The Cheese Takeover:  Artisanal Cheese In India
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The Indian culinary scene has been experiencing something of a cheesemaking renaissance. Despite being the largest dairy producing country in the world, cheeses with the exception of paneer are rarely staples of the average Indian diet.  If you chanced upon a posh hotel breakfast or peeked in the dairy aisle of a fancy grocery store just a few years ago, what you will have found would either have been simple processed varieties from local brands or highly expensive imported cheeses many orders of magnitude more expensive. The latter were not only out of reach to most common folk, they were also products of industrial production by companies that were large enough to conduct international operations. True “artisanal” cheeses, i.e. cheeses that are made the traditional way using few preservatives on a small scale, were still a distant goal. Artisanal cheeses can largely be characterized by their emphasis on quality at the cost of scale, their use of natural ingredients and techniques not dissimilar to those from a few hundred years ago. This style of cheesemaking is arguably the best for quality, and is the most sustainable. It provides long-term value to dairy farmers as well as cheesemakers that must hone a highly skilled craft. 

Almost every major city in India now boasts one or more local cheese brands, each focussing on a specific niche. Begum Victoria for instance, specializes in soft and semi-hard cheeses, a brand based in Bangalore named after the old neighborhood of Victoria layout. Chef Manu Chandra of the Olive group is among its co-founders and states that he expects considerable growth in the industry as more people familiarize themselves with various new options. Their Brie is a top-seller and has been considered by many in the city’s food scene to be truly world class, comparable to its French counterpart. 

The city is also home to Vallombrosa, a collective of Benedictine monks that specialize in producing fresh cheeses such as Mozzarella, Burrata, Mascarpone and Ricotta. Founded by Father KL Michael in 2006 after having spent many years in Italy honing his craft, Vallombrosa has grown in size considerably and is the de facto supplier of fresh cheeses to most of the city’s commercial establishments. 

Maharashtra too is home to a number of fresh cheese makers such as Elefentaria in Pune and Spotted Cow Fromagerie in Mumbai. Both have grown considerably since 2020 and have begun to focus more on B2C markets in addition to their robust B2B presence. As such, their proximity to renowned restaurants in their region, such as O Pedro and Bombay Canteen, has allowed them to fine tune their offerings to better suit chef requirements. 

Across the entire artisanal cheese space, there has also been an attempt to highlight local flavours and ingredients. Käse, a cheesemaker out of Chennai specializing in semi-hard cheeses, sells a version of its cheddar encrusted with Milagai Podi, a classic and familiar flavour to most from the region. Further north in Uttarakhand, cheesemaker Darima Farms produces a hard cheese speckled with chillies from Jaiselmer called the ‘Chilly Bomb’. Both Darima and Käse have seen considerable growth within the B2C space, with Darima having recently exceeded 20 tonnes in annual cheese production. 

Growth within the space has largely been spurred by an increase in demand for locally produced and unprocessed foods. Cheeses also fit perfectly into Ketogenic diets that have seen a surge in popularity. The pandemic opened up new opportunities for local cheese makers as cheese platters became a popular option with those looking to entertain guests at home. Local craft cheeses are slowly finding their way into supermarket aisles and are seemingly gaining more mainstream appeal. 

The success of each of the players in the space is certainly no small feat. The variables involved in cheesemaking can be extremely difficult to control, from temperatures to humidity, a few degrees here and there can compromise the final product greatly. Sourcing is also extremely crucial to the entire process. From Begum Victoria to Darima Farms and the countless other brands beginning to mushroom, each shares a close relationship with the farms that supply their milk, often coming from a breed of cows called Halikars that produce A2 milk. 

The combined efforts of these companies have made waves through the culinary scene, highlighting the quality of dairy from Indian cows, mastery of centuries-old cheesemaking techniques as well as a growing acceptance of this class of product within the broader market. Some cheeses have even won international acclaim such as the Brunost, a Norwegian-style soft cheese produced by Elefentaria. In 2021 it received a silver medal at the World Cheese Awards held in Spain where it competed against 4000 entries from 40 countries.