“Pray and work.” That’s the driving tenet of the Vallombrosan Benedictine Confederation , or as they put it in Latin, “Ora et Labora”. Thirteen years ago, the Bangalore chapter of this order of Roman Catholic monks hit upon a rather unique way to pursue their goal of making a sustainable living: they decided to manufacture cheese. Today, their little factory, nestled in the leafy confines of Gualbert Bhavan in TC Palya, churns out cheese so divine that is has amassed a loyal clientele in five-star hotels and restaurants not just in Bangalore but across India.
“Taj, Oberoi, Trident, Marriot, Hyatt, Park…they all take cheese from us,” said Father KL Michael, the head of the order’s Bangalore chapter. The monks currently produce ten varieties of cheese, including buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, burrata (a hot favourite with the hotels at present) and parmesan. They are sold under the brand name Vallombrosa.
Vallombrosa’s USP, said Michael, is that the monks don’t use any preservatives. “Buffalo milk is very tasty in itself and we use the full cream version which adds to the taste,” he said. It is the freshness and taste, he believes, that convinces outstation chefs to pay a premium for flight charges to procure the cheese, allowing Vallombrosa Cheese to hold its own against much larger players such as Impero and Dairy Craft. Nothing gladdens Micheal more than hearing chefs telling him his cheese “is as good as Italian cheese”.
In 2000, when Michael was appointed to take charge of Gualbert Bhavan, where young men preparing for the priesthood study, he began to think about an economic activity they could undertake to finance themselves. Cheese-making wasn’t something that had crossed his mind until it was suggested by a Italian businessman, a friend of the monastery, who had business connections in India: “He said since there was no buffalo mozzarella in India, it was something we could produce.” Michael went to a cheese factory in Naples, Italy, and spent a week there, learning and writing down everything about the cheese-making process.
In India, though, the situation was totally different. “We struggled to get good buffalo milk,” said Michael. “The milk we got was watered down and was not good for making cheese.” They finally chanced upon a society in Hoskote, whose buffalo milk made the cut. The small factory with its asbestos roofing and three second-hand machines imported from Italy was also ready. With a supply of 20-30 litres of milk per day, Michael started making small quantities of mozzarella cheese in 2004.
Finding clients was the next challenge. Michael turned to the internet. Searching for “Italian restaurants in Bangalore”, he came upon Herbs and Spices in Indiranagar, one of the city’s most popular Italian restaurants at the time, headed by Chef Manjit Singh. A cold call was made, a sample of mozzarella sent, and within a week, Vallombrosa Cheese had received its first order.
Today, the monks produce 100 kg of cheese every day, using 400 litres of milk. Work begins at around 8.30 am everyday and goes on till around 3 pm. One of the most crucial aspects of the process is checking the temperature of the milk. “The cheese sets faster in the summer and takes longer in the cold weather, so we have to be careful about all this,” said Michael. Once the purity of the milk is checked, it is gradually heated to the perfect temperature. Then bacterial cultures and rennet are added to curdle it. After the curd forms, it is cut, drained, cured and shaped while still hot. The initial process is done manually, but the cutting and shaping is done by machines. The cooled cheese is packed in light brine and sent out for delivery.
The soft cheeses, such as mozzarella and ricotta, can be stored for up to 15 days in temperatures of 1-4 degrees Celsius. The hard cheeses such as parmesan and pecorino, actually improve with age.
The soft cheese retails at Rs 800 per kg, the hard cheese is Rs 1,500 per kg while the goat’s milk cheese sells for Rs 2,000 per kg. Currently, the factory uses three machines. Michael and four other monks are involved in the entire process. He also has two drivers, one to get the supplies and the other for delivery.
He plans to eventually build a larger, more sophisticated factory. “Our production will increase and the factory will be a lot more modernised, Italian style,” he said with a smile.
Michael returned to Italy last year to learn more about cheese-making and plans to go there again in 2019 to get more ideas. “When I was there in 2016, I learnt how to make Italian butter,” he said. “It is very different from the butter you get here. I plan to start making that once the new factory is ready and sell that to Italian restaurants.” His cheese expertise is in demand now, with college catering departments approaching him to deliver lectures on the challenges of making cheese.
The monks don’t eat cheese everyday at the seminary though. “We serve it only twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays when we have chapati and porotta for dinner,” said Michael with a laugh. His favourite cheese is bocconcini. But the joy his products bring clients is incidental to the enterprise. Said Michael: “The important thing is that this has allowed us to become self-sufficient and we are no longer dependent on the Italian order for any money.”