Indian artisanal cheesemakers are making a dent in the fast-expanding market
In a small lane, by a kindergarten school in Bengaluru's Victoria Layout, the white bungalow has a garden fencing it. Pomelo, guavas, lemon, mango, and sapota trees are planted around a wooden patio table, in front of the building. At one corner is a greenhouse that grows rows of herbs and chillies.
You wouldn't smell the cheese unless you enter the bungalow - this idyllic place is Begum Victoria's cheesemaking facility. Workers package wheels of cheese. Inside a temperature and humidity-controlled room, called a cave in the world of cheese, larger wheels of hard cheese are left to mature.
The company started in 2018. The name is a play on Victoria Layout and the fact that it is founded by two women - Shruti Golchha and Pooja Reddy. The third founder is a man, reputed food entrepreneur and chef Manu Chandra. He is a partner at Olive Bar and Kitchen Private Limited that runs popular bars and restaurants around the country, including Toast & Tonic, Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao.
Begum Victoria started when the trio realised there was a dearth of good local cheese in India. One had access to good cheese in fancy and luxury restaurants but little beyond. Chandra's Toast & Tonic became their little laboratory to test the water. Here, along with crisp soft shell crab or pulled jackfruit tacos, you could also try out a cheese platter from Begum Victoria. There is the Danish Havarti, the Italian Bel Paese, the Swiss Gruyere and the French Brie. The platter has more drama. The cheese is paired with home-made mulberry compote infused with gin and tonic, mango and chilli relish, fresh litchi jelly, mustard, and smoked honey.
"We have done zero marketing except for social media campaigns. The response has been tremendous and we have been getting a lot of institutional enquiries across India now," says Pooja Reddy. The company currently has a capacity to make around 600 kilogrammes of cheese a month.
Begum Victoria represents a growing breed of artisanal cheesemakers in India or those who make small batches of interesting cheese which are mostly handmade. The bungalow represents the old world. Cheesemaking here is a slow, long-drawn affair versus the mechanical processes of large-scale industrial cheesemakers.
What Cheese Is B'lore Making
Bel Paese, Begum Victoria: Translates to "beautiful country" in Italian. This semi-soft, rich, creamy cheese has a mild milk aroma infused with a mild buttery flavour
Burrata, Vallombrosa: An Italian cheese whose centre has a buttery texture. The centre is made from fresh cream and shredded pieces of Mozzarella
Halloumi, Curemonte Cheese: Originally from Cyprus, it can be made from the milk of goat, ewe or cow. The cheese is salty and tangy
Millie's Vegan Cheese: The body of the hard cheese is made from nuts; has a nice crust that can be sliced
Till a decade back, Indians were mostly familiar with the industrial, processed sliced cheese, cubes or blocks. The well heeled, who would earlier return with bagful of cheese from abroad, suddenly have domestic gourmet options. Like Toast & Tonic, such cheese is increasingly being served as platters in many other high-end restaurants and bars. Cheese platters are also common in cocktail parties. Five-star hotels import gourmet cheese for their breakfast and lunch spreads regularly. Locally produced cheese is being sourced by such luxury hotels who are looking to cut import costs and sell the idea of "sustainable luxury". ITC Hotels is one of them.
Manisha Bhasin, Senior Executive Chef at ITC Hotels, says that different restaurants of the group source cheese from artisanal cheesemakers in Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Bengaluru. "Our philosophy is to reduce the carbon footprint. We want to encourage local produce, want to encourage more sustainable initiatives," she says. "Why get into imports? Something that travels so much definitely wouldn't be the freshest. We would like less time from the time it is produced to the table," she adds. ITC Hotels' Italian restaurants - Ottimo, for instance, sources its Burrata, a fresh Italian-style cow milk cheese, from a cheesemaker in Bengaluru.
India's Silicon Valley, Bengaluru, has quite a sprinkling of artisanal cheesemakers. There is Vallombrosa, a firm run by the monks of the Vallombrosan Benedictine Congregation. In making cheese and selling it to luxury hotels, they follow the rule of St Benedict - "Prayer and Work". There is the vertically integrated Curemonte Cheese. Not only do they make the cheese, they also source the milk from their own dairy farm at Hunsur in Karnataka's Mysore district. Millie Mitra started Millie's Vegan Cheese from her home kitchen in Bengaluru's Benson Town. The cheese is made without milk and is based on the concept of wholefoods, plant-based diet. No ingredient or product that is refined or processed is consumed by its proponents. It is a slightly complicated concept. Mitra, therefore, simply prefers to call her cheese "vegan". The practitioners of both wholefoods, plant-based diet and veganism don't consume animal products.
They all dabble in a cheese market that totals between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,000 crore in India. However, most of this is industrial cheese and not artisanal. "The gourmet cheese market would be just 1-2 per cent of the Rs 4,000-crore pie. But that itself makes it a Rs 100-crore market and there are projections it could grow at 20 per cent annually," says Shruti Golchha of Begum Victoria. "Millennials are prioritising food. There are many who are spending 50 per cent of their income on eating out. They are not putting away money for retirement or home. There is also a huge wave or organic food, locally produced food," she adds.
Before they started Curemonte Cheese, Diwakar Ramdas and M.G. Vinay Kumar, two of the company's founders, went on a 22-day tour on their Royal Enfield motorcycles. They rode from Pushkar in Rajasthan - the popular destination for an annual livestock festival to the Chambal Valley. Along the way, they bought cattle they liked.
Begum Victoria partners Pooja Reddy and Manu Chandra
"We bought different breeds of animals; close to five truckloads of milking cows and goats," remembers Kumar. The company later decided to give way the goats, but kept the cows. There are 85 of them now and on average, the cows produce about 900 litres of milk daily, all of which is used in cheesemaking. Owning their own cattle has made a difference to the quality of their cheese, the founders insist. The cheese is an expression of the quality of the milk and this separates an artisanal cheese producer from the more industrial ones.
