Every time I walk into my kitchen, I can feel my mother’s watchful eyes at the back of my head and hear her slow, laboured instructions on how to prepare a cheese sandwich. I stay in Mumbai, and she lives 1,400 kilometres away in Delhi. Growing up, my cousins and I were rarely allowed to set foot into the kitchen by our paranoid parents. But as we became older, they accorded us a small privilege—we were allowed to toast Amul cheese sandwiches over the stove on winter evenings. My cousins and I would huddle together, gently prise open the hot crust, and marvel at the (strictly rationed) gooey magma stretching between the slices of bread.
Summer evenings were different. A short distance from my school in Pusa Road is the Talkatora Stadium where I started swim training when I was about seven. A bunch of us would be carted there straight after classes for the 4-o’-clock shift. I remember very few details from those afternoons spent in a heat-induced stupor, splashing half-heartedly around the pool’s shallow end. What I do recall clearly are the hissy fits I threw a few times, complaining about how hungry I was by the time I returned home after a long day. I managed to convince my mother to pack a thick chunk carved from our tin of Amul cheese for a post-swim snack. Naturally, I still returned home hungry every evening, as I would be nibbling on the treat before I even got to school in the morning.
I often longed for the simple comforts of those summer mornings in the intervening years, especially when I imposed a series of unscientific dietary restrictions on myself in a bid to lose weight. Every time I ordered a Caesar salad for dinner, the Parmesan shavings would be carefully sequestered to one side of the plate, where they’d remain uneaten. Thankfully, those neurotic days are behind me. As I took more interest in cooking, I also started compulsively reading about the nutritive values of my food, and how it was produced. A few months ago, after accidentally making paneer from a vessel full of boiling milk, I started wondering about how cheese was made and processed.
So I thought it might be fun to travel to the source—and simultaneously delve deeper into my cheesy memories—by visiting the Amul plant in Gujarat to witness the process from cow to table. While Amul’s milk- and butter-processing units are located at Anand, the company produces cheese at Khatraj, about 45 kilometres to the north.
I arrived at Anand a little after noon on a warm October afternoon. A sizeable avian population hangs around Amul’s sprawling campus, which appears to be half the town. Peacocks and egrets strut about its manicured lawns, framed by fragrant frangipani trees. There’s a little memorial to Dr. Verghese Kurien, who spearheaded India’s White Revolution, in the form of a miniature maze pool, and an awards gallery that extends over four rooms. My attention is drawn to a quaint, but anomalous little hut, and Varsha, the employee who is showing me around, says it is an exact replica of the garage Kurien first stayed in when he came to the area in the early 1940s. While unlocking the door to the awards gallery, she rattles off figures and dates with practised ease—“Amul works with 1,206 villages in Gujarat;” “In the summer we produce 17 lakh litres of milk, in the winter, 22 lakh;” “The Amul logo used to be four linked hands that symbolise the farmer, Amul employees, GCMMF, and consumers.” She is due to take a group of schoolchildren from Pune around the milk-processing unit, later in the day.
But my mind is set on cheese, not milk, so I skip that tour to head towards Khatraj. Cruising along a dusty highway, the chatty taxi driver urges me to go to Manek Chowk in Ahmedabad later in the evening. He also lets me in on a Gujarati custom. Apparently, you must eat a cube of cheese with every glass of alcohol you imbibe else your liver will go bust. I’m tickled pink by this not-so-secret ritual observed in a dry state. But later, I begin to wonder if there’s some truth to it. After all, my nights of revelry in Mumbai have often ended at Amar Juice Centre in Vile Parle, where everything—including the bhelpuri, vada pao, and grilled cheese sandwich—is garnished with a prodigious shaving of Amul pasteurised processed Cheddar cheese.
Even though the company has been producing cheese since 1964, the Khatraj factory was commissioned only in 1996. We reach the unit in an hour. The grey blocks in front of me, spread over an expanse of green, house the cooperative’s Cheddar, mozzarella, paneer, and whey-drying operations. A posse of five managers leads me through the almost entirely mechanised plant, volleying more facts and figures at me. I stand awe-struck by the giant mazes of tubing and steel vats bearing forbidding labels like “bactofuge”.
