Swapping paneer for pecorino: India gets taste for European cheeses

It was one day during the Covid-19 lockdown last year that Namrata Sundaresan’s phone began ringing non-stop. Sundaresan, the co-founder of Käse, the only artisan cheesemaker in the southern Indian city of Chennai, was bemused by the avalanche of requests for one thing: pecorino cheese.

“I had 20 people call me and ask for pecorino,” she said. “I was really surprised because pecorino is not something that a lot of people in India know about.” It turned out a video featuring the Italian pasta dish cacio e pepe was going viral on social media and WhatsApp. Suddenly people across the country wanted to get their hands on some Italian-style hard cheese. “This would have been unthinkable two years ago,” said Sundaresan.

India is not known as a cheese-making or cheese-eating nation, with the exception of paneer, the simple cottage cheese that is a staple of Indian cooking. For decades the market was dominated entirely by processed cheese slices and affluent Indians and expats who needed a fromage fix had to rely on expensive and low-quality imported cheese.

But recently the Indian market – and palate – has shifted. Across the country, artisan cheesemakers have begun to emerge. Now it is possible to get fresh, Indian-made mozzarella, stracciatella, burrata, gruyère, stilton, halloumi, reblochon, comté, cheddar, feta and parmesan in cities and towns across India.

In urban middle-class households, demand for gourmet cheese platters has, in the words of one Delhi supplier, “gone ballistic” this year. Several companies said they had recently sold out of their festive cheese platters over Diwali. Platters with a “masala twist”, featuring cheeses infused with chilli, truffle and garlic flavours, are particularly popular.

“Our business has quadrupled in the past two years,” said Amit Mital, 58, an engineer turned cheesemaker who founded the Delhi-based cheese company Kumaoni Blessings. He now hand-makes more than 10 cheeses, including a hard cheese aged for a year, a “smelly reblochon that is really popular” and two cheeses of his own invention.

Kumaoni Blessings was one of the cheese companies that flourished during the Covid lockdown, as orders went through the roof. “People have become conscious of what they eat; they are looking for fresh local foods and they don’t want to consume products which are heavily processed,” he said. “People’s eyes have been opened to cheese.”

When Sundaresan and her business partner began making cheese in late 2015, they had no experience except a brief lesson in feta- and mozzarella-making during a stay on a farm. But training a team of young women with disabilities in Chennai, their Käse business grew, and now they are hand-making two and a half tonnes of cheese a month, using no preservatives. Sundaresan also travelled to the UK, Spain and Vermont in the US, where she honed her craft under a master of natural cheesemaking.

People’s eyes have been opened to cheese
“The whole shift in consumer attitude towards cheese in India has been drastic,” said Sundaresan, who fields daily calls from people in need of mascarpone to make tiramisu, alongside mozzarella, feta, halloumi and a sweet apricot and honey ricotta, their most popular products.

This year the company is making an unconventional expansion by collaborating with nomadic goat herders in Gujarat who will sell Käse their fresh goat milk to be locally made into goat milk cheddar and goat milk gouda. They are also working with camel herders in Rajasthan whose camel milk will be made into manchego and alpine-style cheese.

This week, for the first time, an Indian cheese won a silver award at the World Cheese Awards in Spain for a Norwegian-style whey cheese that was the invention of Mausam Jotwani Narang, the founder of Eleftheria Cheese in Mumbai.

Narang got into cheesemaking as a hobby and now her company is one of the main artisan producers in Mumbai. “I grew up on processed cheese slices,” she said. “So the world of cheese was quite eye-opening for me when I first tried it out.”

Narang described her award-winning Brunost whey cheese as “almost like caramel fudge”, bearing some resemblance to the Indian sweet peda. “For me it was a combination of something that’s indigenous to us and something that’s global.”

While she was adamant that Indian cheese would “soon be on the world cheese map”, she also acknowledged that artisan cheese remained a highly aspirational food in India, with prices far beyond what an average or even middle-class Indian could afford.

Artisan cheesemaking is not without its challenges in India. While it operated under the radar for the past few years, cheesemakers were freely labelling their cheeses with European names. But several said they had been served legal notices by the Italian embassy over the use of the name “parmesan” and other protected designations, while the La Gruyère estate in Switzerland has recently sent letters to all cheesemakers in India telling them they are not allowed to use the name. Many have since opted to call their cheese “alpine style” to avoid legal difficulties.

Few have access to dark, deep cellars to age their cheese and in Chennai, a cheese that would take a year to age in the UK takes six months in the south Indian heat. The country’s lack of reliable cold chain also makes transporting fresh cheese difficult, driving up prices. And while India is the world’s largest producer of dairy, cheesemakers struggle to find the right quality of milk, from grass-fed cows that have not been given any hormones.

Darima Farms, an artisan cheesemaker in the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand, gave cows to villagers who look after them in their homes. The farm now buys back the milk from more than 700 households, totalling about 1,000 litres a day, to make more than two tonnes of cheese a month. It took two years of experimenting to perfect the recipes but now its team is made up of young women from the local village who are making traditional mountain cheeses such as gruyère and montasio as well as three of their own invention, including one variety called the “chilli bomb”.

The co-founder, Arvind Chawla said that “in terms of authenticity, they are as good as European cheeses”.

“I think Indians finally understand cheese,” said Chawla. “Maybe not as well as the English or the French or the Italians or the Swiss, but they are getting there. I believe this market will boom in the next 10 years.”