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24.06.2019

There's a young gruyere we'd like you to meet. It's earthy, slightly sweet, vegetal, and entirely homegrown. It looks good on a platter, and when it's on a rosemary cracker with a drop of smoked apple honey, it can change your day, your mood, and the way you look at cheese.

This gruyere has recently travelled to Mumbai from a small cave surrounded by a tiny farm, on a little plot in a verdant residential cul de sac called Victoria Road, in the heart of Bengaluru. It's one of many varieties of cheese chef Manu Chandra is making at Begum Victoria along with co-fromagers Shruti Golchha and Pooja Reddy. We'd visited Begum Victoria in 2019 when it was brand new, and we'd sampled an uber fresh and bright crumbly-creamy feta; a sweet lactic and very accessible Bel Paese; and a sweet, buttery, mushroom-y brie that made us beg chef Chandra to bring it to Mumbai.

We've waited nearly seven months, so we're happy to report that the cheese is finally here! Last week, Toast & Tonic in BKC started serving Begum Victoria's cheese platters that hold brie, gruyere, Bel Paese, and also a mild and very melt-y havarti. Accompanying these are a variety of house made crackers, tomato-kalonji chutney, black jamun spread, white jamun and nolen gur salsa, and smoked apple honey that isn't honey at all. It's apple juice that has been reduced until it's treacly and then smoked. We'd buy this by the bottle.

The idea for Begum Victoria sprung from a conversation with a friend. Chandra was chatting with cheesemaker Aditya Raghavan about feta, when Raghavan mentioned how easy it was to make. So easy in fact, said Raghavan, that Chandra could even make it in his own kitchen. A few days later, Golchha offered her plot for the cave, and everything fell into place.

At Begum Victoria, Chandra uses very very carefully sourced organic A2 milk, working closely with a dairy farmer. To him, this, the quality of the milk is the biggest disruptor. While Begum Victoria's cheese is all delicious, what distinguishes it from other handcrafted artisanal cheese in India is the expression of the milk that goes into it. Taste the ghee that Chandra is also making in small batches at the cave, and unaltered by rennet, cheese cultures or age, and this becomes evident. “As a chef, I believe that I want to be able to own my supply chain. I want control over what I put out,” says Chandra. “Creativity is secondary. You can't take a bad piece of steak and make it into something great.”

While he widens Begum's repertoire, Chandra also explains how cheesemaking is a full time job that demands serious TLC - the cheese needs to rest, to be turned, to be brushed, to be wrapped, and patted down. Currently in the cave are cloth-wrapped cheddar, experiments with a Parmigiano Reggiano-style cheese which will take another year to age, and a tall block of Stilton-meets-Roquefort blue, only three and a half months old. Every couple of months, as new blocks are ready and available, more varieties will show up on the platter at Toast & Tonic.

In Anthony Bourdain's book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, he had said: “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.” He was onto something – this Begum's brie is making us melt.

Note: in Mumbai, Begum Victoria cheese is available only at Toast & Tonic, BKC, but in Bangalore, you can Whatsapp  9731669332 for inquiries and home delivery.

Getting there: Begum Victoria cheese platter at Toast & Tonic, BKC, call 26534722, Rs 750+, holds 250 gms of four cheese varieties along with condiments, crackers, and mixed nuts.  Follow them on Instagram here.

Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC, lives in Mumbai and writes mostly about food and travel for many a publication. She’s a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, and her words have also been found in Conde Nast Traveller, Mint Lounge, Scroll.in, The Hindu, Saveur, The Guardian, and Travel + Leisure, among others. She's crazy about obscure ingredients, and she always knows where to go back for seconds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @roshnibajaj.

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