The Saga of Cheese in India

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 29 Nov 2017 11:45:21



By pheroze kharegat,

Most Indian cheese makers belong to a small and exclusive group — artisan cheese makers — who disdain processed cheese and instead believe in producing natural cheeses and are following in the footsteps of small farmers in the heartland of England, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and France, who make their cheeses fresh and sell them locally.

Till 1986 India did not figure in the cheese map of the world. One reason was that production of cheese required use of rennet - an animal product obtained from cow calves, for the transformation of milk into cheese. In a country that worships the cow, this factor was a major taboo. Paneer is the most ubiquitous cheese in India, a staple of Indian curries that’s made with acid instead of rennet. Then science intervened and now the conversion of milk into cheese is possible with herbal type of rennet, using microbial coagulants to get the job done and the Amul Cheese company of India is world’s largest producer of vegan cheese - with planned annual production of nearly 44 thousand tons in 2017..

Only around 40 to 45 varieties of cheese are available in India, compared to somewhere over 300 in the US, and 3000 across the world. In 2016 the Indian production of cheese amounts to nearly 60 thousand tons and we further import annually gourmet cheese of 1500 tons. Cheese sales account for just a sliver of India’s 700 billion-rupee ($11.6 billion) dairy industry. In 2015 cheese sales totaled about 10 billion (1000 crores) rupees. Of that, gourmet cheeses accounted for a small fraction.

The four metropolitan cities consume over 60% of the cheese sold in India. Mumbai tops the list with 30% following by Delhi with 20% , Kolkata at 7% and Chennai at 6%. Of this cheese percentage, about 98% are into production of ‘pizza’ cheese (which everyone calls ‘mozzarella’ here!) which is used for pizzas, of course. Only 2% is converted into artisanal cheese by about a dozen cheese makers in the whole of India. Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation represented by the famous Amul continues to lead cheese with a value share of 46% in 2015. Brittania ( India), Parag Cheese and Mother Dairy of Delhi are its main rivals .

Cheese demand is driven by India’s young demography and growing urban middle class. According to contacts, these consumers are more experimental, and willing to try new foods due to increased international exposure through travel and quick service restaurants. In general, in organized retail, Indian consumers largely purchase paneer and processed cheese due to its lower price. However, increased visibility of several cheese styles and modern packaging including slices, cubes, and nonpaneer products in modern retail stores is attracting more consumer interest.

Urban cheese demand constitutes approximately 60 percent of total Indian sales. Urban per capita consumption is 700 grams per year while the national average is 200 grams per year. Consumption is much lower than the world average of seven kilograms per year Till three decades ago, the only indigenous cheese in India was the famous yak cheese made from yaks milk replicating Tibetan cheese (available in Delhi) from Dharamsala. The Himalayan yak cheese is sold across shops in Ladakh, and the only fat-free cheese in the world is now sold in American gourmet stores as a delicacy. Qadam/ kalari or maish krej, is a a traditional cheese made by Kashmir’s Gujjars. It is known for its long shelf life and has a crumbly but chewy texture. It is available only in Kashmir, in traditional Gujjar homes at Pahalgam. 

Historically, it is said that ‘cheese’ from the western world came to India with the earliest Dutch settlers, who sailed up the River Hooghly and set up camp on the river banks at Chinsurah. There were other European settlers who also came to the area around the same time. These were the Danes at Serampore, the French at Chandanagore, the Portuguese at Bandel and the British at Calcutta. But today, a cheese hunt in the region, does not lead to any traces of the origin of Dutch cheese. However, there is a type of smoked Portuguese cheese which is available in the shape of small roundels, at Kolkata’s Sir Stuart Hogg Market (popularly known as New Market), and referred to as ‘Bandel Cheese’. Bandel, a tiny former Portuguese settlement, lies within the Chinsurah Municipality.

Early colonial literature, also mentions three types of cheeses, including the Bandel cheese. The main varieties of Portuguese cheese are Dacca, Bandal and Surti referring no doubt to the locations where they originate. The first two are of the smoked variety, while the third is said to be salted. The hilly region of Kalimpong, is also known for its special variety of cheese, sold as large balls wrapped in red cellophane.

