Artisanal cheese has been increasing in popularity amongst Indian consumers, who, for decades, have only had access to processed cheese. It turns out that Indians were making cheese 4,500 years ago and the art was lost over the centuries. Today, thanks to the initiative of a non-government organisation (NGO) and help from a Chennai-based social entrepreneur, a goat herder's community in Gujarat, which rears goats for milk (as opposed to meat), is being transformed through value-addition or cheese-making! More importantly, it is reviving an age-old Indian tradition.
Did you know that the art of cheese-making is an ancient one which belonged to the shepherds? They would carry pieces of cheese in their pocket and consume it for nutrition, while they undertook long and arduous journeys over pastoral lands. A study based on archaeological finds from Kotada Bhadli, in Gujarat's Kutch district, discovered that it was an agro-pastoral settlement in the Indus Valley civilisation making cheese. It is funny how a tradition, that has belonged to this ancient community, has been commercialised to the point that we believe it belongs to the West.
A unique experiment has now led to the setting up of a cheese manufacturing unit in Sayla, Gujarat, called Panchal Dairy. This dairy now manufactures artisanal cheeses such as pecorino, feta, cheddar, chevre and tomme of high quality that has received excellent reviews from experts.
This is the story of a unique and inspiring project that will hopefully expand to transform the future of pastoral communities. While it is still at a nascent stage, the goat-rearing community is already seeing economic benefits since the cheese manufacturers have started buying goat milk without it being deodorised or mixed with bovine milk.
In the district of Surendranagar in Gujarat, there are about 2,000 Maldharis engaged in cattle-rearing (cow, buffalo and goat). They recognise their goats on sight, rear them like family, and travel with them across grazing lands. A unique feature of this tribe, which still follows traditional gift-economy practices, is that they do not sell their goats for meat or money. If a goat herder has a herd that exceeds his capacity, he simply gift these goats to a fellow herder.
However, with the times, new challenges have arisen for this community. Common grazing lands, that once existed for the community, have now been taken over for building roads, factories and other infrastructure. The community receives less than Rs25 for a litre of goat's milk and they have limited resources to produce value-added products from the milk. This forces them and the next generation to abandon their traditional occupation and search for new opportunities.
Pastoralism is centred on organised herd movements, contributes to food and water security, supports resilient livelihoods and national economies, and provides environmental services. Milk is central in the livelihood of pastoral households. Its nutritional, social and economic roles are immense. The herders' integration into market dynamics is the need of the hour. As pastoralists navigate a changing environment, innovative market engagement is essential for coping with uncertainties and providing livelihoods.
Sahjeevan is a Bhuj-based NGO that works extensively for the pastoral community. While they usually work in the areas of conservation and advocacy, they saw an opportunity to experiment with an entrepreneurial initiative for the benefit of this community. With Access Livelihoods as the implementing agency, an enterprise model was ideated along with the pastoral community to manufacture value-added products from the pastoral goat milk.
At the initial stages of the project, youngsters in the community were provided with entrepreneurship training. Later, all groups with a solid business plan were promised support from Access Livelihoods. Many products, such as goat milk energy bar, ice cream and Greek yoghurt, were piloted and tested at multiple dairy colleges across the country. However, most of them required the addition of heavy doses of preservatives and additives to compete on shop shelves. Moreover, goat milk has less fat, which means products like ice cream and yoghurt have a grainier texture and a distinct 'goaty' smell that the average consumer would take time to adjust to or would need masking.
Hence, after rigorous research and feedback sessions, the community entrepreneurs finally arrived at the decision to make cheese, a product that would require no artificial preservatives.
"We had never even heard of cheese before, let alone tasted it. But when we went to the dairy sciences college, as a part of our entrepreneurial training and saw cheese-making, we knew that is what we wanted to do," says Arpan Kalotra, who is a cheese-maker and entrepreneur from the community.
Arpan and Bhimsibhai Rabari, the cheesemakers and entrepreneurs, who were earlier afraid to do pitch presentations due to the feeling of inferiority from not knowing English, are now confidently approaching 5-star hotel chains and are receiving praise from the managers and chefs.
With indigenous milk surpluses, there was a unique opportunity available to enhance pastoral livelihoods via terroir-inspired cheese-making. As a fellow from Transforming India Initiative, a social entrepreneurship programme run by Access Livelihood, I was tasked with setting up a vertical in an existing social enterprise. Before setting up this plant, I visited several cheese units across India and proposed a collaboration to provide cheese-making training to the community entrepreneurs.
However, some of these collaborations failed due to lack of human resources and other challenges. Parallelly, the Centre for Pastoralism (Sahjeevan) discovered Namrata Sundaresan and Anuradha Krishnamoorthy from Käse Cheese, who generously agreed on a collaboration to make gourmet cheese and also to buy the cheese and sell it through their own, more established outlets.
Namrata Sundaresan, with a background in business consulting, has travelled around the world to formally learn various traditional forms of cheese-making, which she has introduced in India. The founders have a passion for helping disadvantaged communities become self-reliant. Anuradha Krishnamoorthy has a background in social work, especially initiatives that promote employability among people with disabilities.
From January 2022, the Centre for Pastoralism (Sahjeevan) partnered with Käse Cheese to train the pastoral community in cheese-making and set up the production of goat and sheep cheeses in Saurashtra and camel cheese in Rajasthan. Pastoral cheese from Panchal Dairy is available for sale on Käse website https://www.kasecheese.com/
. An important factor is that Chennai-based cheese-maker buys the cheese produced at Panchal Dairy and makes it available on its own website (as pastoral cheese) as well as to wholesale buyers.
The introduction to cheese-making is fetching the goat-rearing community better returns – they are now getting Rs33 per litre as compared to the Rs25 a litre they received earlier for their goat's milk. There is now a demand for goat milk itself instead of selling this milk mixed with cow or goat milk.
Panchal Dairy is now working with around 20 goat rearers and processing 100 litres of goat's milk each day, yielding about 10kg of cheese daily. These numbers will go up to 500 litres per day very soon. Centre for Pastoralism aims to launch an umbrella brand under which products from the pastoral community across India are sold on one single platform. Pastoral cheese is set to become the next big thing in the gourmet food sector in India, with the increasing demand from the market for sustainable food options.
For orders, you may call, text or WhatsApp on 7507648888. Alternatively, you may leave a message on Instagram on the [email protected]
Since the enterprise is still at a nascent stage, the website is currently under development and will be live soon!
(The writer helped set up the Panchal Dairy project as a part of her fellowship programme).