July 7, 2009 / 6:39 AM / 10 years ago

South Indian tea region discovers a passion for cheese

COONOOR, India (Reuters Life!) - The misty hills of Nilgiris have for decades grown some of the world’s finest teas, but a few residents are hoping the southern Indian region will become renowned for another, unusual product: gourmet cheese.

Like many other Asians, Indians are not traditionally big on cheese, although other dairy products such as milk, ghee, yoghurt and the cottage cheese-like paneer are widely eaten.

European cheeses, however, have become popular among the growing ranks of Westernised, wealthy professionals who, unlike most of the population, can afford them.

Farmers in the Nilgiris have been making plain, processed cheese for the Indian army’s cantonment in the region for years.

But as more retired professionals move to the area and the tourists increase, a few entrepreneurs have started making a variety of homemade hard and soft cheeses.

“The cooler climate here is ideal to make a variety of cheeses,” says Ramanathan Pillai, a former employee of the area’s dairy farmers cooperative. Average temperatures in the region hover around 14 degrees Celsius (57 F).

From the kitchen of her colonial-era home in Coonoor, a town of 100,000 people and one of area’s biggest, Shernaz Homi Sethna makes organic hard cheeses such as Gouda, Colby and Parmesan as well as soft cheeses flavored with local herbs.

“The milk is sourced from local farmers and I grow many of the ingredients in my garden,” says Sethna, whose Gray’s Hill brand has become a household name in the Nilgiris.

Sethna, who hails from central India, holds a master’s degree in food and nutrition and a postgraduate business management diploma. She insists her business will remain small-scale.

“There is a clear difference in the taste of a Gouda made in factory and one at home,” she said. “I compare making cheese here in my kitchen to a mother making dinner for her family.”

And the taste of Nilgiri-made cheese is vastly different than their European counterparts, Sethna says.

“The cows here graze on a variety of pastures and often eat the natural herbs on the hills, giving the cheeses a distinct Nilgiri flavour,” she added.

Cheese-making in the Nilgiris has also attracted some celebrities such as Bollywood director Mansoor Khan, who runs the organic Acres Wild farm in Coonoor with his wife, Tina.

“I felt I was reborn and living for the first time,” Khan says describing his move to the Nilgiris.

Acres Wild has its own hybrid Jersey, Holstein and Friesian cows and makes Gruyere, feta, Gouda and Monterey Jack, mozzarella and ricotta, in addition to herb and garlic cheese.

“We are glad that we have put Coonoor and Nilgiris on the map for something new. Now the tourists can add gourmet cheese to their check list of tea and chocolates,” Khan said.

The cheeses are currently sold in Nilgiri towns as well as Coimbatore, an industrial city near the hills. Khan is also eyeing Bangalore, with its legions of expatriates, but insists that he would like to keep it a home-made operation.

“The minute we start looking at mass orders from a big city, we stray from our concept of being a simple and organic sustainable farm,” Khan says.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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