Say cheese and imagination takes us straight to farms in France, Switzerland and Germany, among other exotic destinations. Even as Acres Wild in Coonoor and Himalayan Artisan Cheese in Kashmir produce fine-quality cheese, there is much scope remaining in the area of developing Indian varieties of this popular dairy product. In Chennai, entrepreneurs Anuradha Krishnamoorthy and Namrata Sundaresan are not only making artisanal cheese, but also using their initiative to bring about change.
Anuradha and Namrata are the founders of Käse, an Indian brand of artisanal cheese made by disabled women.
Both Anuradha and Namrata come from diverse fields. Anuradha is the founder of CAN DO, a BPO that focuses on training disabled individuals and employing them in telecalling and data/desk research services. Namrata is the founder partner of a strategy consulting firm that specializes in international trade & investment.
It was Namrata’s personal stint with cheesemaking that started the duo’s journey as food entrepreneurs. “I am passionate about artisan food and a staunch proponent of clean eating,” she says. “Doing something in the area of food was always a grand plan and I had learnt cheese-making while on a vacation.”
Namrata started cheese-making purely as a hobby and not with the idea of starting a venture. Over a discussion between her and Anuradha, the two realised that it could be one of the skills for training Anuradha’s team. Thus, began the process of testing their product before they launched the business and it was no cakewalk.
“We did a trial run and there were many factors to consider,” she says. “The biggest was getting good quality milk from grass-fed cows, the weather, sourcing of the right culture etc. After a brilliant trial over a week we had five kilos of cheese and invited friends and family to enjoy a spread. Looking at the response we knew we couldn’t just let it be!”
Käse was founded in June 2016, its name meaning cheese in the German language.
It, however, wasn’t until they won the ‘Taste of the Market’ award at Karen Anand’s first farmers market in Chennai that the duo put on entrepreneurial hats. Namrata says, “That’s when we decided that we were on to something and create a niche for ourselves with a rand of cheese that is locally-made and clean.”
Today, Käse offers 20 varieties of cheese with their mozzarella, feta and minted halloumi leading the bestseller’s list.
The cheese is made at the Käse unit located in Alwarpet, Chennai. For the founders, artisanal making and clean processing are the hallmarks of their initiative—fresh milk arrives early in the morning and the team starts working within a couple of hours.
According to Namrata, cheese-making must follow a few essential steps and sanitizing the facility and utensils are the most obvious and crucial. “We do not use chemicals, but substitute it with sea salt in boiling water and vinegar,” she says.
Käse’s fresh cheese varieties are unprocessed and seasoned with sea salt. Some of the artisanal varieties, like gouda and cheddar, are aged for about four week and flavoured. The team avoids using additives, preservatives, stabilizers or emulsifiers, all common to processed cheese. Lack of preservatives may reduce the shelf life of the cheese varieties, but is undoubtedly healthier.
The Käse team also makes a variety of breads, dips and salads as per the day’s order. Customers either pick their orders or receive their deliveries through a third party delivery service.
For an enterprise rooted in India, can indigenous recipes and ingredients be far behind? At Käse, a multitude of flavours co-mingle in unison.
From cumin seed-encrusted cheese to relishes spruced up with mango, chilli and mustard, local flavours dominate the line of products. Namrata learnt a few, basic techniques in her initial lessons, but trial and error have helped the team standardise some of its recipes.
“The recipes can be very different from traditional methods, because we are far removed from the geographic origin,” say the founders. “Also, we use dry spice rubs as a means to control bad molding. An example would be the Ode to Chennai variety, which is made using a cheddar technique and then aged with a spicy milagai podi rub. Another popular one is the Flavours of the Mediterranean, which is a Gouda style cheese aged with a sumac and zatar rub.”
Another aspect that differentiates Käse is its effort at enabling disabled individuals with this special skill. The cheese-makers comprise about 70% of the small team. “We decided that we would train a team of girls with hearing and speaking disabilities on cheese-making,” the founders say. “It’s been very well received and we have seen them experience satisfaction and joy in the process.”
In an effort to popularise cheese, the founders host cooking and tasting events, and use events and social media to reach out to customers.
Artisanal cheese is still a niche product, and exhibiting at organic food events and farmers markets helps the brand make its presence felt among clean food enthusiasts.
For an independent brand producing cheese in Chennai, an even bigger challenge has turned out to be the weather. “Controlling the maturing of the cheese was a struggle,” admits Namrata. “However with chilling units in place now, we have been able to control the humidity and have a grip on maturing our batches.”
With prices starting at ₹300 for 200 gm of cheese, Käse is more affordably priced than the expensive, imported cheese available in the market. However, artisanal cheese-making is an expensive process and matching the prices of everyday cheese staples is not feasible. Namrata says, “We will be more expensive than locally-made processed cheese. Today the consumer is willing to pay a premium for a product of quality.”
As the brand gains in popularity, Namrata and Anuradha are gearing up with expansion plans. “We are looking at farmstead cheese across some key locations in the country over the next 24-36 months,” they say. The team is, however, firm on one aspect—the clean, local, sustainable and farm-to-table approach of the brand will always remain intact.