While the Indian F&B industry is now brimming with talented women, there aren’t many cheesemakers amid their ranks. This Women’s Day, Slurrp caught up with the incredible Indian cheesemaker, Mausam Jotwani Narang, the woman behind Eleftheria and India’s first award-winning cheese, Brunost. Here’s everything she had to say during our conversation.
An Indian woman and her team’s creation made history at the World Cheese Awards in 2021. The world was just recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and we surely needed more reasons to celebrate—and Mausam Jotwani Narang, the founder of Mumbai-based Eleftheria gave us just that. Her take on the Norwegian cheese, Brunost, won a coveted silver rating at the World Cheese Awards—a first for any Indian, man or woman. This Women’s Day, Slurrp caught up with Narang to discuss her journey, that momentous occasion, and the inspiration she is to women coming up in the Indian food and beverage industry.
How An Indian Cheesemaker Was Born
“I love eating cheese,” Narang says, pointing at where it all started for her. “It all started as a hobby, because I couldn’t find good-quality cheese around me. I’d just gotten back from my Masters in the UK and I’d started making cheese and sourdough bread as a hobby. I saw an opportunity there and really enjoyed the hobby—it almost became an obsession. That’s how I decided to start my micro-creamery. I started making cheese around 2013-2014. In 2015, I did a lot of pop-ups, exhibitions, farmer’s markets and a lot of research. In June 2015, I got the lease for my micro-creamery. And April 2016 is when I started supplying to restaurants and cafes.”
But while starting out was easy, letting her products catch on in the market took time and plenty of effort, along with loads of research. “Good quality cheese comes from good quality milk,” she explains. “Even though India is one of the largest producers of milk in the world, our milk is not conducive to cheesemaking because it tends to be pasteurized. You can’t really make cheese with store-bought or supermarket milk. So, getting good-quality raw milk with the proteins intact from farmers and organic livestock producers was a big challenge at first. The raw materials you need to make cheese are also not readily available in the country. The knowledge wasn’t readily available either.”
The scene has clearly changed since Narang began. “Now it has become increasingly easier because ingredients are easily available, you can buy books and experiment with good quality milk. Things are changing slowly. But it’s still difficult to do it on the large scale. Hygiene is a big factor in cheesemaking, and in order to maintain that, you have to have an infrastructure. You have to have pasteurized, stainless-steel equipment, etc. At a commercial level, it is capital intensive. For a hobbyist, not so much.”
Once Narang set up Eleftheria, it looked more like an Italian caciosteria, which is a creamery where cheese is produced. They have theirown pasteurizer, stainless-steel vats, cold rooms. “Our setup was quite apt for the production of cheeses from the Mozzarella family so we started supplying those,” she explains. And soon, her brand picked up.
The Making Of An Award-Winning Indian Cheese
“Many cafes and restaurants started buying from us because there was clearly a gap in the market. That’s how we got our foot in the door,” Narang reminisces. “But because we were making so much Mozzarella, Burrata and Bocconcini, we also had a lot of leftover whey which is a byproduct of cheesemaking. We wanted to utilize that protein-rich whey. We made Ricotta with it, but we still had a lot of leftovers.” And that’s how the idea of making Brunost in India clicked in her mind. “I’d tried Brunost a couple of years back when a friend had gotten it from Norway,” she says. “I loved it because it’s unlike any other cheese you might have had. It’s brown in colour, has a creamy, fudge-like texture. I started experimenting with Brunost.”
Now that the cheese variety has gained so much popularity, what is it, according to Narang, that makes it stand out? “I like to call our Brunost a salted-caramel milk fudge with a beautiful, lingering flavour,” she says. “A single bite makes your mouth salivate because it has a fantastic umami flavour with savoury notes. It’s pliable, so you can grate it, you can shave it on top of your toast. I feel it’s very reminiscent of the Indian peda, texture wise. We don’t add any sugar to Brunost, so taste-wise it is savoury. But the natural milk sugars do caramelize in a way to give Brunost that salted-caramel flavour. We don’t add any salt either. The salty notes come from the remnant minerals in the whey.”
For those who love cheese, the making of Brunost at Narang’s Eleftheria is more of a momentous occasion. And those who are all for including more sustainable habits in the F&B industry would also applaud. “How fabulous is it that you’re getting such a sophisticated product from a byproduct? So, we were very excited about launching it,” Narang says, beaming with pride. “Right then, COVID happened. But as soon as things got better, I decided to send the product in for the World Cheese Awards. Another reason to send the Brunost was also because it travels well. All the other products we made back then were shelf-life restricted high-moisture products. I’d first heard of the World Cheese Awards from a fellow cheesemaker. Nobody from India had ever applied to it. When we sent the Brunost, we didn’t do it with the intention of winning. We just wanted to get some kind of feedback and reaction to an Indian-made cheese. When we won a Silver rating, we were elated and the team was ecstatic. It was overwhelming, but it also validated all the efforts I had put in.”
Striking An Impact As A Woman Entrepreneur
Today, Eleftheria is making a mark not just across India but also the world. It is one of those women-led F&B brands that’s also quite the inspiration for budding women in the field. “When I started out there were roadblocks of course,” Narang says about her won journey. “As a woman in the food space, for example, if I have to approach a landlord for a space—like I did six-seven years back—at times you’re not taken as seriously as a male counterpart would. When you’re going to buy heavy machinery and equipment, you’re not taken as seriously. These roadblocks exist, but you have to have the confidence to plough through and believe in your craft.”
Narang not only believes in overcoming obstacles, but is also helping build (and is equally supported by) a women-oriented team. “I have a very strong team of women. About 80 per cent of my team consists of women, and they’ve been with me through thick and thin,” she quips. “I think girls and women make fantastic leaders because they are good at multi-tasking and intuitive. Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs, women or men. So, if you have the entrepreneurial skills and drive, if you have the tenacity to chase your goals, then you will thrive and survive no matter the gender. There are amazing women in the F&B industry who are doing fantastic work, including chefs, cheesemakers and restaurateurs. So, yes, I think the future is extremely bright. I think women just need to unabashedly chase their dreams and not worry about anything else. You have to be confident, assertive and tenacious. You just have to be your authentic self.”
But apart from supporting one another, Narang believes that women should not shy away from asking family and friends for support too. “I have been very fortunate to have a great support system in my family. It’s extremely important that women dream big, and we need to respect her dreams as much as we’d respect a man’s dream,” she says, adding that women also need to believe this. “I ask for help and support unashamedly because I feel my dreams are worth it, they’re important for me. I think it’s not a sign of weakness. You must ask for help and support when you need it, especially from your near and dear ones.”