Pandemic has seen the return of artisanal organic foods: The Tribune India
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu
I have often traveled the back roads of the Himalayas to source fresh buffalo milk from nomadic Gujjars and watch a dexterous cheese maestro turn it into soft, creamy mozzarella in a matter of hours. Those crack-o’-dawn orders prove just as rewarding as the resulting bocconcini (little balls of mozzarella), tomato and basil salad that seasoned curators conjure up later in the day. Despite this demonstration of will and know-how each time we crave natural and additive-free foods, it is neither possible nor practical for a rapidly growing number of consumers to know the source and the quality of ingredients – grass-fed cattle, artisan cheeses, farm-fresh tomatoes and herbs, in the example above – came to give the gastronomy even more flavor and punch.
This, coupled with a well-informed willingness to pay the expected premium, has seen the demand for small batches of traditionally made foods rise in recent times. It is also evident that the conversations sparked by the pandemic on health and nutrition have firmly put the art back into the craft.
The months of lockdown over the past year have led housewives, home chefs, as well as professionals, to convincingly convert their passion for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle into a well-received business. A trusted customer base was built through word of mouth, a strong online presence, pre-orders and direct-to-home deliveries. While organized online marketplaces like Kaze Living and Sprig have helped smaller craft brands find a platform, this emerging trend has also caught the attention of the physical retail sector.
Significant shelving space can be found dedicated to handmade foods. Sisters Bani Cheema and Sukhmani Cheema Sandhu, both proponents of healthy snacking, have gone a step further by reclaiming a floor of their cafe in Chandigarh to host their craft initiative, Nabobs Homemade. Their limited stock is sourced (some on pre-order) from all over India and includes handmade and organic relishes, jams, honey, cookies, and ghee, among others.
With this former niche market propelled into the limelight by a grateful public, the demand for table and gourmet foods is matched by a remarkable number of newly created micro-kitchens. These kitchens shape all kinds of cheeses, chocolates, breads, fruit jams, drinks, charcuterie, vinegars and oils. Homemade spice blends, condiments and even fresh products have gradually invaded a space which, until a few years ago, was mainly driven by gastronomy. “We produce and transport around 800 kg to one ton of lettuce, green salad, micro-vegetables and herbs to our Delhi-based customers every week,” shares Anubhav Das of Red Otter Farms. Although they predate the pandemic by a few years, their list of subscriptions has grown significantly lately. Resulting from their own desire for clean, contaminant-free greens, their aquaponics facility in Kumaon (Uttarakhand) uses modern techniques, predictive analytics and sustainable practices to fill that gaping void for around 150 customers eager at the moment.
Seeing a lack of quality dairy products when moving to Mohali from Mumbai last year, Preeti Kaur decided to take matters into her own hands. “After months of searching, I finally found a farmer selling pure pasture-fed buffalo milk. Most of them tend to mix it with cow’s milk. Equipped with a good knowledge of the space thanks to her ex-husband’s dairy business, this self-taught cheesemaker began to handcraft mozzarella, malai paneer and ice cream for her personal use. The extras have been shared with friends. As word spread, demand for its 100% natural dairy products grew and the Oye Moo artisanal dairy was born. Its repertoire has since expanded to include burrata (cheese made from mozzarella and cream), fresh butter and lassi, but it still only produces pre-ordered and limited quantities.
Again, when Debarati and Francois Laederich dropped anchor at Mashobra, near Shimla, they weren’t really looking for solutions to existing needs. Rather a change of pace and location after the liquidation of the family hotel business in Pondicherry. “The abundance of cow’s milk and a favorable workshop climate could not be ignored for long. We succumbed,” laughs Debarati. Amiksa Cheese began production in November 2019 with a range of artisan soft, hard, smoked and spreadable cheeses, with Cheddar, Gruyere, Zuri and Borsalino disappearing fastest from the shelves. “On average, we process around 100 liters of milk to produce 10 kg of cheese per day. We work with a group of 15 families from a village just a few kilometers away. This ensures that the unpasteurised milk is the freshest when it reaches us,” says François, who trained in the art of cheese making in Aurillac, France.