Quality milk production begins with the feed. "There are five feeding schedules every day. The cows are fed with green fodder two times a day and another two times, they eat dry fodder. Once a day, they munch high protein fodder such as legumes and pulp from the groundnut factory," Kumar explains. All this improves the health of the animals.
Now, Curemonte makes and sells cheese across many categories. It makes soft cheese such as Ricotta and Halloumi, variants of Mozzarella, blue cheese such as Gorgonzola, surface rind cheese such as Camembert and Brie, as well as hard and semi-hard cheese like Gouda and Cheddar.
Chandra of Begum Victoria also stresses on the right sort of milk. While the company does not own livestock, it has opted for single origin sourcing of milk - from one farm. "When you are making cheese in the Alps or in Europe, you have beautiful cows grazing on the lovely hillside and eating fresh grass and flowers. The weather is cooler, so the milk quality is very high. A lot of research had to be done in finding the right source of milk in Bengaluru," he says.
Begum Victoria now uses "A2" milk, a very high quality milk from Hallikar cows, a breed native to Karnataka. "It is milk coming from domestic breeds of cows. Most cheesemakers use Jersey cows. Jersey cows are genetically modified where they produce 14-15 litres of milk. In contrast, the Hallikar cows produce four-five litres. They eat ragi millets, fodder, natural grass. Low-yielding milk is of much higher quality. The input cost is very high. No antibiotics or hormonal injections are given to these cows," Chandra explains.
Millie Mitra's Vegan Cheese is made without milk and is based on the concept of wholefoods and plant-based diet
The use of this single origin A2 milk has infused "more character" to this cheese. "Since it is single origin milk, there is a lot more control," Chandra tells.
For artisanal cheesemakers, the process part is as important as the input. "What we are doing is what most people are not doing, which is natural cave ageing," says Chandra.
Cave ageing is also known as ripening the cheese. It is a crucial final step in the cheesemaking process where the cheese is kept in a temperate-controlled environment for a designated period of time. The Italian Parmesan, which is widely used in cooking, can be aged between 18 and 36 months. The ageing lends a flavour and personality to the cheese. "Our cheese sits in the temperature-controlled cave and ages gradually. A lot of industrial processes tend to either vacuum pack the cheese or wax seal it quickly, which prevents the formation of natural rind on the cheese. However, since Begum Victoria cheese is naturally aged, it forms a natural rind and this rind impart characteristics and flavour," Chandra says.
Father Michael studied theology in Rome. It was here he encountered the Benedictine Congregation's concept of prayer and work. Each community of the Congregation has to work to make a living. Some make wine while others make herbal liquor or sell religious articles. Father Michael took up cheesemaking.
Gualbert Bhavan in Bengaluru's KR Puram is the major seminary of the Vallombrosan Benedictine Congregation. Here, candidates are prepared for priesthood. Everyone staying here now makes cheese, their primary income. Monks at the Bhavan started making small quantities of cheese in 2004. "We made Mozzarella and Ricotta. But I didn't have the confidence to produce on a large scale. In 2006, I went back to Italy and learned more about cheesemaking. I went to the cheese factories of north and southern Italy. Now, we make 100 kilogrammes daily," Father Michael says.
The cheese is sold to five-star hotels in Bangalore, Goa, Pune, Calcutta, and Delhi. Apart from ITC Hotels, The Oberoi Group buys his cheese.
While the monks started with simple buffalo mozzarella, over the years they graduated to bolder versions and varieties - La Treccia Mozzarella (suitable for complex sandwiches), olive-stuffed Bocconcini, Mascarpone (great for Tiramisu, pasta sauce, and dessert toppings), Parmesan, and Pecorino (used in pastas) among others.
On the boldness scale, it would be tough to beat Millie Mitra who makes cheese without milk. The body of her vegan cheese is made of fermented nuts. Her Facebook page announces: "Millie's natural vegan cheese is wholesome, satisfying the senses and the soul. Entirely plant-based, this creamy cheese is made of nuts, full of fibre and contains fats that are good for you."
Business Today met Mitra at her villa's terrace garden. If you see and taste the cheese, it would take time before you could place what she uses instead of milk. Her hard cheese is sold like a wheel and it has a nice crust all around that could be sliced, just like any other milk cheese.
She started experimenting a decade back and her first results in nut-based cheesemaking were cheese spreads. Now she makes four variations of hard cheese which includes burnt chilli garlic, sun-dried tomato, creamy original, and a crushed black pepper cheese. In farmer's markets, her stuff is sold out 90 per cent of the time, she stresses. Wellness is a mega trend.
"Vegan was not something people understood a decade back. Now it is different. This generation wants to know what they are eating and what's on their plate," Mitra says.
Back to Manu Chandra, who promises to continue bold experimentation at Begum Victoria.
"We will continue to experiment on what works for us and the customer. We have finalised six cheeses that we will keep producing. We make variants of the cheese as well by adding herbs and chillies, all grown here at the garden," he says. "We have been able to alter people's palettes. That is the true vindication. Lot of people have started using our cheeses in their cooking applications. People tag us on Instagram saying they made a great salad with our feta, or the Brie was chopped up and put in a sour dough bread," he adds.
Chandra makes a more pertinent point. Experimentation from Indian cheesemakers would eventually lead to Indian varieties. "What we do with A2 desi cow milk is not similar to the produce of cows in the Swiss Alps. It is not an apples to apples comparison. It's like wine. Can you replicate French wine in Nasik?" he asks. The answer comes after a brief pause.
"Lot of our varietals will mutate into proprietorial varietals. Our cheese eventually will have its own proprietary names and classifications."