The new food craft

A bunch of food craftsmen have taken the Indian palate by storm by redefining the way we eat—by introducing us to artisanal foods.

Published: 13th May 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th May 2018 05:32 PM   |  A+A-

A bunch of food craftsmen have taken the Indian palate by storm by redefining the way we eat—by introducing us to artisanal foods. What sets them apart is their dedication to the art and craft of food, making and cooking it in a traditional way using high-quality ingredients, sourced directly from farms and farmers, giving the process its sanctity and working tirelessly to make the final product nothing but a masterpiece.

The food—milk and milk products, pizza, bread, confectionery, ice cream, meat, coffee, chocolates, or anything and everything— is passionately and painstakingly crafted. It looks good, and tastes even better because each has a story to narrate, unique and different from each other.

Their production is constrained, and these are churned out on a small scale and come with a limited shelf life, unlike other factory-made products and hence are priced slightly higher than the regular products. The world is going big on artisanal foods, and slowly India is also developing a taste for it. The food comes loaded with health benefits, being a natural and more wholesome alternative to packaged and processed foods.

Slowly and steadily artisanal foods are becoming popular among general public and connoisseurs alike, and are available at grocery stores, boutiques, e-tailers and also served on-demand by some. Meet some of those who are driving the success story of artisanal food in India, one food at a time.

Say cheese

Mansoor Khan is best remembered as the man who launched Aamir Khan in his directorial debut Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Khan made three more films that scorched the big screen, before deciding to move away from all the limelight to buy a piece of land in the quaint hill town, Coonoor, in Tamil Nadu, and live off it along with his wife Tina and children Zayn and Pablo. “We moved to Coonoor in June 2004. It was my obsession to live outside the city and preferably close to nature. I felt I was reborn and living for the first time,” he reminisces.


The verdant mountain range in the backdrop, white clouds sailing across the blue sky above, and a farm full of animals helped the couple find an exciting vocation—organic gourmet cheesemaking—at their farm stay, Acres Wild. “We started making cheese as we decided to keep cows for the fertility of our land.

I was inspired by wife Tina to learn artisan cheesemaking so that we could use the milk. The idea is not quantity; it is only proportionate to the number of cows which is 10 that we keep,” he says, adding that his brand of artisanal cheese Acres Wild is available only in Coonoor. “We have no plans of expanding.”

The main challenge for Khan, however, is keeping the cows. “It is an expensive and delicate proposition because they are Holstein and Jersey cows.” Also making hard cheese requires a lengthy ageing period at a controlled temperature which Khan maintains by building a cellar under the ground so that the temperature is steady and there’s no need to use artificial means of cooling. “A lot of care has to be taken to keep the cheese clean for a period between one month and five months that we age our different kinds of cheeses,” he quips.

On the trend of artisanal foods, he says, “It is interesting that Indians are now becoming aware of artisanal cheese and are extending their taste to this kind of cheeses, not traditionally from India.”
The artisanal cheese is comparatively low-priced. “We only make four to five kg a day, which is from the 40-50 litres of milk that we get from our cows. All our cheeses get sold. They are priced at around Rs 1,000 per kg which is very low compared to the price in Bengaluru or other cities,” he says. The added charm of their lifestyle experience is a two-day cheese-making course at their organic farm stay.

WHAT’S ARTISANAL FOOD?
 
It is handcrafted, painstakingly made through a slow process in small batches using authentic ingredients. The niche category of food is synonymous with quality, care and the good old-fashioned human touch, and all of it comes at a price, but gives both tangible and intangible benefits: from better food to a feel-good factor. Our consumption of food is a dominant factor in this growing demand for artisanal food products. The trend stems from the increasing health-conscious eating—particularly among millennials—as well as growing awareness of the ugly side of mass production. As such, there is a mounting desire for food products that are ‘pure’ and haven’t been tampered with at any stage of production.

Cooking up a surprise

It was a nudge from an old Italian lady, Tina, a former jewellery designer from Gucci, which made Puducherry-based foodpreneur Khursheed Anwar try his hands at lasagna for the first time at his cafe, Coffee.com. The first outing with Italian food was a big hit and buoyed with Tina’s response, he began his experiments with cuisines of all hues, tastes and regions. A leather consultant, Anwar had travelled the world, tasted, loved and appreciated cuisines from all over, but in an attempt to give his passion for food its due, he and his wife Pushpa ventured into the food business in 1999, cooking up a surprise for connoisseurs.

