Meet the cheesemaking monks in Bengaluru
After 15 years of making cheese, the monks of Vallombrosa Bendictine Congregation were determined to keep going, despite through the challenges of the pandemic.
Sold under the brand name Vallombrosa Cheese, named after the order’s monastery in Tuscany, Italy, the venture produces 10 kinds of artisanal cheese. Although many restaurants and hotels, their main customers, downed shutters, word-of-mouth publicity for their brand ensured that there were buyers right at home in Bengaluru.
“About 60 apartment complexes in Bengaluru buy from us directly, a service that we began during the lockdown. We have our own delivery staff and that kept us going during the lockdown, helping us pay the wages of our workers and preventing any layoffs,” says Father Jins, present head of the Vallombrosa Bendictine Congregation at KR Puram in Bengaluru.
Also Read | The Indian grazing board revolution bats for local artisanal cheeses and desi flavours
Reducing the production of soft cheese like mozzarella and ricotta, some of their bestsellers, they increased production of hard cheese such as Parmesan and Pecorino which keeps better and tastes better with age.
In the meantime, the congregation also started a goat farm in Hosur to procure milk for goat cheese. Prior to the lockdown, goat milk was supplied from their centre in Kottayam. “It stopped during the lockdown. That is when we began the farm to ensure continuous supply of 40 to 50 litres of goat milk,” says Fr Jins.
Post lockdown, the small unit will have to ramp up their production as major customers and premium hotel chains have resumed buying cheese from them. “At present, we make cheese from about 700 to 800 litres. Our quality is our best publicity.”
How it started
In 2004, Father KL Michael, who hails from Kottayam, Kerala, recreated the Italian cheese-making process in Bengaluru. During his eight-year stay in Vallombrosa, near Florence in Italy, headquarters of the Vallombrosan Bendictine monks, Fr Michael visited cheese-making centres in and around Tuscany and Naples.
“Naples is famous for buffalo mozzarella while North Italy is well-known for hard cheese. In 2000, I returned to India and took charge of Gualbert Bhavan in Bengaluru. Each house of ours is supposed to be financially sustainable. Our motto is ‘pray and work’. Hence, I tried to think of a way to be financially independent that also involved manual work,” recalls the 48-year-old.
An Italian friend of his, a businessman, suggested that Fr Michael could make cheese, as good Italian cheese was hard to come by in India. So, he returned to Italy and in a month’s time was trained to make cheese in Naples. “It is not easy to train in these places as they are not keen on sharing trade secrets. With the help of our monastery, they permitted me to learn from them,” he says.
Armed with the training and notes, he returned to Gaulbert House. Through trial and error, he began cheese making with buffalo milk procured from farms in the vicinity. “In 2004, we exported second hand machinery from Italy and began on a small scale. The vegetarian culture to curdle the milk is also bought from Italy although we were able to buy it from North India during the lockdown.”
Vallombrosa Cheese now makes the much-in-demand Burrata, mozzarella, Parmesan, Pecorino, ricotto, bocconcini, mascarpone, cheddar and Caciotta.
‘A foothold in the market’
Once the cheese making started, they began to look for buyers. Fr Jins remembers that they were able to get a foothold in the market only in 2006 when Chef Manjit Singh, currently the President of the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations and an influential chef at ITC Hotels, helped them with the first big order and spread the word around about the quality of their cheese. Soon, big hotel chains such as the Taj, Oberoi and Mariott became regular customers.
“It was during the lockdown that we started directly selling to customers,” says Fr Jins. Their top-seller, he says, is Burrata, a creamy cheese which has customers in Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata and Kochi asking for more.
At present, there are four monks and 10 staffers making cheese. Fr Jins says that what makes the cheese special is that they add no preservatives, and also the fact that the taste has not changed over the last 15 years.
Vallombrosa Benedictine Congregation, Sacred Heart Road, K. R. Puram, Bengaluru, can be reached at 09845449064.