Indians, at last, are warming up to gourmet cheese. India is a smorgasbord of culture and food with more than a billion people and a billion things to eat. But had you asked us about cheese a few years back, you would have been confronted with an apathetic shrug or a deathly silence. Or worse, with a fake exuberance, “Oh! I love cheese!!”. If you cared to dig a little deeper, “Which cheese is your favourite?”; and eight out of ten times the answer would be “Amul”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Amul. I quite like the brand, especially since they produce some wonderful dairy products. But, their cheeses are processed cheese, industrially produced and quite boring, although, in India, Amul had been synonymous with cheese for ages. However, since the last two years, the signs are indeed encouraging on the cheese front. Indians are cautiously opening up to the idea of artisanal or gourmet cheese.
To be fair to my Indian brethren, I was nowhere close to being a cheese-lover during my childhood. In fact, I hated cheese during my formative years when Amul was the only brand available. I used to be put off by the fermented odour of milk solids which to my utter disgust my older cousin used to love. She would devour them gleefully. She was a self-certified fashionista and I was a state-certified rube. Things came to a full circle in the later years though, but that is a different story.
Then came my sojourn at the catering college. Slowly but surely, I understood that the world of food was much more than chicken, mutton, pork, beef, fish and eggs. I read and learnt about European cuisine and how cheese came to be an integral part of European gastronomy. I found how Parmigiano-Reggiano entirely changed the dimension of a pasta dish; how the wine tasted so much better with Brie; how the Greek Feta lifted a dish as simple as mashed potatoes; how every cheese was different in texture, flavour, firmness, use and characteristic; and how aggressively the traditional cheese-makers of France and Italy guarded their secrets. It was a mindboggling world of passion and creativity. The most intriguing was the story of the famous Roquefort cheese of France which was the first AOC certified cheese. Now there are over forty cheeses that have been awarded the AOC status.
Roquefort and Me
Roquefort is a blue-veined cheese made from ewe’s milk. And mind you, not some stray ewes. These are blue-blooded ewes following strict mating standards to preserve their noble lineage. The cheese made from their milk is fermented inside the caves of the tiny town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in France. Like any other blue cheese, Roquefort cheese is strewn with blue mouldy cavities and has a creamy mouthfeel interspersed with a grainy texture near the moulds. If you are a first-timer, I would advise you not to take a full bite of this formidable delicacy unless you wish to be kicked by a mule on your backside. You need to show some respect and understand the nuances of this cheese. So, take a pinch and savour it like aged wine.
In France, Roquefort is called le fromage des rois et des papes (“the cheese of kings and popes”). The day I learnt that Roquefort was the favourite cheese of emperor Charlemagne, I decided that I must have the Charlemagne experience. Surprisingly, I didn’t need to wait too long. I started my work-life with one of the luxury hotels in Kolkata. The famous steel baron L.N. Mittal was hosting his daughter’s wedding at the hotel. He flew in every exotic food he could think of from all over the world. And of course, Roquefort was on the menu. Needless to say, I was waiting for this opportunity even if I had to steal. With the storekeeper as my partner in crime, I sneaked into the walk-in, tore open a pack and put an inch-cube of the stuff into my mouth and immediately spat out with disdain. I jumped like a cat on hot bricks. Till then, I had never had such disgusting food in my life. It was weird, wickedly pungent, gross and smelled like my own piss. How could a sane person spend a fortune on such an obscenity? But you know, I am nothing if I am not brave. I took the advice of the then F&B Manager and tried it again but in moderation, accompanied with some Concord grapes. It was a revelation! It was bliss! One should never judge wine, woman and cheese on one’s first encounter.
These days, blue cheese, even if it is not Roquefort is a standard ingredient in my pantry. And the best part is you can order it with the click of a button from the comforts of your home if you are residing in one of the big cities of India. There is a good number of big and small merchants dealing in artisanal food products who will be happy to deliver blue cheese to your doorstep.
