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Jeez, it’s cheese

Top quality Italian cheese is being produced in rural Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Tejeesh N.S. Behl feeds on mozzarella, scamorza and other varieties to unravel the secret of this success.

Tejeesh N.S. Behl        Print Edition: May 3, 2009

The invite was intriguing. Would we like to try out authentic Italian cheese made in our own backyard in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana? So, a week later we find ourselves seated opposite the 27-year-old Italian, Giuseppe Mozzillo, COO, Exito Gourmet, as he slices a piece of freshly-packed mozzarella cheese produced in his state-of-the-art plant in a little village in Haryana. One takes a cautious bite, not knowing whether it will melt in the mouth or be heavy on the digestive system. A moment later the worries are gone.

Deliciously chewy, the slight saltiness makes this cheese a perfect appetiser. Next, he doles out some Bocconcini—cheese in the shape of small blobs—which is devoured by a hungry journalist surviving on a spartan breakfast for the past six hours.

How did Mozzillo, a former investment banker who hails from a family of cheesemakers from Naples, land up in Haryana’s Golpura village to make authentic Italian cheese? “It was during a trip to India in 2006 that I came across water buffalos remarkably similar to those found in Italy. Later, I learnt that the buffalos found in Italy are descended from the Indian water buffalo,” he says. Having found the perfect bovine, he began the search for a perfect partner to set up business here. Finally, he zeroed in on Puneet Gupta, a local distributor of speciality cheese who invested Rs 8 crore to set up Exito Gourmet’s fully-automated plant. Retailing under the brand Impero, Exito’s range today includes mozzarella cheese, pizza cheese, bocconcini, scamorza, mascarpone and ricotta.

Mozzillo is quick to add that their current produce is sourced from cow milk as they are still standardising the supply of buffalo milk from local farmers. Gupta, who is CEO, Exito Gourmet, points out that farmers have a preference for cows over buffalos because of two factors. “One, a cow gives an yield of 4,000 litres annually compared to a buffalo, which gives about 2,200 litres on an average. Secondly, cows adapt more easily to machine milking vis-à-vis buffalos,” he informs. But given the economic incentives for buffalo-milk mozzarella—which sells for twice as much as cow-milk mozzarella—it will be easier for the duo to convince local farmers to opt for buffalos.

That is exactly what Man Mohan Malik, 56, Chairman & CEO, Himalya International, which is located a little further from Mozzillo’s plant, plans to do. Malik is looking to establish a 100-strong buffalo dairy farm at Chhachhrauli, in Haryana’s Yamunanagar district. This is about 45 kilometres from Paonta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh, from where he began his tryst with Italian cheese in 2006. Already, he has invested about $5 million (Rs 25 crore) over the past three years in firming up his cheese-manufacturing venture. But producing Italian cheese varieties in India has its fair share of problems. “After about a year of operations, we realised that the milk we were procuring from farmers was not pure buffalo milk. There was cow milk added to it,” he recalls.

The USFDA slapped a ban on his products from being retailed as buffalo mozzarella in 2007, which forced Malik to convince farmers back home to give him only pure buffalo milk. “It was tough convincing them that mixing cow milk with buffalo milk is also adulteration, and it is not limited to only mixing water with milk,” he recalls. After much head-banging, he has been able to get the procurement dynamics almost right. “The USFDA regulations allow a maximum content of 0.5 per cent of cow milk in buffalo mozzarella— we still get one per cent cow-milk content at times,” he sighs. Malik’s Bufalobella brand includes mozzarella ovolene, mozzarella ciligiene, mascarpone and ricotta. 

Creaming off

  • Buffalo milk has higher fat content (7 per cent to 8.2 per cent) compared to cow milk (4.2 per cent to 4.5 per cent)

  • Buffalo milk is best for making rich, creamy cheese

  • Buffalo-milk mozzarella sells for twice the price of cow-milk mozzarella

  • Exito Gourmet sells a 275-gm pack for Rs 145. Bufalobella retails it at Rs 300 per kg

  • Compared to imported Italian cheese, the same varieties made in India cost 40 per cent less

 


That, however, wasn’t the only headache for Malik. Figuring out a way to get his products into the US markets well before the expiry of their shelf life of 30 days was a challenge because the export transit time, via the sea route, ate up a good three weeks. Going by air meant huge additions to overheads, making it difficult to compete with products shipped from Italy.

So, how did they solve this problem? “We tried to freeze the cheese but the lack of cold-chain facilities at our end meant there was always going to be some loss in flavour and taste by the time the cheese hit the shelves in the US,” he says. That’s when he toyed with the idea of having a local partner with a cheese plant in the US—sending cheese curds from here for the final maturation and packaging in the US, saving the product’s shelf life from being consumed during the export journey. “We’ve tied up with Vermont Dairy in the US—whom we are planning to buy at a later stage—for the final packaging and distribution after maturation,” discloses Malik.

His experiences came in handy for both Gupta and Mozzillo. Rather than tackling the export market, they have decided to build their base with domestic sales through top-end hotels and restaurants, in addition to catering to the expatriate community and the urban populace. “Currently, we are operating the plant only three days a week (the plant went online last month). After we hit our full production capacity of two tonnes in May, we expect to tap the Far East, Middle East and European markets,” informs Gupta.

Given the nature of the product, the presence of Italian cheese artisans is a must, if only to lend authenticity to the final product. Even Malik hired the services of an Italian cheesemaster, Raffaele Moscolo, when he started off. But at a minimum rate of a8,000 per month, they aren’t exactly cheap. So today, Malik utilises the services of another cheese artisan, Raffaele Cioffi, who’s on call for his technical inputs when required.

There is another reason why the Italians are coming over to India. Naples, where the buffalo mozzarella industry is concentrated, has been hit by twin strikes of an economic slump and the infamous garbage pile-up last year that led to fears of dioxins in the air and water. The slowdown hit the export market, cutting demand by half. And given that India is home to 70 per cent of the world’s buffalo population, which stands at 25 million— while Naples has only 300,000 buffalos—it isn’t hard to guess why there couldn’t have been a better place to cry out Mama Mia for these Artiginales Italiano.

The Cheesy Story
The journey from cattle to fresh cheese.

Step 1: The cattle are milked and the milk filtered, chilled and sent through refrigerated tankers to a cheese-manufacturing plant.

Step 2: Here it is unloaded into silos that can hold up to 20,000 litres. The milk is filtered before being passed through the pasteurisation unit, where in 17 seconds it is heated to 720C and then cooled to 40C before being passed through a centrifugal machine to separate the cream.

Step 3: This milk is then filtered through into huge vats at a constant temperature of 380C.

Step 4: The culture is added. This is a fiercelyguarded secret by every cheese artisan as this lends the product its unique flavour.

Step 5: The addition of the culture results in the formation of cheese curds and whey, which are then cut into small cubes and cooked at 390C for 45 minutes.

Step 6: This mixture is drained off for matting and stretching, while the whey is drained off for making cream cheese like Ricotta.

Step 7: This homogenised cheese curd is then kept for maturation in chillers at 40C till they are ready to be packaged.



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