Tuesday, April 27, 2010

He Moved The Cheese

If you think only the Italians are adept in art of making mozzarella, think again. Bangalore has its very own “cheese factory” that has brought to India some of the best-kept cheesy secrets of Italy. In a quite corner of Gualbert Bhavan in Thambuchetty Palya (near K.R. Puram), monks of the Vallombrosan Benedictine Confederation churn out fresh cheese every day. Father Michael, who is the administrator of the Vallombrosa cheese unit, learnt the art of transforming milk to mozzarella during his stay in Naples, Italy. After returning to India, he set up a unit that produces Bangalore’s very own Italian Mozzarella. His cheese-making unit got its first order in 2005. Now, chefs of five-star hotels and popular European restaurants turn to this modest establishment for cheese that goes into making their exotic continental and Italian delicacies.
Benedictine Confederation’s motto is “Ora et Labora” which translates to “pray and work” in Latin. In keeping up with the spirit of St. Benedict’s philosophy, the Benedictines have taken up vocations through which they not only eke out a living but also contribute significantly towards preserving art, culture and science. The Benedictine monks in Bangalore have turned to cheese making as a source of income for the monastery. “When we have our own means to earn a living we don’t have to depend on funding from outside”, says Father Michael who is the centrifugal force behind this indigenous cheese factory.
Father Michael was the first Vallombrosan of Indian origin. The comment of Franco Thrumby, an Italian businessman who claimed that he hadn’t eaten a pizza with good mozzarella during his sojourn in India sowed seeds of thought. Although the ball was set rolling soon after, there were a bagful of challenges to contend with in the nascent stages of his venture. The quality of the cheese produced depends on the quality of the milk and the quantity depends on the day’s supply of milk.” We were not sure if mozzarella has a market in India. The machinery, lactic ferments and enzymes had to be imported from Italy. Finding vendors who sell sizable quantity of buffalo milk was also a challenge”, he says looking back at the tough days.
Undeterred by these initial impediments Father Michael began making cheese, albeit in small quantities. With one kilogram of mozzarella that was sent for sampling to Manjit Singh, the owner of Herbs and Spices, he landed his very first order. He visited Italy again in 2006 to fine-tune and learn the nitty gritties of cheese making. The Oberoi, The Leela Palace, The Lalith Ashok, Toscano, Olive Beach, Fierano and The Park Hotel are some of his loyal customers. The cheese even travels to top-notch restaurants in Chennai, Mumbai, Cochin and Singapore.
Buffalo milk is sourced from farms in Hoskote and Hosur everyday. There are just six people involved in the entire operation from procurement to production and delivery. Father Jinse assists Father Micheal in the cheese production. There are two drivers, one to procure the buffalo milk and the other to deliver the cheese. Two helpers assist in packing and cleaning.
The cheese is freshly made on a daily basis, six days a week. “We have never turned down any order. We take orders as small as half a kilogram”, says Father Michael. With the present capacity they are able to make 40 kilograms of mozzarella from 200 liters of buffalo milk. Ricotta is produced as a by-product. “When the demand is high we make the cheese twice a day. It goes up to 2 am”, he adds. While the soft cheese preserved in brine and stored under regulated temperatures of one to four degree Celsius has a shelf life of 15 days, the hard cheese gets better with age. Fresh mozzarella, Bocconcini, Ricotta, Mascarpone and Caciotta are some popular varieties of Vallombrosan cheese.
We have been introduced to alu tikki burgers and paneer tikka pizzas, so do we also have cheese customized to tickle the taste buds of Indians? “Hard cheese comes in four flavours to suit the taste of Indians. We have chilli cheese, black pepper cheese, cumic cheese and mustard cheese”, says Father Michael with a smile.
We’ve been buying cheese off the shelves of super markets for so many years. So what’s special of Vallombrosa Mozzarella? Almost instantly, Father Michael replies, “Vallombrosa Mozzarella is made from buffalo milk. It is vegetarian, organic cheese prepared by the traditional Italian method. There are no preservatives and the enzymes used for production are also vegetarian.”

Vallombrosa cheese is available at Namdhari’s Fresh outlets, New Frosty’s Cold Storage and Palm Meadows in Whitefield.
For more info log onto www.vallombrosacheese.com

Types of cheese available

1. Fresh Mozzarella: This is a Vallombrosan specialty that can be used in pastas, sandwiches and for making fried mozzarella sticks.

2. Bocconcini: This is also called as Cherry Mozzarella due to its shape, which resembles that of a cherry. Can be used in a wide range of recipes including wonton wraps, fried bocconcini and sandwich fillings.

3. Burrata: Layered cheese balls with mozzarella paste on the outside and cream and shredded mozzarella on the inside.

4. Ricotta: A classic Italian white cheese ideal for use in preparation of desserts like cassata, fruit salad, cheesecake and cannoli. Ricotta is a by-product of Mozzarella.

5. Mascarpone: Creamy cheese used as soup topping and in Italian desserts like Tiramisu. This dessert cheese compliments chocolates, coffee, fruits and liqueurs.