In most cases, this trend is driven not so much by business as by a passion for making and eating great food using family recipes and traditional preparation methods. For the fruit-growing regions of Himachal Pradesh, preserves, pickles and juices have long been the natural result of a surplus harvest. Long before farm to fork became a catchphrase, households hand-picked, washed, gelled and bottled produce for personal consumption.
Devanshe and Michael Lidgley, who run a farm in their orchard in Kotkhai, reveal that it wasn’t until customers started showing interest in buying their jams and juices – on a regular basis – that they decided to think seriously about retail. “We are awaiting the necessary licenses and authorizations before offering the products of the Himalayan Orchard to a wider clientele.”
It’s no different in the trans-Himalayas. Letting excess fruit rot was not an option for Kunzes Angmo, founder of Artisanal Alchemy, an organized food initiative in Ladakh. His family’s association with the hospitality industry helped. It provided a ready audience for a significant amount of its canned jarred apricots straight from their orchards in Leh and Nubra. Settling for donating the rest to monasteries or gifting edible souvenirs to friends and family, its recent move into retail is driven by encouragement, and welcomed by consumers’ desire for a return to reality that takes storming the artisanal food space. To ensure consistency of taste, she personally picks, washes and cooks the fruit over a wood fire, one tree at a time.
As nutritious eating habits take hold of the popular imagination, ancient grains are once again taking center stage: amaranth, barley, sorghum, pearl millet or pearl millet have gradually entered our kitchens in one form or other. Ammi’s Essentials, a lock-in result based on Ludhiana, is one such company applying age-old wellness wisdom to their product. They specialize in healthy snack alternatives and, unsurprisingly, amaranth often pops up, tied with jaggery in laddoo form, or as a savory mix infused with kari patta. And while eating well was nothing new to Jasmeet Kukreja’s business home, it was her desire to work with small-scale organic farmers that inspired her to venture into the artisan space.
Namrita Sikka, on the other hand, started developing nutrient-dense recipes for personal use once her son was born. Not wanting to feed her the highly processed imported foods widely available in supermarkets, she opted instead to make her own cookies with quality ingredients. Its limited product line (Hey Grain) includes ragi and oatmeal cookies, seed and bran cookies, besan cookies and tulsi, ginger and honey digestive cookies. The organic ragi and oats are sourced from farms in Haryana as they grow their own wheat.
- Blue Tokai Coffee: It specializes in single-origin coffees in small batches from farms all over India and offer annual coffee subscriptions.
- Flying Squirrel: They source their fresh roasted whole beans and ground coffee – single origin and blends – from plantations in Coorg.
- Anandini Himalaya Tea: Founded by tea sommelier Anamika Singh, it specializes in quality teas and blends with origins from the Kangra Valley.
- Himalayan Cheese: Located in Pahalgam, it was founded by Dutchman Chris Zandee. They source their milk from the Gujjars, whose specialties include Kashmiri gouda cheese and fried kalari cheese.
- Darima Farms: Named after the Uttarakhand village they are located in, they make their range of artisan cheeses from milk sourced directly from local farmers.
- Under The Mango Tree: This is a social enterprise that promotes beekeeping in rural areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka to enable diversified livelihoods and better incomes. They produce pure organic honey with flavors ranging from jamun to eucalyptus.
- Tenacious Bee Collective: Started by a group of honey-loving friends to produce raw, unprocessed Himalayan honey for like-minded people. Based in Kangra, their aim is also to revive the declining bee population of Himachal Pradesh.
- Mountain Muse: Located in Ladakh, they specialize in vegan, gluten-free and refined sugar-free mountain products using reinvented recipes. Think apples from Ladakhi and almond granola from Mamra. Or shade-dried Kashmir lavender.
- Mason & Co: Based in Pondicherry, they are best known for their bean-to-bar artisan chocolates made from finely ground and aged cocoa sourced from the region.
- Donna Pastaia: She’s the confined baby of two passionate home cooks who decided to hand-dry and wrap pasta for an inner circle of friends and family, using quality ingredients and traditional methods .