The couple’s exclusive eatery became an extension of home-kitchen for tourists who visited from all across the globe. The outlet has shut down for renovation, but the couple is catering to their customer base through takeaway. The Anwars grow most of the vegetables at their rooftop through smart gardening. “There are more than 150 varieties of organically homegrown fruits and vegetables through the concept of non-soil pots and hydroponics,” says Pushpa. They source the spices from Kerala, and Ayurvedic shops. 

The staple, however, has been the innovation that he has introduced to cater to different palates. “Most of the vegetarians who travel to Europe inevitably order French Onion Soup without realising that the main ingredient is the meat of all sorts. To cater to the vegetarians, I have made one with only vegetables. The soup is a big hit, and the best compliment came from a vegetarian French girl who asked me for its recipe,” he says, sharing an anecdote.  

Coffee.com, Puducherry
Besides soup, other most talked-about items are handcrafted musk melon ice cream, fresh garden Baguette with homemade mustard and tomato sauce, and tastefully curated Cheddar cheese, Italian pizzas with handmade crust, oil-free biryani, and veg biryani made with soya nuggets. The entire menu ranges from Rs 200 to Rs 600. The Anwars grow most of the vegetables at their rooftop through smart gardening. They source the spices from Kerala, and some from Ayurvedic shops. 

Amadora, Chennai
Its continued success can be attributed to Suresh’s science-driven processes, using the best ingredients sourced from across the country—be it milk, honey, fruits, vanilla or saffron—so that the ice cream tastes good, and forever reinventing flavours. Some of the hot favourites are Salted Butter Caramel, Dark Chocolate Sorbet, and Mami’s Filter Coffee.

Taste matters

“Thanks to my mother and grandmother, I am a good eater, blessed with a good palate. My love for ice cream led me to make it, which is just as good as what one gets to eat anywhere in the world, if not better.”  Deepak Suresh

Sunish Surendran

One would never guess that Deepak Suresh, the face and mind behind Amadora gourmet ice cream, is an engineer by education. Deepak was living in the US, writing software for companies to cut their carbon emission when he began thinking of artisan ice cream and more importantly the lack of its presence in his home town, Chennai. Inspired by his mother’s cooking, his food and travel adventures, and fuelled by his passion and hard work, he set out on the journey of Amadora.

He calls the gourmet ice cream brand, which he launched in his hot and humid hometown, part passion, part science and a whole lot of imagination. With six stores, one flagship and three other franchisee stores in Chennai, and one each in Hyderabad and Bengaluru, he is set to start another one in Coimbatore and is in talks for making its debut in Mumbai and Delhi. The reason for his sweet success comes because he has been able to beat the number game with taste. He has spoiled customers with choice, delivering a new set of flavours every time they visit. “We have introduced more than 300 flavours so far,” he says.

Choc-a-Block!
“We work directly with farmers to source, harvest and process only the highest quality cacao that comes from organically certified farms; we never add preservatives or chemicals to our products.” Fabien Bontems

Upon moving to India, Jane Mason, co-founder of Mason & Co, realised there was no good quality chocolate available and she decided to make her own. Together with her partner Fabien Bontems, a sound engineer, the lawyer by profession, trained chocolate maker and raw food chef by passion, Mason, visited cacao farms in the region, bought some beans and started making chocolate at home. The two started packing the bars in 2014, distributing them to select retailers and the rest is history. The home laboratory in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, had in no time turned into an artisanal factory.

“We now employ nine female artisans from surrounding villages, who are trained in the art of chocolate-making. The processes such as sorting, winnowing, tempering and packaging are done manually. These ladies are extremely skilled, the heart and soul of our enterprise and the reason our chocolate tastes so good! Even our packaging employs the skill of artisans; all our chocolate boxes are screen-printed by locally, a craft we believe in supporting,” says Jane.

Offering a hands-on experience of working in the artisanal food business, the couple says, “There is enough interest in high-quality artisanal foods in India; people want to know who makes their food, where it comes from, how it’s processed.” But in the same breath, they also mention the challenges that this niche food category has to offer, “Artisanal food often requires a lot of human effort, skills and techniques, driving up costs for the sake of quality.”Their products are available at over 100+ retailers across Indian cities, at grocers such as Nature's Basket, Blue Tokai Cafes, Foodhall, Apollo Pharmacy 
as well as local grocers and organic stores and cafes. They retail online via Amazon and will be selling on their website soon.

