A creamery in the industrial heart of Bhandup is churning out award-winning varieties, putting Indian artisanal cheese on the world map
Moony, Belper Knolle and Brunost
There are no snow-capped peaks, lush green fields or grazing cattle in sight when we head to Sharad Industrial Estate, Bhandup. A far cry from this postcard-like scenery, fromager Mausam Jotwani Narang’s creamery is tucked in between textile godowns, jewellery-making units and hardware factories that dot the long, dark corridors of the enclave. Yet, it is from this unassuming 2,500-sq ft space that Eleftheria produces cheddar, mozzarella, fromage blanc and burrata varieties, some of which have caught the attention of a jury of international turophiles. Earlier this month, two of their cheeses — Moody and Brunost — bagged a gold and silver at the World Cheese Awards 2022 in Wales. In 2021, too, Brunost won a silver at the competition, making them the first Indian creamery to receive the honour.
This year, Moody and Brunost were among the 4,000-odd varieties, from 40 countries, tabled at the World Cheese Awards, quips Narang. We’ve slipped on a hair cap and shoe covers, and are standing inside her busy creamery. Milk here pours in from four farms across Maharashtra, and is pasteurised, cultured and crafted into cheese and cultured butter. The 36-year-old has us hooked to her crash course, as she animatedly dives into details of pasteurisation temperatures, pH scale calibration, rennets, cultures and all things cheese.
Mausam Jotwani Narang. Pics/Sameer Markande
It’s this all-consuming passion to absorb everything there is to know about milk and microbes that led the former HR professional on this journey. That and her love affair with fromage, which took off while she was a Masters student in Birmingham. On her return to India in 2011, she noted a lack of fresh artisanal cheeses in the market — a nice mozzarella to toss into a Caprese salad, or an indulgent burrata to scoop up with pesto, for instance. “I would watch videos of 30-minute mozzarella. I was already baking sourdough. So I thought, how hard could it be to make my own cheese?” she recalls, chuckling at her naivety.
It started with a creamy fromage blanc, and soon, Narang was ordering in 30 to 60 litres of milk, along with cultures, moulds, cheesemaking books and other paraphernalia. She dreamt of cheese at work, and moonlighted as a cheesemaker over the weekends. As friends, family and strangers lapped up her dairy experiments, Narang decided to pursue her passion full-time, ditching her cushy corporate job.
Competing with desi and imported brands that offered cheaper price points, her hand-crafted cheeses found favour in the hotels and restaurants segment after the likes of chefs Kelvin Cheung and Alex Sanchez introduced them on their menus. “I remember calling chef Kelvin with shaky hands to ask if he liked the cheese, and he said, ‘Give me five kgs more’. I had no idea how I would do it, as it was just me and a helper then. But I’m grateful to these chefs,” she admits. In the pandemic, Eleftheria expanded into the direct to consumer segment, delivering cheeses, grazing boards, butters, crisps, crackers, condiments and more.
Cheesemaking underway at the creamery in Bhandup
In 2019, while working and learning about cheese production in Italy, Narang first heard of the World Cheese Awards. With zero hopes, she first sent Brunost to the contest last year, and Moony in 2022. The journey of these cheeses from Mumbai to Spain last year, and Wales in 2022, was fraught with logistical challenges, including Brunost getting stuck at customs. “When we won, it felt like the world was telling me that my cheese is genuinely good. It validated my journey,” she shares, adding that the recognition is significant for the burgeoning artisanal cheese culture in India, too.
The cheesemonger is currently in the process of whipping up a cheese that’s representative of India. “The aim is to also create an ecosystem that empowers people with knowledge about cheese,” she hopes.
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Inspired by UK’s cloth-bound cheddar, Moony is an aged cheddar wrapped in muslin. Every bite of the 10-month-aged cheese — Narang encourages us to try it with our eyes shut — packs salty, tangy and savoury notes that coat the tongue, leaving us wanting more. Pair it with a sweetish condiment like an orange marmalade, which opens up the flavours. It’s a great addition to a grilled cheese sandwich.
This Norwegian-style whey cheese, bearing the cheesemaker’s emblem in Devanagari, stands out for its salted caramel-ish toffee-meets-nolen gur mithai flavour. It bears a fudge-like consistency and jams well with a mulberry compôte or even when layered on toast.