In a valley near Kodaikanal, three women craft mouth-watering artisanal cheeses

The uphill drive through Pethuparai village in the Palani Hills proves a tough challenge. Our driver gives up and we get frantic. The sun is rising and it could mean that the photographer would miss the making of the gourmet cheese. “Our factory closes at 10 a.m”, American-born Patti Anne Tower, the Managing Director of Caroselle Dairy Products, had sent me reminders before we left hot and humid Madurai at 7 a.m.

“How fit are you; can you walk it?” she now asks and I pray she is joking because I am on a cheese quest, not a trek. But dreaming of the cheese I may soon get to savour, I decide to trudge it, on a path that alternates between no-road, muddy tract and heavily pebbled pathway. But two kilometres down the undulating terrain and we see the cheese factory, inviting and homely.

The moment I see the building, I sense the artisanal industry is not characterised by fierce competition but instead by a real sense of team spirit. “There’s a community spirit in cheese making, everybody works towards the same goal—and that is delicious cheese,” says Tower, introducing me to the ever-smiling Hanneke Tubben Kroon, cheese maker from the Netherlands.

Less and best

It is Kroon’s recipes and her hand-crafted approach over the past decade that has helped create the niche cheeses from Caroselle. “We are a small-scale company but we make premium quality cheese. The bigger players produce on a much larger scale,” says Tower. “We produce less—but it’s the best—and our discerning clientele knows the difference. We add no preservatives and the shelflife of our products is one month from packaging. And yet nothing remains unsold.”

“Good cheese begins on the farm and the taste of cheese is all about the quality of the milk,” says Patricia Heidt, the third member in the team in charge of the Caroselle Dairy.

The three women together are carrying forward the dream of their mentor Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet, fondly called Thea, who founded the Aeon Centre of Cosmology near Kodaikanal in 1987. Thea, who succumbed to cancer last October, was deeply influenced by the Mother (Mirra) at Puducherry’s Auroville Ashram. Norelli-Bachelet settled down in the scenic Kodai hills and started a business in dairy products to earn a living.

“Earlier,” says Tower, “you could get high quality cheeses only through imports.” Now, of course, cheese making is quite a cottage industry in Kodaikanal, Ooty, Puducherry and more. Caroselle is one among these, and its niche cheeses are marketed to five-star hotels in Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, and are also available off-the-rack at high-end retail stores.

I am taken on a tour of the kitchen—but only after I don sanitised slippers, white apron and disposablecap. Kroon is thrilled to talk to us. “This is the first interview I am giving,” she says and vows that the Feta, Gouda, Edam, Cheddar, Parmesan, Montasio and Camembert they make here are the closest to the originaloutside their countries of origin.

“We allow our cheese to mature naturally and the texture is just perfect. The flavours and tastes are big and balanced,” she says in her Dutch accent. Born and married into a family of farmers, she always knew dairy products would be her calling, and the opportunity came when she met Thea in Pondicherry. “I had read her books on cosmology and when she asked me to train in cheese making, I went back home to meet farmers in Edam and Gouda.”

In 2007, Kroon came to Kodaikanal full of inspiration and knowledge and the Caroselle brand was born. “We were lucky. Thea was gifted a Friesian-Holstein cow by one of her disciples,” recalls Tower. The dairy farm today has five dozen cross-bred Friesian-Holsteins, known the world over for their high milk production.

Along the way, young men from Kodaikanal were recruited and taught cheese-making. We enter the factory where Udhaya Kumar and Dhinesh are mixing, pressing and turning the cut curd in a 300 litre vat. “On an average we get 200 to 250 litres of milk that we pasteurise at the correct temperature. Each day we make two to three different varieties of cheese,” they tell us.

Milk to Cheddar

Over the next 90 minutes, we watch 100 litres of milk turn into 30 kilos of Cheddar. As Kroon adds 300 g of salt to the milk, she explains that Cheddar is the only cheese where salt is mixed in the vat. The other cheeses are soaked in brine instead. After 45 minutes of draining the whey and turning the cut curd at intervals of 15 minutes, the cheese curd is transferred to moulds imported from the Netherlands.

My next stop is the cellar where the cheeses are left to mature naturally. The wheels are labelled with the date of making, neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling wooden racks, and left to age. It is here that they also get their wax coating in different colours for identification.

It is fascinating to see the cheeses in different stages of ageing. The oldest is a July 14, 2015 Parmesan, which requires an 18-month maturity period. Packaging is also done manually by the staff at Caroselle. Only the premium Camembert gets special packaging in eco-friendly areca leaf boxes—it’s made in small quantities on alternate days.

The world on a platter

Kroon has selected a range of benchmark cheeses from across the world to replicate. From Italy’s Montasio and Parmesan, the ‘king of cheeses’, to France’s Camembert, the ‘queen of cheeses’, to the Dutch Gouda and Edam, the British Cheddar to Feta from Greece, these cheeses are cured for anything from a week to four months to create the perfect taste and texture. “Every step has to be specific, careful and perfect and that even starts with what the cows eat,” says Kroon.

While the big 5 kilo wheels are moulded for the hotels, smaller cakes of 200 g each are sold through retail outlets and at farmer’s markets in Bengaluru. The price of Caroselle cheese ranges from ₹1,250 per kg for Feta, Edam, and Gouda to ₹1,550 for Cheddar and Montasio, to ₹1,960 for Parmesan and Camembert.

The making of cheese
  • Fresh milk from the dairy is pasteurised every morning and whisked in a vat. Depending on the quantity of milk, it takes a minimum one hour to more for the cheese curds to settle into a mass at the bottom of the vat. The whey water that separates from the curd is fed to the cattle. The big masses from the vat are minced and mixed again, and pressed to the bottom and later transferred to the moulds for drying. Next, they are left in a salt water bath for a specific time and shifted to the ageing warehouse, where they are dried further, brushed, given a food-grade wax coating that protects the cheese from fungus and also keeps it soft inside. Each wheel of cheese is periodically turned till it meets the quality standards and is sent out for sale.

The team has now started cheese factory tours. “People should also know how to serve and care for their cheeses,” says Tower. The brief taste-sampling tour also tells visitors how to pair their cheeses with fruits, nuts, breads, crackers, wines, sandwiches, pizza and pasta.

Cheese making is an exercise in self-sufficiency and exploration, says Heidt, who feels the cheese business has deepened the connection that Thea fostered between the community and land here. “There are enough consumers whose appreciation for quality produce and the desire to support artisanal cheese makers keeps us motivated,” she adds.

The proof is in the eating, of course, but it is also in the story behind the making. I found that out on this trip.

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