Indians are warming up to Gourmet Cheese
Over the past few years, the acceptance of artisan varieties of cheese among Indians has been quite heartening. We are finally realising that a singular can of store-bought cheese is not the answer to every cheesy dish. An added bonus has been the pandemic if we leave aside the gargantuan tragedy for a moment. The dealers of gourmet cheese who used to supply the fine dining eateries only have been forced to reach out to the individual consumer. With so many restaurants shutting shop they were left with only two options- shut down or sell in smaller volumes to bigger numbers. As a result, gourmet cheese is becoming less expensive by the day and has become easily accessible to the common man. Cheesemaking at home is also catching up slowly. And without a doubt, this is paving the way for gourmet cheese to become the next big food trend in India.
However, knowledge of the expansive world of cheese among Indians is still very limited. In fact, most Indians are not even aware that India has its own share of indigenous artisanal cheeses though not as wide-ranging as that of Europe. But what exactly is gourmet cheese? The cheese you usually buy from a store in the supermarket is mass-produced. It contains natural cheese along with emulsifiers, preservatives, saturated vegetable oils, extra salt and so many other undesirable ingredients which may increase its shelf life but completely strips it of any character. You will get a standard fermented cheesy flavour without the finer tones of gourmet cheese. Even the generic varieties sold in the names of Gouda, Mozzarella, Cheddar, Parmesan, etc. do not come anywhere close. They are just poor imitations.
Gourmet or artisan cheeses on the other hand are made from high-quality milk of different animals like cattle, buffalo, goat, sheep, horse, etc. (which are reared specifically for the purpose), enzymes and natural colours. The cheese is usually hand-made with minimal use of machinery and each cheese-house has its own secret recipe. They do not contain artificial preservatives and chemicals and a lot of care and passion is involved in making gourmet cheeses to achieve their very distinctive flavour, aroma, texture and colour. Very strict ageing processes are followed under optimum conditions of temperature, humidity, air, light and ageing. Therefore, gourmet cheeses are naturally much more expensive.
Gourmet Cheeses that are easily available in India
Cheddar Cheese– Cheddar is an English cheese from the town by the same name in Somerset, England. This type of cheese is now one of the most popular in the world and produced internationally. But the original Cheddar is the one which is now known as “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar”, produced from local cows’ milk sourced within Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall which is coagulated into whey with rennet (an enzyme derived from calves’ stomach) and must be manufactured using traditional methods. It is a well-aged firm cheese, mellow in character yet rich and has a tendency to melt in the mouth, having a full-bodied flavour approaching that of hazelnut. It can also be sharp and pungent when matured longer. The colour can be deep to pale yellow or even orange-yellow.
Best for – Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Crackers, Nachos, Tacos, Cabernet Sauvignon White Wine.
Brie– Brie is a soft cheese from France from a region by the same name. It is made from cow’s milk and comes with a thin outer rind of white mould which is pleasingly edible. Brie is very delicious having a creamy, gooey texture and a mild nutty flavour and must be stored refrigerated. It is recommended that before consuming Brie, it should be made to sit out at room temperature for one hour. This helps the cheese form a runny, creamy texture which is desired ideally. If left to mature longer, it develops a stronger, sharper and stinky flavour. Brie used to be enjoyed by the peasantry and the nobility alike and is one of the most sought-after cheeses in the world. Brie has been granted AOC status for its quality.
Best for – Crackers, Fruits, Fruity Red Wines or just neat.
Gouda– Gouda is made from cow’s milk and originated in the Netherlands. It is a hard cheese with a deep yellow exterior and is one of the oldest recorded cheeses in the world still made today. This Dutch cheese is named after the city of Gouda, not because it was produced there but because it was traded there. A young Gouda is mild, soft and sweet while a more aged one will be firmer, sharper and darker with a nutty and buttery flavour. Many varieties of flavoured Gouda (cumin, chillies, smoked, etc.) are also available across the shelves. In the Netherlands, cubes of Gouda are often served with Dutch mustard. Cubes of old or very old Gouda are washed down with strong beers or port wine.
Best for – Grilled Sandwiches, Omelette or Scrambled Eggs, Mac and Cheese and full-bodied Red Wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Beaujolais.
Emmental– Can we ever forget the cheese over which Tom and Jerry fight? It is Emmental. Emmental is a hard cheese with its origins in the Emmental region of Switzerland. It is the classical representation of cheese containing big gunshot-like holes known as ‘eyes’. In fact, the eyes were a sign of imperfection during the old times, but nowadays it is valued as a mark of maturation and quality and special acoustics analysis has been developed just for this purpose. Emmental is firm and light and has a sweet and nutty taste. It is usually consumed cold as chunks or slices and is a great cheese for the cheeseboard.
