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Issue 01: To make cheese, start with the grass

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Made in Chennai, an unlikely city for cheese, the Tomme de Semmancheri is the result of a relationship between place, production and people. Illustrations by Reena Makwana.

I’m standing in a small room that can barely contain more than three people comfortably. Yet, two of us are watching Rajbir, a cheesemaker at The Farm, carefully stir warm milk in a boiler pot, after the addition of the starter culture, while the afternoon sun beats down on us. I’m taking notes and my friend who has driven us to Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) takes pictures, while Rajbir proceeds to show us the curd development — it pulls cleanly from the side, with the whey pooling around — before asking us to come back later to see him transfer the curds to a cheese hoop. It’s safe to say that the tiny room has all of us yearning for cool air and to wipe our sweaty brows, and perhaps, have a cold drink of water.

I’m at The Farm to learn about Tomme de Semmancheri, a rustic raw cow's milk cheese aged on tamarind wood. The Semmancheri (named after the village) is inspired by the Tomme de Savoie, a rustic farmstead cheese that was born in the Alps. However, the Tomme de Semmancheri, unlike the older tomme, does not boast of an impressive history or age, nor does it have PDO status. But it does trace its origin to a farmhouse as well, in the hot humid habitat that is Chennai. And both the tommes are firmly rooted in terroir. Mozzarella and ricotta were the first cheeses to be made at The Farm in 2014, and the following year, Tomme de Semmancheri was first attempted, and featured on their restaurant menu in 2016.

The Farm, as its name suggests, is a farm run by Arul Futnani and his business partner Shalini Philip. What was started as a 5-acre dairy farm with 10 heads of cattle in 1974 by Arul’s father, grew in size to 60 acres (and still is today) and 450 heads of cattle by the 80s. The dairy farm soon gave way to organic vegetable gardens, fields of paddy and jowar, a broad coconut grove, and livestock, besides an in-house restaurant and a farm shop. OMR, on which it is located, is now a six lane IT expressway, and home to a number of BPO companies and apartment complexes. A visit to The Farm is a study in contrasts: it exists amidst the quiet capitalist ruins of IT buildings and expanding developments, but inside it is a flurry of activity and a cacophony of unmistakable farm sounds. On the day that I am present, there is an ebullient discussion on a group of five buffaloes who have gone missing but have been found within the hour. Meanwhile, there is a turkey that attempts to chase us, cackling hens wandering about, cows grazing lazily and cats that run here and there repeatedly.

By many accounts, the Tomme de Semmancheri is an unusual cheese in an unusual city — Chennai has no culture of cheese. India, the world’s largest producer of milk, has a culture of cheese that is usually eclipsed by paneer, despite the presence of other indigenous cheeses: chhurpi found in Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and surrounding regions; kalari made by the Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Jammu and Kashmir; smoked bandel in eastern India; and topli nu paneer, which is integral to the Parsi community. Whether kalari, chhurpi, or tomme, the connection between land, animals, and cheese has always remained a constant. Terroir, a term borrowed from viticulture and applied to cheese culture, describes the natural environment within which a cheese is made. It’s more than that of course, for terroir can also extend to a broader ecology that encompasses everything from microbes, moulds, bacteria, and agrarian landscapes to agropolitics, and the artisan cheese makers themselves.

It starts with the grass. The process of making cheese comes later.

After the animals get fed in the morning, they are milked and taken to graze by Ramajayam on the many wild grasses that grow in the farm. Then the animals wander off in search of ponds to sit in and cool off a bit, or wallow mostly. And then they come back in the afternoon to the shed to get fed and milked again. Towards the end of the day, when all the animals are milked, they’re given fodder again and are left to hang out in the shed. In the morning, the whole process starts again. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that when the animals go walking every day, they cover long distances: “an excess of 10 km a day, just between morning and afternoon,” as Arul puts it. “Sometimes if we’re trimming the coconut trees or plucking coconuts, a couple of leaves will also be brought down for the cattle to feed on. Or when banana trees mature, we harvest the fruit and the stem, and the leaves go to the cows and buffaloes,” he says. The animals are fed a variety of fodder, including paddy, jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet) which they have started growing this year. The buffaloes and the cows here follow a rigorously relaxed schedule — with all this freedom to wander around, it’s no wonder that a few buffaloes walk off for a few days.

The Farm’s working landscape that relies on sustainability, looks at practices that extend beyond just caring for animals. Sometimes it’s as simple and mind boggling as animals taking care of themselves.

For a cheese to be termed unique, proper or local, it cannot be available everywhere. Neither can the ingredients required be sourced from far away. This includes the cheesemakers themselves, right from those who milk and feed the cows and buffaloes to the person who cuts the curds. Valuing the biodiversity of a cheese that values its terroir, starts with what anthropologist Heather Paxson called an “artisan agriculture” that needs to be “biologically, environmentally, civically, and financially viable”. This is not just a return to traditional practices or the creation of newer traditions, but perhaps an alternative agricultural solution to the one-size-fits-all approach of industrial agriculture. It can also mean an emphasis on a sense of place, purpose, and sustainability; a reaffirmation between food making and place making; or rather, framing the relationship between place, production and people.

Almost everyone who works at The Farm lives locally (around 300-400 metres away) and have been employed there for decades. The current cheesemaker, Rajbir, is from Uttarakhand in the north, but has been living in the farm for 13 years now. Initially, Arul developed the Tomme de Semmancheri (and mozzarella, ricotta, bloomy rind cheese, Marina Blue among others) with Aditya Raghavan, a physicist-turned-cheesemaker and consultant. Today, it’s Rajbir who makes the cheese; he admits that blue cheese "doesn't particularly excite him", but everything else he enjoys — his process depends on tasting the cheese, smelling, and thinking about the flavours and how to develop them.

The Farm’s working landscape — milk from animals that feed on local pasture and on fodder grown by them — that relies on sustainability, looks at practices that extend beyond just caring for animals. Sometimes it’s as simple and mind boggling as animals taking care of themselves. The way that The Farm is irrigated is through a mix of the mud canal system and flood irrigation; there are no pipes or structures made of cement or brick and mortar. When the cow shed, which is at the highest point of the farm, is washed, water flows through little canals to any point in the farm. This canal irrigation is the major source of irrigation in areas prone to rainfall deficiency, like Chennai or the state of Tamil Nadu, which the city is a part of. “The fresh green dung [that gets washed] will go into the fields. Along the canals, I also plant bananas, lemongrass, turmeric and grasses, all of which really thrive on green dung. So the water used to wash animals and by extension the shed, is also used to grow the grass and the fodder, which then goes into the animals, comes out as dung and urine plus the uneaten bits of grass — all go back into the field as compost. To run a farm successfully is about trying to make one resource do multiple jobs,” Arul says.

Artisan cheesemakers like Arul, Rajbir, and countless others who have always placed their trust on terroir — locally grown fodder; raw, unpasteurised milk and its indigenuous microflora that contribute to the very unique character of the cheese; the environment; the breed of animal; the local climate which can contribute to mould spores and so on — cherish more than the technique involved in making cheese. It’s about placing value on culture that is human, bacterial, and agrarian. The Tomme de Semmancheri may not be a typical tomme product, but like the Savoie, it represents a dynamic process of flavours that are rooted in geography and the land.

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