Aditya ‘Addie’ Raghavan On Complexities Of Cheesemaking In India
- Devi Poojari
Updated : December 18, 2022 13:12 IST
The artisanal cheesemaker talks about his way of approaching cheesemaking, navigating the challenges of making cheese in India, and what keeps him hooked about the craft.
When you engage in conversation with former postdoctoral scientist-turned-cheesemaker, Aditya Raghavan, his enthusiasm in sharing his perspective on cheesemaking is pretty evident. “Cheesemaking and working in restaurants — that’s my career moving forward. I don’t think I’ll ever have my cheese farm because I don’t own land and it isn’t fulfilling enough of a story for me to buy milk from somewhere and make cheese,” he says definitively as he talks to us from Canada, where he’s currently spending time before returning to the country next month.
What started off as dabbling in an active interest, became a full-time way of life for Aditya, or Addie as he is fondly known, in 2012. In an exclusive interview, Addie talks about his journey in learning the art of caseiculture, why fresh cheese is infinitely better than most commercial products and his version of a solid grilled cheese.
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Q. How did your practices of preserving local, traditional ways of cooking and eating shape your approach towards food?
I think it is a multi-faceted thing. For starters, I was working in Canada in the academic field, which I wanted to get out of. I was always into cooking and would often make sausages and cheese at home. I worked on a couple of dairy farms in Canada so I didn’t really go to a (culinary) school to learn how to make cheese. When I visited India in 2013, I realised that there was a big market for cheesemaking in general, because we have a lot of milk. We have dairy products in our day-to-day lives in all forms in most parts of the country, barring some exceptions and are very comfortable around them. The idea was to use some of my skills that I picked up in the West, so I started by making cheese in my parents’ house in Thane. I would go buy buffalo and cow milk and make lots of cheeses. I first sold some of my cheeses at a BBC Good Food event in Bombay which was a lot of fun but I was still toying with the idea of whether I wanted to be a cheesemaker or not. When The Farm in Chennai approached me in 2014 and asked if I could be a consultant to make cheese with the milk they produced, it became a very interesting opportunity for me. It gave me the space to troubleshoot a lot and train their staff to make cheese. Also understanding different types of milk and different conditions becomes a challenge for someone like me who is very task-oriented. That led to a few other gigs like making Basta cheese in Bangalore, working with The Cheese Collective and more recently, with Begum Victoria Cheese in 2018-19.
Q. As a novice to artisanal cheese, how does one distinguish the importance of consuming hyperlocal products as opposed to what’s relatively easy to access?
There are lots of difficulties in India surrounding the fact that we don’t have a reliable cold-chain system of delivery. Lot of the costs involved in making this happen is something that a small dairy farmer can’t afford which is why you see a lot of big players being more successful in creating reproduceable products; whether they are great or not, at least they are consistent in taste every time you eat it, which is also important. Coming to the argument about why one must eat fresh cheese, to begin with, is because it’s less processed and there are very few ingredients used in producing them as compared to what an Amul cheese would have, mentioned at the back of the package. Although our grandparents’ and parents’ generations were very particular about the quality of vegetables, fruits and proteins that were brought home, somehow that did not translate to cheese. It was considered to be a luxury product that’s not really a daily staple.
We have a bunch of indigenous cheeses like bandel, chhurpi and kalari and I’m waiting for people to get interested in it – the problem is two-fold. One, is that these products are made as a way to preserve milk and not in a factory like a manufactured product. It is, at best, a household skill. Very few places actually sell these cheeses. Besides, it’s not a product that has a long shelf life because these cheeses are not salted, vacuum-sealed or packaged properly. A lot of restaurants have begun to feature these local cheeses on their menu but we still have a long way to go before these cheeses become a mainstream thing even in cities, where someone thinks of making kalari kulchas for dinner. Cheese is not an ingredient that can be eaten as is, so teaching people about what to pair it with and how to store it is necessary. I think of it in a way where we are capable of possessing the same spectrum of awareness about cheeses the way we do with desserts from around the world, these days. Today you can find mishti doi being sold at airports. With the help of people who are capable of pushing the cause further, it has to be a compelling enough story.
