Brie In The Basement: Inside The Spotted Cow Fromagerie’s Dahisar Dairy
Bungalow No.13 in Heritage Complex in Dahisar receives between 35 litres to 40 litres of milk a day. That’s about 20 times the average daily household consumption of two litres in the residential colony. The bungalow is the address of The Spotted Cow Fromagerie, an artisanal cheese-making unit run by brothers Prateeksh, 31, and Agnay Mehra, 29. When they set up the business in April last year, vans bearing giant vats of milk would roll up at their doorstep, leaving their neighbours perplexed. The Mehras source the milk from multiple local dairies to be able to generate about 100 kilos of cheese a month.
The city’s cheese addicts, us included, owe them a debt. Thanks to the siblings, we now have access to first-rate Camembert- and Brie-style cheeses the year round and no longer have to rely on visiting relatives and friends to raid Duty Free stocks for us. The French cheeses have Geographical Indication status, which means that they can only be called Camembert and Brie if they’re made in the regions they’re named after. The brothers thus describe their products as being “frightfully close to the French style cheeses” and have labeled them Camembay and Bombrie.
If you haven’t purchased The Spotted Cow Fromagerie’s cheese off the shelf at Lower Parel supermarket Foodhall or ordered it from online gourmet grocer Foodesto, you may have sampled it at one of the 30 restaurants they’re supplying to, which include The Table, and the Salt Water Cafe and Indigo Deli chains. At Woodside Inn in Colaba and Woodside in Andheri, Camembay is employed in the kale and truffle oil pizza, while The Tasting Room, the wine bar in Lower Parel, serves baked Bombrie. Their strong smelling Camembay is rich and oozy, while the creamy, semi-soft and optimally salty Brie iteration is among our favourite things to bake and fry. “Both are quite versatile,” said Pankil Shah, a partner at the Woodside chain. “I’ve used it at home for cheese and booze pairings and we cook with them in the bar.”
Our enthusiasm for the homegrown cheese took us to The Spotted Cow Fromagerie’s lair in Dahisar, where we watched them make a fresh batch of Camembay. The former Malabar Hill residents have spent six years in their tranquil Dahisar house. It has a basement, where they’ve carried out several culinary experiments. In 2013, Prateeksh Mehra began brewing small batches of beer for personal consumption. He shared the beer with fellow home brewers at social gatherings, where a platter of cheese meant for pairing with the booze was a fixture. It’s these pairings that spurred him to experiment with making his own cheese. “You can’t sustain the production of aged cheese as a hobby though, it’s too expensive,” said Prateeksh Mehra, who is also a freelance food photographer. “I got great feedback from friends, but after making the initial few batches my options were to let go of my cheese-making completely or pursue it as a business.” His brother Agnay, a former film and TV producer, and he invested their own savings and some of their family’s money to start The Spotted Cow Fromagerie.
Kaltos, a fierce-looking but docile German Shepard with an appetite for French cheese, guards their 700 square feet basement. His daily diet includes a measured snack of Camembay and Bombrie shavings, which explains his post outside the door of the cheese crypt. The air-conditioned den partially resembles a dairy, with four milk vats, buckets and numerous cheese moulding cans. It also serves as an office space equipped with a desktop computer and a printer. A three-door walk-in freezer that functions as their cheese cave takes up a chunk of the room. Here, milky 200 grams blocks are left to harden, yellow and grow bloomy rinds for a minimum of 21 days in darkness and frosty temperatures before being dispatched to stockists.
The basement reeks of curdled milk and ammonia, which is released when the cheese begins to mould and mature. At 10am, the siblings are mid-pasteurisation, humming to Tracy Chapman. They have accessorised their daily uniform of T-shirts, shorts and flip flops (the benefits of working from home) with aprons and hair nets. The room is uncluttered and commendably spotless. Their sole employee, Sarita “tai”, a slight figure, bravely ventures in and out of the freezer without layering. A thermometer, humidifier for the freezer and a ph meter (to gauge the level of acidity in the milk) are the only gadgets they’ve purchased for what is largely a hand-made operation.
Camembay and Bombrie are the focus of their production. They also make small batches of robiola, a soft-ripened Italian cheese. The brothers take turns around the kitchen, adding culture to pasteurised milk, followed by rennet, filling the coagulated milk into moulds and leaving them in the freezer to dry. The simple, non-hectic rhythm of their processes belies the labour intensiveness of the job. In trying to replicate the complex French classics as opposed to the easier-to-make spreadable fresh cheese, the siblings knowingly took a gamble.
Milk is the greatest variable in their process and requires close monitoring. “The internet gave us a skeletal recipe and method, but we have to alter the recipe based on the ingredients available to us daily,” said Prateeksh Mehra. There have been times when the milk they get is not usable at all, resulting in the loss of a day’s work. It’s the reason they maintain contracts with multiple dairies.
The short shelf-life of their preservative-free cheese – you can typically keep it refrigerated for 21 days after which it will over-ripen – is also problematic for them. “Since everyone is so vocal on the internet especially about food, we have to tread very carefully,” said Prateeksh Mehra. “There are customers who know their cheese and those that tell us that the Camembert is too smelly (you can tell a good Camembert by its characteristic odour).” The many challenges notwithstanding, the pair is keen to persevere with the operation, which is now earning them a marginal profit. This despite the fact that at Foodhall and on Foodesto.com, the Camembay and Bombrie retail at a pricey Rs546 per 200 grams. The online grocer lists imported brands of Camembert and Brie that are similarly priced and in some cases even cheaper than The Spotted Cow Fromagerie’s versions of them. The hefty price tag of their cheese is a result of them using imported cultures and rennet and the intensity of labour and customisation they require.
Around 1pm, once the co-agulated milk is placed in moulding blocks and left for draining in the dark, odorous freezer, the Mehras emerge from the basement to feed their three turtles and themselves. The front and backyards of their three-storey bungalow are teeming with squirrels and sparrows. Sightings of venomous snakes are also common in their housing colony, which borders Borivali National Park. The brothers said they can’t imagine being reintegrated into regular jobs and city life. They haven’t however become complacent.
The duo is working on scaling up the business by selling the cheese in other cities and also plans to introduce new varieties of semi-hard cheese. “There’s a movement towards conscious eating,” said Prateeksh Mehra. “I want to be in the business, as long as it allows me to stick to the traditional, hand-made methods of making cheese.” After lunch they’re back in the freezer to “flip” the cheese, so that no trace of whey is left in the moulding containers. They’re interrupted by the sound of furious scraping against the basement door. Kaltos has come to collect his daily quota of Camembay.