics in comparison to commercial-end cheese. For example, camembert produced in Normandy using raw milk sells at a higher price than most commercial variants. This is because it takes a lot more effort and cheesemakers use unique techniques to ensure that a certain texture and flavour is developed. Artisanal cheese cannot be compared to processed cheese as it is made using milk, while processed cheese is made by blending different types of cheese to produce the desired characteristics.”

In order to produce a delicious block of artisanal cheese, farm-fresh milk is first sourced, then it is pasteurised to eliminate all harmful bacteria. To this, starter culture and coagulating ingredients are added, and the resultant curd is then cooked along with additional flavours. The cheese is then finally left to mature. But cheeses produced in small quantities don’t qualify for the artisanal tag, says Saurin Sheth, owner, Manna Agencies, Cheese Solutions & More, Ahmedabad. He says, “Artisanal cheese is made by people who know their cheese really well and stick to the age-old recipes and maintain the standards throughout the process.”

Demand & supply

The market for artisanal cheese is definitely on the uptick going by the increasing presence of these cheeses in retail outlets, supermarkets and online stores. Christopher Albuquerque, the owner, 10 Cuts of Cheese, Bengaluru, says, “It’s a growing market and you can see that in the number of artisanal cheesemakers that have come up in India over the last five years. And in the past year that I have been running my store, I have also noticed that consumers themselves are willing to experiment.”

Traditionally, India has never been big on cheese. It’s only in the recent times when big brands like Amul started to introduce cheeses into the market that we started taking notice of it. Still, as an ingredient, cheese does not feature on every homemaker’s monthly grocery list. Dhvani states, “For us, the closest thing to cheese is paneer. And one of the reasons is because of the climate. There was never a need to preserve milk because it’s available throughout the year. Cheese has originated from a land where things were not abundant throughout the year, which is why the Indian artisanal cheese market is very niche.”

Go through the menu of any eatery today, and you will find cheese-added dishes terms as “specials”. Cheese-loaded dosas, chaats with cheese as a topping, cutlets with a cheese filling, cheese-filled parathas… At Christopher’s store, where you can find Indian artisanal cheese stacked alongside imported ones, people usually go for mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, burrata, bocconcini, cheddar, feta, among others. Christopher says, “Indian feta from Kodai Farms and gouda from Himalayan Farms in Jammu are other favourites.”

Sharing knowledge

On their part, Indian artisanal cheesemakers are reaching out to more consumers with some innovative creations and awareness workshops. At Dhvani’s store, for instance, you can find cheeses like ‘white forest’ (ash-coated shitake mushroom brie cheese), ‘lavender frost’ (fresh buffalo milk cheese sprinkled with organic dried lavender and fennel) and more. On the other hand, Christopher regularly hosts cheese introduction workshops in order to make people aware of artisanal cheeses. Saurin says, “I recently organised a ‘cheese and tea’ party for people here in Ahmedabad, and another time, I hosted a ‘cheese and snack’ pairing session to enlighten people.”

Money wise, artisanal cheeses are priced higher than the processed ones because they are completely natural products that have a shorter shelf life. Christopher also cites the scarcity of ingredients as a reason for the high prices. “I have a goat cheese supplier who rears goats on his farm. In spite of this, there’s a scarcity of goat milk, which pushes the price of goat cheese upwards.”

Currently, high-end hotels and restaurant chains are the biggest consumers of artisanal cheese. Kodai Cheese has been in the natural cheese business for the past 46 years and their biggest consumer is the Taj group of hotels. For Saurin, the artisanal cheese sales don’t make up for more than 10% of his total cheese sales. According to Christopher, regular customers mostly walk into artisanal cheese shops looking for that one particular cheese they enjoyed abroad and that’s the limit of their knowledge of this niche food category.

All said and done, it’s clearly the perfect time to say cheese! Oops, I mean, artisanal cheese!

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Living: It’s a cheesy affair

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