In true hippie spirit Hampi Wuthrich roamed the world and then came to Manali to call it his home. And now he lives here, happily making cheese, says MANGAL DALAL
Hampi Wuthrich is a regular Doctor Dolittle; his tally of animals is an approximate of 10 dogs, 6 cats, 8 ducks, 2 deers and 12 rabbits. And around 50 cows, of which around 15 currently provide fresh milk to him daily. While he is an avid storyteller and pet collector, we pay him a visit in Manali because he is one of only a handful of non-pasteurised cheese makers in India. India as a nation worships cows and consumes milk and milk products, but bizarrely isn’t very good at making cheese. Paneer, the often-quoted Indian cheese, is a soft, pressed cheese that is consumed fresh and cannot be stored.
Other manufacturers such as Amul and Britannia produce pasteurised cheese which Wuthrich thinks is too straightforward, with an air of contempt he uses for anyone who takes the easy route. “The difference is similar to that between art and simply following instructions,” thinks Wuthrich. Pasteurised milk is artificially treated and hence kills some bacteria in the milk – thus making the cheese more standardised and easy to produce. “A real cheese eater will avoid pasteurised cheeses as the natural bacteria contributes to the flavour of the cheese and additionally raw milk cheeses get better as they age,” explains Wuthrich.
Using raw milk is challenging because there are multiple factors such as weather conditions and acidity in the milk which often leads to a failed product. Humidity is a key factor – if the cheese gets too dry the rind (outer skin-like layer) cracks and if it is too moist the bacterial activity makes the cheese go bad. For Wuthrich, the learning process has been fairly recent and still at times subject to trial and error. He started making cheese around four years ago, although he did learn cheese making as a teenager in Switzerland. In typical hippie spirit, he lived a nomadic life, moving to Afghanistan for several years until the war with Russia, and then moved to Manali which has been his home for the past 32 years.
While Manali is roughly suitable to cheese making, the climate, particularly in the monsoons, makes it a struggle to perfect the process.
The first step in making medium/hard cheeses, though, is to collect the raw milk in a rather large pot and warm it to around 30 degrees Celsius. The “starter” is added; starter essentially gives the cheese its flavour. Here, Wuthrich uses artificial starters which are dried bacteria in a powder form that are available in vials. “One can use natural starters such as cheese water, yogurt or even milk kept for a few days, but it is very difficult to figure out the exact dosage and more often than not leads to wastage,” reasons Wuthrich. Even with artificial starters, he has learnt to use only 1/10th of the recommended dosage as the acidity in the raw milk is too high.
The next step is to add Rennet and let it act for around a half hour. Rennet, available primarily in liquid form, is a coagulation agent that is naturally produced in the stomachs of calves as a by-product of digesting milk. Once the milk coagulates, it is then turned over using a large ladle and then slowly re-heated and stirred for around 40 minutes up to an hour (a process called burning). The temperature used during burning depends on the desired cheese; for soft-medium cheeses around 38-40 degrees should suffice, and up to 45 degrees for hard cheeses. The contents of the entire pot are poured through a cloth to get rid of the cheese water, and then pressed in a special container which allows one to use weights. After this, the container is turned around and pressed again 5 times until the end of the day, thus ensuring that whatever water there is, is completely squeezed out.
The cheese is stored overnight in heavily salt water and then kept on a normal table indoors until it hardens on the outside, thus forming the rind. The surface is cleaned with a cheesecloth and very old cheese water in order to ensure that the rind stays moist and does not crack. It is then stored in a cellar until it develops flavour and is ready for consumption; for soft cheeses this could take 3-4 weeks, for medium cheeses 6-12 months, and for hard cheeses 2-3 years. For example, parmesan takes at least 3 years to mature. The storage of cheese is tricky, as it needs to be stored in a cool, dark and sufficiently moist place – ideally 70-80 percent humidity. If there is too much bacteria, the cheese swells up and loses its shape.
There are, of course, other kinds of cheese such as soft cheeses and cream cheeses; the difference is essentially in the percentage of moisture retained while making the cheese. Softer cheeses, of course, mature quicker and subsequently are more delicate. Soft cheeses do not need to be burned or pressed and sets in special containers giving it shape while allowing excess moisture to drain.
Cheese making, like almost anything else, is ultimately a process. It does, however, have uncontrollable factors – even the fodder given to the cattle affects the milk and therefore the cheese. Using different starters and rennet produces different results, along with climatic conditions making consistency difficult. It is, therefore, in some ways an art; but yet in others it is merely procedure. Wuthrich produces small quantities with great care and effort, and it isn’t surprising that in Mumbai the Four Seasons and Novotel hotels are amongst his clients. The biggest, problem with working on a small scale, is of course transport – the cheese has to be kept cool, dry and away from sunlight. So, for now, you’ll just have to visit his shop in the old Manali market (next to the bridge) to try out some of his fantastic cheeses.