Best for – Sandwiches, Pretzels, Casserole Pastas, Fondue and with wines like Pinot Noir and Merlot.
Parmigiano-Reggiano– Most of us have heard about Parmesan cheese. Parmesan is in reality, the imitation of Parmigiano-Reggiano which is native to Italy. It is a hard granular cheese produced from cow’s milk, must be aged for at least 12 months and are shaped as large wheels. Parmigiano-Reggiano is high in glutamate content which explains its rich umami flavour. Both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan are Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) for cheeses produced in the regions of Reggio Emilia, Parma, the part of Bologna west of Reno and Modena and a part of Mantua. Similar cheeses outside the EU can legally be named Parmesan, but the full Italian nomenclature must be exclusive to PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano. It has a rich, nutty taste and possesses a dominant umami flavour. It is usually grated over pasta dishes, stirred in soups and risottos and often eaten on its own either shaved or cubed.
Best for – Pasta, Risotto, Salads, Crisp White Wines, Champagne or Sparkling Wine.
Feta– Feta cheese is increasingly becoming popular with Indians. Perhaps, this is due to Feta’s similar texture with Paneer. Feta is a Greek cheese produced from sheep or goat’s milk. It is available in soft and firm versions with no holes or rind. It is grainy and tangy and salty in flavour with a taste ranging from mild to sharp. Commonly, Feta is used as a table cheese, in salads such as Greek Salad, in pastries like the classic Spanakopita and is also served with olives or olive oil. Original Feta is a PDO cheese when produced traditionally in specified areas of Greece. The generic term “Feta” is also used for similar cheeses produced in other countries but they are not PDO products. The firm variety is tangier and is of superior quality. Premium quality Feta is creamy and buttery, tangy and slightly salty with a mouthfeel of yoghurt, a spicy finish with a hint of sweetness and peppery flavour.
Best for – Stuffing, Salads, Mashed Potatoes, Pizzas, Sauvignon Blanc Wines.
Blue-veined– Blue-veined cheese or simply Blue Cheese is cheese made by using Penicillium cultures which produce indentations or veins that vary in colour from blue to green. Ideally, Blue cheese is aged inside caves that are naturally temperature controlled. It can either be eaten by itself or crumbled or melted in a sauce for various food items. Usually, blue cheeses have a very sharp taste and a characteristic extremely strong ammoniacal smell. They are prohibitively expensive because of their tedious and traditional manufacturing processes and often due to politics, as in the case of Roquefort. Some legendary blue cheeses are Roquefort and Bleu de Gex from France, Gorgonzola from Italy, Stilton and Dorset Blue from England and Danish Blue from Denmark.
Best for – Fruits, Dried Fruits like figs and walnuts, Cream Sauces, Souffle Omelette, Champagne, Port, Sherry.
Baby Potatoes with Blue Cheese Cream Sauce
I tasted a version of this dish at one of the unlikeliest places- at Café Sol inside Hotel Combermere in Shimla. It was one of the most simple and wonderful cheesy potato dishes I ever had- creamy, delicate, yet rich and full of the flavour and sharpness of blue cheese. From whatever I could feel on my tastebuds, I deconstructed it and remade the recipe many times. It still remains one of my all-time favourites.
- Baby potatoes with skin- 500 g
- Danish Blue cheese- 50 g
- Heavy cream- 300 ml
- Parsley flakes (dried)- 1/2 Tsp
- Salt- to taste
- White pepper powder- to taste
- Butter- for greasing baking dish
- Oregano flakes- for garnish
- Preheat oven to 200⁰C.
- Wash potatoes and cut in 1-inch wedges.
- Place cream and blue cheese on top of a double boiler and stir constantly and cook till cheese melts completely and the sauce coats the back of a spoon evenly.
- Apply salt and pepper on the potatoes and arrange them on the baking tray greased with butter.
- Pour cream sauce on top of the potatoes.
- Sprinkle parsley and bake the potatoes for 40-45 minutes until a golden crust forms on top of the potatoes. The potatoes should be tender when pierced with a fork.
