Dominating the cheeseboard: Mausam Jotwani Narang


India hit two sharp notes at the World Cheese Awards this year. The country won its first rating, a silver, for a brown peda-like savoury cheese made by a creamery in Mumbai. And an Indian was, for the first time, part of the 250-strong panel of international judges.

For the world’s largest milk producer — India accounts for 22% of global production — these accolades seem both obvious and unusual. We’ve got milk, sure. But cheese? India is not in even in the top 90 when it comes to production, even trails Saudi Arabia, Montenegro and Panama. Artisanal cheeses are a thin sliver of this market. No one looks to India for anything other than paneer.

So last month, when Mausam Jotwani Narang, 35, dispatched one of her creations to Spain, this year’s venue for the World Cheese Awards, she wasn’t expecting much. “There was so much documentation involved, I just stopped tracking the package after a while,” she says. “I didn’t even know if it had crossed the border.”

Jotwani Narang’s entry, from her Mumbai-based creamery Eleftheria, was a brunost – a Norwegian-style not-quite-cheese made from whey, the rich runny leftovers produced after cow’s milk has been curdled and strained to make other cheeses like mozzarella and burrata. Cheesemaking yields “preposterous amounts” of whey, she says. So Jotwani Narang developed the brunost, slow-heating whey with milk and cream for nine hours to produce a cheese with a brown fudge-like texture and a mildly salty kick.

She began making it in 2020. “It’s got a polarising taste,” she acknowledges. “I sent it to the awards because it’s unusual, travels well, and has a good shelf life.”

She knew what she was up against. The World Cheese Awards, organised by the British journal Guild of Fine Food, have been held annually since 1988. Europe dominates; Canada and the US have won gold only once each. Eleftheria, in comparison, was less than a decade old.

Jotwani Narang set up the enterprise in 2014, after two years of making cheese as a hobby on weekends while working full-time in human resources.

“At one point, 100 litres of milk were being delivered on the weekend,” she recalls. “My parents thought I’d lost my mind, but I enjoyed the process.” Milk is among the most unforgiving of ingredients. It sours easily and splits with the slightest neglect or contamination. “But with the right quality of milk, temperature, humidity and rennet, you can transform a liquid into something solid. I loved it.”

Alongside, Jotwani Narang honed her skills at creameries in Italy, studying cheesemaking traditions that don’t exist in the East. Back in India, in cities dotted with European-style cafes and restaurants, Eleftheria’s artisanal, fresh and standardised soft cheeses were an easy sell. The blocks of rust-brown brunost, embossed with El Ef in Devanagari script and promoted as a breakfast cheese to eat with berry jams and toast, have had it tougher.

The rust-brown brunost, made from whey and embossed with El Ef in Devanagari script, is being promoted as a breakfast cheese best eaten with berry jams and toast. (Image courtesy Eleftheria)

At the awards in Spain on November 3, organisers made sure that regardless of the blind tastings, the lone Indian cheese didn’t cross paths with the lone Indian judge. Mumbai cheesemonger Mansi Jasani, also 35, had no idea that a compatriot was in the running. She was just happy to be the first judge from India.

Jasani found her calling a decade ago, at a cheese bootcamp she attended while pursuing a Master’s degree in food studies at New York University. Participants had to sample and study 70 cheeses over three days. “By the end, everyone was cheesed out, but I could have kept going,” she says. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

She took more cheese courses and returned to India to set up The Cheese Collective in 2014, selling local artisanal cheeses, including her own. Nominated by a British cheese critic to be a judge at the awards, she tasted her way through almost 50 cheeses, marking each on taste, texture, smell and look. Points determine whether a cheese receives a Gold, Silver or Bronze rating, or none at all.

Jasani also made it to the top tier of 16 judges, who do another round of tasting of Gold cheeses to pick a single Super Gold. She didn’t taste the Eleftheria brunost in the run-up to the awards, but she didn’t have to. She’d eaten it in India and loved it.

“The brunost is more a whey spread than a cheese,” says Jasani. “But it celebrates its Indian roots, the local milk, and reflects her (Narang’s) relentless research into cheese.”

For Jotwani Narang, entering the competition was a statement in itself. “We now make good quality cheese in India, by hand, using honest processes with good quality milk,” she says. “We deserve to hold our own against the world’s best.”

THE BIG CHEESE

The World Cheese Awards, organised by the British journal Guild of Fine Food, have been held annually since 1988. This year, they were held in Spain on November 3.

Entries that qualify for the competition are evaluated on taste, texture, aroma and appearance, in a points system that determines whether a cheese will receive a Gold, Silver or Bronze rating, or none at all.

This year, there were over 4,000 entries from across five continents. Across 88 cheese-laden tables, 250 judges (including India’s Mansi Jasani) rated the unmarked samples.

India’s only entry, a Norwegian-style brunost made by Mumbai creamery Eleftheria, was among the 604 cheeses to receive a silver rating. It was the only brunost in the competition, and India’s first win at the awards.

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Anjali Singh

Anjali Singh Born on 15 Jun 2001 an Indian author and activist from Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh. Live in New Delhi