Move over Niligiri tea, Niligiri cheese is the current flavour of the quiet, blue hills. After Ooty and Kodaikanal cheese, the latest hill station to make cheese news is Coonoor.
The tucked-away town unexpectedly held new meaning when a department store salesperson in Bedford, Upper Coonoor, asked whether I needed ‘hard or soft cheese’. Standard grocery shops don’t usually offer such options. A little probing revealed two local brands, Grays Hill and Acres Wild, offering quite a variety - Colby, Gouda, Gruyère, Camembert, Havarti, Monterey Jack, Parmesan, etc, all splendidly packaged.
I’m always sniffing around for fresh and natural-rind cheese, a subject of many a discussion courtesy my grandfather, a dairy specialist. I’ve relished his numerous cheese tales, the most delicious being those about his official bungalows with cellars full of cheese and I’ve always rued the fact that I wasn’t around then.
Coonoor provided an opportunity to make amends and I arrived at the residence of Shernaz Sethna, the force behind Grays Hill. Gouda was on her schedule that day and she passionately took me through its stages; painstakingly curdling the milk, cutting the curds, separating whey, putting the stuff in moulds and applying weight. Temperature and timing are paramount in cheese preparation so she needed to shift gears and wax some Gouda that had aged in her meat safe. I realised tasting and talking cheese was a far easier option!
Shernaz, though, enjoys the entire process from making to packing. “The satisfying feature is doing it professionally from the home kitchen. Even the herbs are from my garden,” she says. Her delectable cheese often leads to impromptu visitors like me and she’s gracious in welcoming “people who hear of Grays Hill and want to come by. They of course get to taste whatever I have available at that time along with a cheesy chat!” That’s precisely what I indulged in later over tea, crackers and subtly flavoured assorted soft cheese, with Shernaz and husband Homi. How did she settle on the brand name? “I wanted something I could relate to. After endless permutations I felt what better than your own home? So Grays Hill it was to be,” she smiles. It isn’t limited to that. The logo on the label is a sketch of her lovely house.
Acres Wild cheese, too, shares its name with the farm where it’s prepared. It’s also widely known as ‘Tina’s cheese’, a compliment to someone who started on a modest scale. It all began in 2006 when Tina Fonseca and her husband Mansoor Khan decided to move from the bustle of Bombay to the quiet of Coonoor. “The farm is largely our effort to shape a self-sustaining, organic lifestyle — to whatever degree that’s possible. So initially we kept cows for fertiliser, so came the milk and now the cheese,” says Mansoor, reflecting on a way of life far removed from his days under the arc lights. Yes, you do know him, as a film director who’s tasted success with blockbusters like QSQT, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander and as co-producer of the latest hit Jaane Tu...
But today he would rather be associated with the Acres Wild concept of farming and its cheese which has built up a reputation with connoisseurs. The couple zealously logs in all experiences on their website which has become an interactive platform for those with similar interests.
Only select stores in Coonoor, Ooty and Coimbatore retail the two brands. Largely self-taught, both Shernaz and Tina, constantly better their skills. The result is a cheese that’s a must-buy on your next trip to the Nilgiris.
Shernaz Sethna: West Croft, Gray’s Hill, Next to Sim’s Park, Coonoor; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tina & Mansoor Khan: No 1 Tiger Hill, Coonoor, Farm Address: 571, Upper Meanjee Estate, Kannimariamman Kovil Street, Coonoor; www.acres-wild.com