- Take out from the oven when done, garnish with oregano flakes and serve warm with slices of baguette or sourdough bread.
Watermelon + Cucumber + Mint Feta Salad
This salad is very refreshing during summer days. I came to know about this recipe from one of the Mediterranean food groups on social media. However, I gave my own spin to the original by adding cucumber and walnut which provided a nice contrasting texture and flavour. Please note- the salad should be made fresh and one hour or less before consuming.
- Watermelon (deseeded and cubed)- 1 kg
- Cucumber with skin (deseeded)- 250 g
- Extra virgin olive oil- 30 ml
- Lime juice of 2 limes
- Fine sea salt- to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper- 1/2 Tsp
- Chopped mint leaves- 1/2 cup
- Chopped Walnut- 1/2 cup
- Crumbled Feta cheese- 3/4 cup
- In a small bowl whisk together olive oil, lime juice, salt and black pepper. This is the dressing for the salad.
- Cut rind of the watermelon, deseed and then cut into 1-inch cubes. Place the cubed watermelon for a few minutes in a colander to drain the excess water.
- Deseed cucumber, cut them lengthwise into halves and slice them into 1 cm thickness.
- Place watermelon and cucumber in a large salad bowl, pour the dressing and chopped mint and toss gently to coat.
- Add crumbled Feta and chopped walnut into the salad bowl and stir gently to integrate the cheese and walnut.
- Chill inside the refrigerator for 20 minutes and serve cold.
There is a huge world of cheese out there that is still unexplored. The above are a few options, to begin with. But how many of us really know that we occupy our own niche in the ‘cheesesphere’? In fact, it is much easier to get hold of European gourmet cheeses in any of the Indian metros than our very own artisanal varieties. It will be treason if I don’t mention a few of those. And, I am not talking about ‘paneer’. Actually, I do not want to talk about it. North India’s sickening obsession with paneer is plain incomprehensible to me.
Bandel Cheese– We owe our gratitude to the Portuguese for this one. Bandel is a small town near Kolkata in Bengal which was a Portuguese settlement and from which it derives its name. Bandel is cream-coloured or brown and often smoky, quite moreish and can be used crumbled into salads or as pasta toppings.
Chhena– Chhenna or Chhanna, as the Bongs would like to call it, is a silky, unaged, fresh cottage cheese that is the foundation for the legendary sweets of Bengal. Would you believe me if I say Chhena is used for making one of the oldest versions of cheesecakes? Chhena-Poda is a famous sweet from the state of Odisha which is quite popular in Bengal as well. Technically, Chhena-Poda is a form of cheesecake. I wonder, why the pot-bellied confectioners of Bengal did not put Chhena-Poda on the world stage like they have done with so many other sweets from Odisha.
Churu– Yes, we also have our version of blue cheese. Churu is a beautifully aromatic cheese from the Himalayan region, mainly Sikkim. It has a blue mouldy rind, earthy and pungent flavoured. Churu is available more easily in Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.
Chhurpi– This is a cheese made from Yak’s milk. Two versions are available- the hard and the soft one. And I have tasted both. My first encounter with Chhurpi was in the hilly town of Darjeeling where I tasted the hard version which was supposed to be kept inside the mouth to slowly suck out the juices. It is believed to supply energy while climbing up the hilly terrain. Frankly, I didn’t like it much as I am not much of a sucker. In Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, I had the soft version and it was delightful. I ordered a traditional beef stew which was topped with melted Chhurpi. It was super-delicious, rich and aromatic with gooey Chhurpi floating on top.
Kalari– If you had Kalari, you would dump Mozzarella. Kalari is a wonderful homemade cheese from Jammu and Kashmir. It is stretchy and stringy with a mild tang which makes Mozzarella look like milquetoast. It is served as a street snack, fried golden on a skillet and eaten with lime and chilli. Kulchas are also stuffed with Kalari, then cooked and eaten.
Next time, when you make pasta, a salad, a sandwich, a pizza, a cheesecake, a casserole, a soup, a stew, an omelette or scrambled egg, a pie or a souffle, throw away that can of all-purpose-universal-solution processed cheese into the dustbin ………………… try gourmet cheese instead. And the next time you assemble a cheeseboard, do not forget to include some of our own exquisite creations which are top-to-toe Indian.