6. Caciotta: An Italian styled hard cheese made from the milk of jersey cows. The cheese is rubbed with tomato paste and olive oil to enhance the taste and act has a natural preservative.

7. Pizza cheese: Pizza cheese is soft in texture and is highly recommended for American style pizzas and Italian delicacies like lasagna, pasta and pizza.

8. Pecorino: Made from sheep milk, Pecorino Romano is a hard, salty Italian cheese.

9. Fresh Goat Cheese (Feta): This is fresh salted curd cheese made from goat’s milk. It is an important ingredient in Greek Salad. Goat cheese is made in Kottayam, as goat milk is hard to procure in Bangalore.

This article was published in Bangalore Mirror on the 28th of April 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Where There is a Will

Four-and-half year old cherubic Kavi Arasi walked into the room and engaged in a lively conversation, I wondered what she perceived the world to be? She lavished affection and piggybacked on a person she calls "Kancho" (a term used to refer to the master in martial arts), I wondered who she imagined him to be. She is a bundle of joy and I could not take my eyes off her. Always in high spirits, she jumped around and was all ears to the sounds around her. Kavi or should I refer to her as Arasi (means queen in Tamil), as she is the queen of the Rakum School for the Blind. The rule of admitting children above the age two-and-half-years had to be bypassed when Arasi who was born blind was brought to the school when she was just six months old. She was frail and weak then. She is a livewire now.
Acharya Sri Rakum, an internationally renowned martial arts exponent is the founder of Rakum School for the Blind. The school at Indiranagar was established in 1998 and had a modest beginning with just three students. The success of the first school and the ever increasing number of students led to two more schools being established, one at Devanahalli in 2003 and the other at Arkavathy Layout in 2006. Currently there are 150 boarders in the Indiranagar School, 200 day scholars and 150 residents in the Devanahalli School and 25 boarders in the Arkavathy School. Life has come a full circle for “Kancho” (Achraya Sri Rakum is affectionately called “Kancho” by the children) who has transitioned from breaking world records in the field of karate to building lives of boys and girls who come to his schools from far and wide.
Sighted and visually impaired children study and stay together at the Rakum Schools. Each visually impaired child is paired with a sighted child who lends a helping hand when the need arises. The sighted children read from the blackboard and the visually challenged read from printed Braille books, but apart from this their education is the same. All students are provided free schooling, food and boarding facilities. Sri Rakum who has a black belt in karate and is also trained in yoga personally imparts lessons to the students. Slots are reserved for karate and yoga in the daily schedule. Music and dance are also part of the curriculum.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime”, says Sri Rakum. This is the principle behind moulding his children into able-minded youngsters who are capable of facing the challenges that lie ahead. Karate is for self-defense, yoga is for a healthy mind and body and music is for the soul. Until class four, classical music and dance are compulsory for all students. The sighted children above the age of eighteen are given driving lessons. Twelve students who have completed their post graduation and five students who have successfully graduated were appointed as directors of different functions of the school.
The campus at Devanahalli is much more than a school. It has a garden, a hundred-bed dormitory for boarders, a health care centre, a goshala (cow shed), a rainwater harvesting plant and a biogas plant. The children are taught to respect and live in harmony with nature. Cow urine mixed with water is used for watering plants, dish washing water is treated into ‘grey water’ and is used for cleaning the floors; cow dung is used in the experimental biogas facility; solar panels have been installed to tap solar energy.
While the primary focus is on educating children from underprivileged backgrounds and making them self sufficient, the Rakum Blind School is also engaged in various social initiatives. The first day of every month is “Seva Day”. Women above the age of 65, registered as senior citizens are given monthly rations and a pension of Rs. 100/. Rice, wheat, sugar, ragi, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush are given to each person every month. Old clothes, utensils, footwear, medicines and household items collected from public donations are distributed. 850 people from six slums in Bangalore, across 19 districts in Karnataka and 11 districts in Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Maharashtra are beneficiaries of this program. Sarojamma, the president of the domestic workers union of Karnataka helps in coordinating the activities on Seva Day and ensures that the aid reaches the right people. “I can understand English and can even speak a few sentences. I have gone to China and got an award in New Delhi”, she says with immense pride. It was reassuring to see that a person who hails from a modest economic background could make a difference to the lives of so many people. Under the “Helping Hand” project about 200 single mothers are aided. Their children are provided stationary, medicines and rations. Unemployed visually challenged people over the age of 30 years can also avail the benefit of a monthly pension, supply of monthly ration and Braille items. When Sri Rakum visited the slums he was appalled to witness fights over bearing the cost of cremating the dead. He then offered to pay Rs.750/- to cover the transportation and costs towards cremation for each death in the slums that was substantiated by a valid death certificate.
Kancho is a simple man of few words. He lets his actions speak louder than his words. “I am always a fielder in this game”, he says. I just catch the ball from one side and throw it to another. What I get from the rich I give to the poor”, he adds with a smile.

For more information log on to www.rakum.org

This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 06th of April 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.