Mason & Co,  Auroville The chocolate is made with beans from South India, particularly grown on farms in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The craftsmen dish out 14 types of chocolate bars, herbal chocolate tea and drinking chocolate, plus nibs, butter and powder, and are priced Rs 300-400. The bestsellers are Sea Salt, Zesty Orange and Cacao Nibs and Powder.

Top Artisanal Foods of the World

Maine Maple Popcorn: Its Coastal Maine Popcorn is most popular flavour.

Goat Milk Caramel: Crafted by Fat Toad Farm using local goat milk in Vermont, these rich caramel sauces will up your dessert game.

Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha: Get the best of both worlds with this bold and spicy sauce by Bushwick Kitchen’s.

Salt Cocktail Set: Three varieties of salt by Bitterman are perfect for lining your cocktail rim. 

Hibiscus Flower Infused Maple Syrup: Bright in colour and flavour, Runamok’s floral favourite can add a fun twist to cocktail or dessert recipes.

Loaves: Produced by Amy’s, these loaves—the semolina with golden raisins and fennel, black olive bread, miche mini—are a hit in NYC.

Lemon-Coconut Spreadable Jam: Perfect on anything from toast to waffles or pancakes, Hey Boo’s jam can be substituted in baked items that call for lemon curd

Bakery Gift Box: One of Manhattan’s best kept secrets is the Fat Witch Bakery, a heaven for brownie lovers.

Holiday Chocolate Bars: Theo’s artisan chocolates come in fun holiday flavours like gingerbread spice, peppermint stick, and cranberry orange.

Coffee: Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription is customisable, and you can change amounts as well as varieties of the grounds you receive biweekly.

Pasta di Gragnano: The homemade pastas in four different shapes are made by retailer Eataly in the Italian town of Gragnano in Campania.

Soy Sauce: Also known as ‘shoyu’, Kishibori’s artisanal soy sauce is brewed from whole soybeans, wheat, and sea salt before being fermented in 100-year-old bottles.

Artisanal Food Trends of 2018
 

Small is Healthy
Smaller producers are doing most interesting things with sustainable approaches in the food world. If you are looking for vegan or ethnic foods, fermented condiments, or artisans focused on reducing food waste, choices are galore this year.

Super Beverages
The list of superfoods is ever growing, leaving you confused with a thousand options. But you can make your beverages healthy on your own. Add trendy turmeric to your water, sweeten up your day with a dairy-, soy-, gluten-, preservative-free chocolate drink, and avoid having juices from the juice bar. And if possible, skip the coffee and grab a nutrient-rich matcha.

‘Old is Gold’ Grains
Ancient grains such as quinoa, farro, barley and spelt have always been as good for our health as they are now. But all these years, we had forgotten about their wonders. Including these seeds in your meals is the best way to have a mineral- and fiber-rich food.
 

Mushrooms Allover
Mushrooms are often categorised as vegetables, but they are fungi, and some of them are even used for medicinal purposes. So, try some coffee, cocoa or matcha infused with reishi and chaga—the best medicinal mushrooms and power up.
 

The Bone Broth Benefit
Usually a winter favourite, this health wonder has become a round the year food of late. It not only boosts your immune system, but repairs joints and helps you sleep better.

Made with Art
“We provide traditional Italian butcher style meats without the use of any preservatives, fillers or additives at affordable prices.” Mehma Bawa

Noida-based Artisan Meats is a homegrown brand seeking to produce international level quality cured and preserved meats using locally available produce. Started by Chef Meherwan Bawa and passionate foodie and entrepreneur Mehma Bawa in October 2015, the company aims to move away from the heavily mechanised processes.

The trick is to apply the age-old methods of preserving and curing meat from around the world without chemicals, and emulsifiers. The brand’s product line is dynamic and undergoes constant innovation to improve flavours, textures and experiences. “Our goal is to handle all parts of processing meat right from the farming to the delivery of products to our customers to ensure a guaranteed quality experience to our patrons,” adds Meherwan.

The duo started with minimal equipment and from their home kitchen, catering to only friends and family. But today, Artisan Meats has its base kitchen in Noida from where it supplies meat and meat products all over the NCR and occasionally Mumbai and Punjab.

