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Meet the pastoralists crafting cheese that’s proudly Indian

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India may be the largest milk producer on the planet, but cheese culture in the country is still in its infancy. Save for traditional cheese likechurpi in Sikkim,kalari and qudam from Kashmir, bandel and its smoked version from Bengal, most cheese consumed is not inspired by indigenous technique.

A recent Desi Dairy Dialogue in Chennai, at The Farm, brought together cheese makers, pastoral dairies, cheesemongers and fermentation specialists to share their journeys, inspired by Indian pastoral traditions.

At the event, Trevor Warmedahl, a nomadic cheese maker explains how he encourages natural fermentation over using pasteurised and refrigerated milk, treated with rennet, in the tradition of Rajasthan’s camel herding Raika, the Maldhari and Rabari herdsmen of Kutch, and the goat herding communities in Maharashtra, all of whom he has visited. “In old cheese making traditions, the raw milk holds the magic of natural microbes that helps the milk coagulate, to create a variety of cheese,” Trevor says.

For Mansi Jasani, founder, The Cheese Collective, Mumbai, cheesemaking in India must celebrate its roots and pastoral traditions. “Cheese for me is earth and magic. It is something so intrinsically connected to the land in a grand way and yet it is made of some of the simplest ingredients,” she says.

Meet the cheesemakers who use traditional knowledge to craft contemporary cheese.

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Panchal Dairy in Gujarat, follows pastoral cheese making, using goat and sheep milk, available in plenty from local herding communities.

Started in 2022 by two Maldhari pastoralists, Arpan Kalotra and Bhimsinhbhai Ghanghal, the venture translates their rich dairy culture into value added products. Terroir driven flavours of goat milk are transformed into chevre, feta, halloumi, tomme de Sayla (semi hard cheese with notes of butterscotch), tymsboro (French style lactic cheese coated with ash and aged for five-seven weeks) and St. Marcellin ( bloomy rind, goat milk cheese matured for 3-5 weeks). Sheep milk is turned into ricotta, pecorino fresco, roquefort (rich and metallic, a characteristic of penicillium roquefort, the blue mould) and machego.

The founders trained with Namrata Sundaresan of Käse Cheese, Chennai, and a founder of Desi Diary Dialogue, along with Asma Sayed (co-founder, Bombay Fromagerie), Mansi Jasani (founder, The Cheese Collective, Mumbai), Aditya Raghavan (cheese maker and dairy consultant), Trevor Warmedhal and the team at The Farm, Shalini Philip and Arul Futnani.

Namrata explains, “From what I have seen from working with the pastoral communities in Gujarat, or the Toda community in the Nilgiris, or groups in Ladakh, a generation of pastoralists has always found it difficult with the changing times to bring their milk to the market and to be able to get a fair price for that. Now with the current generation, there’s an interest in saving their heritage and culture.”

In terms of adapting the cheese, and even eating it,  she says she worked with them for two years, and it took them a good one year to like and appreciate the cheese, and then take it home to share it with the community.  “They did that only when they figured out ways of doing it,” she says, adding that grinding the chevre with garlic chutney and chilli and putting it in a hot bajra roti is now common. The communities also have the tomme or sharper cheese with aam papad.  “So once they realise there’s a palate for the cheese, and there’s a market, they do see a way forward.”

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