After raw milk is pasteurised and separated, it is channelled to different units, the largest of which is processed Cheddar. Microbial rennet is introduced into these large barrels, but you can’t see the milk curdling because the machines are about the size of two Mumbai apartment buildings. Soon, blocks of raw Cheddar pop out onto a perforated conveyor belt that drains away any excess water. I pick up a piece to taste, and its bitter, unpleasant aftertaste is the exact opposite of my sweet remembrances. My first memory of a cheese-topped pizza is from the sunny interiors of Nirula’s—which introduced Indian-style Western fast food to Dilliwalas of my generation. The Karol Bagh branch that my mother and I frequented, made a cracking pepper sausage pizza. At that time, the sausage was not chicken, the pie crust was not thin, and if you felt that the coat of elastic cheese (most likely Amul) wasn’t thick enough, you could send it back for repairs.
The pizza was always the highlight of an afternoon that ended with a sugar rush. Around the time that I was probably six, the restaurant chain had launched a neat “scholar’s award” scheme, where any student who could show a report card with A+ grades could avail of a free triple sundae. I’d always exchange mine for a hot chocolate fudge sundae, and struggling with that huge dessert under my mum’s indulgent eye became a family ritual. Back then, I thought this grades-for-ice cream economy would last a lifetime, but I’ve long since run out of A+ report cards.
In the Amul factory, I am jolted out of my reverie by a large thud. The blocks of raw Cheddar are being taken in a handcart to another part of the factory, where they will be salted, vacuum-packed, and marked to be stored and ripened for 1-6 months. The manager tells me that the storage ops are staffed almost entirely by women, who are kitted out in blue saris, surgical gloves, and cloth caps. They are happy to linger and chat, even in the freezing temperatures inside, but the manager is eager to show me the processing and packaging unit, located across the corridor from the storage facility. I am grateful for this opportunity to thaw and follow him gladly.
From the outside, the processing unit looks like an illustration of molecular geometry. The moment I enter, however, an acrid odour, much like burning milk, assails my nostrils. One of the officials catches me grimacing, and points to a contrivance where the cheese is being melted. On one side, cheese blocks of different ages are getting demolished and blended in what looks like a mini concrete mixer. This is mixed with additives and emulsifiers and heated until it’s nearly liquid. Then, flowing like lava in tubes that criss-cross the room, it pours into another vat, where it begins to settle. Nose to a tiny window, I spy it molten like fondue, and find myself wishing I had a fork, cubed bread, and boiled potatoes handy. After the cheese cools and thickens, it is moulded and cubed. I am transfixed by the conveyor belt that is spewing out a part of my childhood wrapped in shiny aluminium foil.
I could spend my time just watching it go, but I am being hurried to the smaller, partly mechanised mozzarella operation, and after that to the paneer unit, which I am nasally aware of, even 100 metres away. Before we can enter, I’m asked to step on a cool gadget that automatically shrinkwraps my shoes. It’s arctic inside, and the limp cotton mask I am wearing, offers scant protection against the smells swirling about. Are the odours making me light-headed, or is it the information and numbers? The manager tells me that these men and women and their machines, working day and night, produce nearly 45 metric tonnes of cheese every day. “We aim to produce 60 metric tonnes by next year,” he calls, as he waves me out to my taxi. I cannot process either of these gigantic figures, especially when I think of the precious 400-gm Cheddar tin that my cousins and I would try to make last.
The taxi heads out towards Ahmedabad, over another dusty road lined by mofussil shopping complexes. I decline the driver’s entreaties to take me to Manek Chowk which promises to be several Amar Juice Centres on a single street, and settle instead, for a light dinner at the pol-style haveli where I’m spending the night. Once there, I call for some hot tea and “plain toast, without any butter.” The tea is perfect, and my “plain toast”? Slathered with a comforting layer of Amul pepper cheese spread.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Coming of Age”.
Karanjeet Kaur was formerly Chief Senior Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes stumbling through small towns and is the last person to board the plane. She will always pick the mountains over the beach. She tweets as @kaju_katri.