The bestsellers are chicken and bacon sausage, smoked chicken spread, mutton burger patty, and bacon. “We have an exclusive range of sous vide meats. It is first packed in a vacuum bag, then slow cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature over a long period of time so that meat retains its juice and is succulent and tender to bite into. Each meat is flavoured with a special blend of spices which gets soaked into the meat due to long cooking time,” explains Meherwan.The order can be placed on their website, and it is delivered next day within the city as everything has to go in a proper cold chain. “Everything is priced Rs 250-500. An average order size is Rs 1,200, which is good to last you through the week,” Mehma adds.

White Wonder
“Hopefully by next year, Astra Dairy will be delivering fresh all-natural vegetables to our customers who buy our milk. Our aim is to focus on expansion in the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.” Rakesh Ravindran

Astra Dairy was the first one to introduce farm fresh cow’s milk in glass bottles in India. The all-natural dairy farm based in the Chennai delivered milk to doorsteps every morning. “Our mantra is cow’s milk at its purest,” Rakesh Ravindran, founder and chairman of Astra Dairy, who comes with a rich experience in textile manufacturing and exports, but it was his passion for organic farming that led him to explore greener pastures in the dairy business.

It was Ravindran, who had delivered the first bottle of milk to a customer at Anna Nagar, Chennai, years ago. The initial response was lukewarm, but slowly people warmed up to the idea of unadulterated cow’s milk, and today he caters to more than 2,000 households in the city, delivering about a few thousand litres per day, at around 25 locations. His modus operandi to increase customer base was simple—explain the methods used for milking, farming and the entire process to motivate people to try, buy and suggest/prescribe this milk to others. “We consider this to be a very good practice,” he says with a grin.

The brand celebrates the inconsistency of milk as it is natural. “At times, the milk is watery, less cream, or more cream. We cannot do anything about it, since the milk is natural. Our  mission is to make our product to be something that our customers are aware of and welcome wholeheartedly,” he says on the product differentiator.

The company has started churning out ghee, paneer, beverages and kulfi. “Our kulfi is quite popular and available at supermarkets and a few departmental stores in Chennai and also in cities like Coimbatore and Bengaluru,” says Ravindran.

Astra Dairy, Chennai
Apart from milk and dairy products, Astra is also delivering free range chicken eggs to customers in special packing and is also engaged in the cultivation of paddy and sesame. Like milk, sesame oil is also delivered in glass bottles.

Brewing Success 
 

“We do hope that people will eventually shift to a more tastier and wholesome product not because of any jingoistic reasons but purely because of the freshness of consuming locally grown produce.”  Kunal Ross

If you keep cribbing about your coffee lacking the perfect beans, then The Indian Bean is the much-needed answer to get the zing back. The Mumbai-based company started by four like-minded (read coffee lovers and guzzlers) Sanjoy Solomon, Kiran, Kunal Ross and actor Tillotama Shome in 2012 delivers a range of freshly roasted coffees at your doorstep. The catchword here is “Be Indian. Brew Indian.”

The entrepreneurial thought started brewing in Ross’s mind when he happened to drink Watapi coffee for the first time sitting in a plantation nestled within a wildlife sanctuary in Mysore. “Time just stopped, and there was no turning back after that,” says the young entrepreneur, who loved coffee too much to sit and do nothing about it. Stressed at how the best coffee never makes it to our cup here in India, he says, “We grow coffee in India, really good coffee but we never get to drink it because it is all exported. And the beans that do not make the export cut are turned into instant coffee. So coffee lovers in India have to pay a premium for good coffee which is imported, and it might have been great, but has lost its zing sitting on a shelf for too long. So we started off with an aim to bring wholesome Indian coffee to Indians.”

Reflecting on artisanal foods becoming a trend, Ross says, “With the consumer becoming conscious of what they are eating and drinking, and the politics of where it comes from, there is a substantial shift in consumption. Accessibility to micro businesses has improved with information being easily shared in online platforms.” But the onerous responsibility of popularising artisanal coffee rests a lot on investing in educating and creating content around the great coffee that India has.

The Indian Bean, Mumbai
It employs free trade practices, sources coffee from the farms across the countryside, and sells it over the Internet and also in a few stores in Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa. The bestsellers Watapi, Bullet and Frowner’s, priced Rs 270-450.

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