Q. What according to you is the most complex aspect of cheesemaking in India?
Access to high quality milk sources, for one. Good milk exists in India but it’s hard to find a consistent supply. The high room temperature makes a big difference because it changes the biochemistry of the milk a lot and how a recipe would work. Take the process of making cheddar, for example — it sits in the vat at room temperature, in a country like England, for about 14 hours. That is not possible in most parts of India except for maybe the Himalayas, which means the recipes have to be changed basis the change in climate. You’re essentially creating your own recipe from scratch. The third issue would be packaging and transportation of cheese. For anyone who is looking to make cheese and sell it outside of a farm, the way it is stored and handled by other people is really important to look into.
Q. What do you keep in mind while designing cheese programmes for people to learn from? How does the varied taste palettes or familiarity of ingredients influence the final product?
I just focus on what I can deliver in terms of what the important aspects are that people should learn about — like Indian dairy history, etc. Having come from an academic background, I’m very comfortable with creating a system to educate people but I don’t know if I have a strategy, as such. It would depend on the kind of programme I’m conducting but my focus is on how I can best share my knowledge and showcase Indian dairy traditions. If it’s a matter of cheeses, talking about different flavour profiles, introducing new words to the lexicon of the public — people don’t know the right words to describe the notes and flavours of the cheese they’re tasting so helping them with that is something I’m very interested in.
When I talk about Indian dairy traditions, I appear to be an outsider sharing knowledge because these are not my traditions; these are traditions I’ve found. It seems less daunting for people because they can relate to someone like me, who’s one of them, as opposed to someone who has been making kalari their whole life. While it would be great privilege to be an audience to, in a different light, it might intimidate people and make them feel like it isn’t relatable because someone is up in the mountains, making cheese. When I’m introducing it to people, they connect with the fact that I’m a city person.
Q. What has been your most fulfilling cheesemaking experiment so far?
I would say that my experience of making aged cheddar in the village of Demul in Spiti valley. The temperatures there are fairly low and we found a little area in the basement of someone’s house that stays cold all year round. I made four wheels of cheddar and one wheel of gouda and aged them for about a year. Since the people living there forage a lot, I flavoured the gouda with wild cumin and the cheddar with chives that are grown in summer. It’s a very particular flavour that they use in their food and although they’re both very classic flavours to add to cheese, making cheese with raw milk from animals that are yak-cow hybrids was the most fulfilling for me. It turned out delicious! Someone told me that if a production facility were to be set up there (although not feasible), it would supposedly be the highest located cheese-producing facility in the world, even higher than the Swiss Alps! I would love to someday give legs to a project like that in Demul, which funnily rhymes with Amul.
Q. Tell us your recipe for your go-to grilled cheese sandwich.
Crusty sourdough bread that has been buttered on the outside and a mix of two or three cheeses. My favourite combination would be an aged Alpine cheese called Gruyere and a soft Italian cheese called Taleggio in equal amounts. Toast on a medium-low heat so that the cheese is melted and the toast is saturated with butter and crispy on the outside.
Q. What are some regional discoveries — ingredients or food items, that you think are worthy of a mention?
I’m really interested in the different varieties of fish we have in the country. I really enjoyed having the dry bombil chutney, that was made like a sabzi, in the Konkan coast that we ate with ghavans, which are like thin rice crepes. I ate lobsters in a house in Malvan cooked with hirva masala which is essentially like a green chutney that led me to draw parallels with the Goan Cafreal. Tree tomatoes (tamarillo) which I had in Sikkim and parts of the Himalayas is something that people don’t have access to in the big cities. I love its fruity taste. There’s one lady in the Dimapur market who sells really good akhuni (fermented soybean paste), which I would go back and buy. Being open-minded and trying new things is important.
Q. Could you tell us what you plan on doing next on your return?
I’m going to be speaking about Indian dairy traditions at Living Lightly — a conference for pastoralists, which is happening in Bhuj next month. I’m also doing an eight-course dinner called the ‘Art of Spices’ at the (Kochi) Biennale where each course will highlight a different spice from Kerala, where it will be the season for fresh buds. Focussing on the seasonality of spices and connecting how they come from trees, so you can taste their freshness.