A rare find, Kalimpong cheese as it is called, was made by Brother Abraham, a parish priest in Sikkim, but after his passing away the quality of the locally produced delicacy, just is not the same …locals in Sikkim explain. While production of the famous Sikkim Gouda cheese has been taken over by Amul, a small amount of the local variety of Gouda by Pappu Diary Co-op, which shut down wholescale production a few years ago, is available occasionally in Kolkatta (only 10 kgs are made each day). It may not be quite the same as the world-famous Cheddar, but aficionados of cheese assert that the product still appeals to the global palate.

Most Indian cheese makers belong to a small and exclusive group — artisan cheese makers — who disdain processed cheese and instead believe in producing natural cheeses and are following in the footsteps of small farmers in the heartland of England, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and France, who make their cheeses fresh and sell them locally. All over India there are pockets of cheese making that match with the best in the world. Indian cheese makers have added even kadipatta (curry leaves) to cheese. Kadipatta cheese tastes fantastic in a burger or club sandwich, whereas rose petal cheese, layered on toast, has a mind-blowing flowery taste.

Perhaps the most famous is the enterprise by Man Mohan Malik, a Sikh entrepreneur, who started his cheese business in 1950, at Paonta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh. In 2015 Malik exported cheese for a value of rupees 250 crores mainly to USA. There’s a slice of Belgium in a village called Bijwasan on the outskirts of Delhi. Does that sound incongruous? Well, just walk into the Flanders Dairy Company in Bijwasan, take a deep breath and get a whiff of the air inside, thick with the tangy smell of whey. Molten ricotta and creamy mascarpone swirl right before your eyes in giant tubs as they are transformed into huge mounds of gourmet cheese.

For exclusivity, try out the Pecorino goat cheese made at the famous Parsi-run A.B.C Farms — named after the trio of founders Rohinton Aga, Adi Bathena and Eruch Chinoy — in Pune. It retails for a princely Rs 2,000 a kilo, and flies off the shelves nonetheless. A bit too expensive? Check out the 70 other varieties of natural cheese made within the precincts of the 41-acre spread. On offer at A.B.C, for instance, are ‘alcohol cheeses’. Priced at Rs 250, a kilo of Port Wine cheese, or a vodka and cumin cheese have turned out to be winners. So are the non-vegetarian cheeses — there is everything from smoked ham cheese to nuggets of turkey lodged inside a block of cheese..

Alternatively, taste the cheeses made by the Benedictine monks in Bangalore. The chief cheese-maker here is Friar K.L. Michael, who happens to be especially proud of Vallombrosa, his own brand of water buffalo cheese. He and his team of Benedictines handcraft six kinds of cheese — mozzarella, burrata, ricotta, mascarpone, bocconcini and caciotta — hot favourites with restaurants across Bangalore.
In Auroville at Pondicherry, apart from the usual crumbly old Parmesan and a three-month old Cheddar, Olivier and Benny, two of the cheese-makers here also produce a 12-month old, piquant Auroblochon, a Blue d’ auroville cheese with a blue mold covering and a young, nutty-flavoured Lofabu. But you can’t buy these anywhere except in Pondicherry.

We still have a long way to go, but India is doing well with hard cheeses and very well with fresh cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta. We are also good with vegetarian cheese and are the largest exporter of rennet because in India we have little use for it. But by and large, Indian cheese is used in cuisine rather than on its own. As a gourmet cheese, we are yet to develop a signature Indian cheese

How to use Indian cheese:
Use Flander’s kwark for baking cheese cakes, and serve Pondicherry’s gourmet cheeses with your wines. ABC Farms’ bocconcinni stuffed with olives and fondue cheese flavoured with wine or cherry brandy are great for parties, use Kodai’s Romano to flavour soups and sauces, and their Gruyere for fondue. Cinnabar farms’ Cinnableu and ABC’s blue are the only two blue cheeses in the country. Monterey Jack is great for melty BLT sandwiches.