Takeaway

Mozzarella monks of Bengaluru

Christabel Lobo | Updated on May 03, 2019

Soft skills: Father Michael is the brain behind Vallombrosa Cheese   -  The Hindu

Italian cheese has an unusual address in the city — a Benedictine seminary

It is not difficult to guess that the leafy courtyard outside Gualbert Bhavan, a two-storey building in Bengaluru’s KR Puram neighbourhood, is a place for prayer. But it’s nearly impossible to tell that this is where Italian cheese is made. The truth is that this seminary for monks belonging to the Vallombrosan Benedictine Congregation combines two seemingly disparate pursuits with ease: Theology and cheesemaking.

While usually peaceful and calm, the day I visit the grounds it’s anything but. Looking to my left as I enter the premises, I see a hive of activity, with construction to expand the Vallombrosa cheesemaking unit in progress. Named after the order’s founding monastery in Italy’s central Tuscany region, the unit was set up in 2004 by Father KL Michael (46), a Kottayam-born ordained priest who had learned cheesemaking during the course of his studies in Italy.

On his return to Bengaluru in 2000, he was selected to head Gualbert Bhavan. He was also asked to run it without financial assistance from the Italian order. That was when Franco Thrumby, an Italian businessman and Vallombrosa’s benefactor, drew Father Michael’s attention to the lack of good-quality Italian cheese at restaurants in India. An idea took shape, and with Thrumby’s help, the machinery for cheesemaking was imported from Italy at a cost of ₹75 lakh.

The factory is now being expanded and is set to reopen in August. The new facility will be a big step from its humble beginnings as a one-monk show. The unit is ably supported by nine staff members who were hired and trained by Father Michael. He has also trained six other monks who help with the work as and when required. The renovated building will include a cheese shop and a guest area for tasting tours. The current daily cheese output of 100 kg is also expected to double.

A typical day at Gualbert Bhavan begins at eight in the morning, with the arrival of buffalo milk from three farms in the peripheral region. Father Michael prefers buffalo milk for its thickness and high protein content, which helps make the cheese creamier. Close to 100 Murrah buffaloes — a Haryana breed known for its high yield — provide milk for the monastery’s produce.

La Italia: Cheeses from the Vallombrosan Benedictine Congregation seminary

 

The milk is then put into pasteurisers and left to curdle for over an hour. Then the curd is removed and left for four hours before being strained and separated from the whey. It is then added to hot water before the last stage of shaping begins, resulting in two kinds of cheese — mozzarella and bocconcini, which differ only in weight and size.

Another batch of milk is used to make burrata — one of the monastery’s most popular offerings — a melt-in-your-mouth variety with a mozzarella exterior and a soft and creamy interior. Father Michael ensures nothing goes to waste and transforms the byproduct of whey into ricotta, a mildly sweet cheese commonly used in desserts and cheesecakes.

Vallombrosa also makes mascarpone and caciotta, a semi-soft cheese that originated in rural Tuscany. If there’s an excess of milk at the end of the day, it’s aged and turned into two hard cheeses: Parmesan and pecorino. With no preservatives, the soft cheeses have a shelf-life of 15 days, while hard cheeses can retain their freshness for four to six weeks in a refrigerator. Twice a week, the monks at the seminary treat themselves to slices of mozzarella from Father Michael’s factory.

Father Michael says he enjoys making new and different varieties of cheese. “Chilli, black pepper — I’ve made these flavours with aged cheese,” he says. His marketing strategy is the tried-and-tested word-of-mouth variety. Clearly, it works, for the Vallombrosa Cheese has grown substantially over the last 15 years. You’ll find its products at 10 Cuts of Cheese, a cheese store in Bengaluru’s Koramangala area, and supermarkets at Palm Meadows in Whitefield. Many expats in the city place bulk orders every month. The products are also used in local restaurants such as Toscano and Chianti, as well as in hotels belonging to The Oberoi, JW Marriott, Taj and The Leela chains. The soft cheeses come for ₹800 a kg while the aged ones sell for ₹1,500 per kg.

Vallombrosa has takers outside Bengaluru as well — with loyal clients in Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Goa and Kochi.

Fifteen years of hard work and sincerity towards the project haven’t exhausted Father Michael or his team. Their schedule is set to get more hectic, but the monks, it seems, will never tire of saying cheese.

Christabel Lobo is a freelance writer based in Mysuru

Published on May 03, 2019

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