If your cheese palate has moved beyond the processed varieties available on supermarket shelves, you need to connect with Bangalore’s most celebrated cheese-maker. The unlikely Father K L Michael. A young monk who speaks fluent Italian, originally hails from Kottayam in Kerala and is the first Indian Catholic priest to get selected to the religious order of Vallombrosan Benedictine Confederation. The Vallombrosans are an Italy-based Benedictine order which follows the motto of “prayer and work”. Monks who are part of it, like Father Michael, not only earn their keep, but also do a lot of charity by raising funds though small time enterprises.
Like making fine European cheese. But why cheese and specifically Italian you may ask. When Father Michael was accepted into the order after he graduated with a degree in philosophy, he spent time at the monastery of Vallombrosa, near Florence. A beautiful scenic spot set high up in the mountains. He lived here for a year before moving to Rome and travelling through Italy as part of his course. Along the way his interest in cheese not only grew but developed into something more than a hobby.
“I was looking for a way to make our Indian wing of Vallombrosan self sufficient. I could have learned any of the crafts the monks were good at, but cheese making caught my fancy. I came to Bangalore in 2000 and an Italian businessman suggested I start making cheese especially since even basic mozzarella, made from buffalo milk, was not available here,” he says. Father Michael registered his company in 2004, imported his machinery second hand from Italy to save costs and within a year his little cheese unit was up and running, turning out 25-30 kg of mozzarella and ricotta daily using buffalo milk from Hosur, on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border.
There were several initial teething problems since the basic everything in India, from the milk to the culture process is different because of local materials, the climate and temperatures. “I kept going, tuning my techniques to suit local conditions and sourcing the best buffalo milk,” he recalls. By 2006 his clientele, a mix of expats, chefs and star hotels were so impressed with his quality of mozarella that he decided to return to Italy to learn to manufacture more varieties like ricotta, mascarpone and parmesan, in bulk.
He welcomes visitors to his cheese making unit, but does not hand out samples too freely unless he is sure you appreciate the quality of the product and the finesse that has gone into its making. How did a monk with a limited network reach out to clients in the first place? “I checked out Italian restaurants online. Then I picked one and asked them to try my product. At first they were skeptical, but once they tried it the job was done. After that it was word of mouth mostly. Now my cheese is stocked in select supermarkets and star hotels. But a lot of people also visit my monastery and pick up cheese directly.” His current line up includes nine varieties like parmesan, mascarpone, feta, boccocini, caciotta and pecorino and his cheese unit now has over 20 people working full time and production has increased to about 100 kg a day.
Monastery residents also get to enjoy the cheese, a couple of nights a week at dinner. Fr Michael is planning to introduce Quark a ‘soured-milk, fresh cheese product’ which originated in Germany. “You can eat it plain like cottage cheese, use it as a spread on bread or in desserts. It contains less fat than most other varieties so it’s a big hit with calorie counters as well,” he smiles and signs off.
Prices start at Rs 500 per kilogram. For details contact:9845449064