Meet The Cheesemakers Of Kashmir

Sampling Gouda, making kalari, and experiencing the mountains with the wandering Gujjars.  
Himalayan Cheese Cheesemakers
Cheesemaker Gulaam Hassan Khatana (right), with helpers Shabbir Ahmed (centre) and Amna Gorshi (left), handle operations at Himalayan Cheese. Photo: Aditya Raghavan

I hurry up the narrow two-lane road, past a long line of idling cars, to see what is causing a traffic jam in a tiny place like Pahalgam. A parade of sheep approach me, shepherd dogs leading, and I scamper out of their way, finding refuge in an alleyway. Two Bakarwal youth steer the sheep into momentary order, allowing me to escape the chaos by ducking into Troutbeat Café a few doors down. Several tourists in the café photograph the bevy of joyful, efficient sheep as they trot purposefully down the street. When I was close to them it seemed more chaotic—sheep climbing over each other, bleating, crying, urinating. From the café it’s a fascinating sight. For this indigenous community of Bakarwal shepherds and their sheep, however, it is just another summer’s day as they walk through Pahalgam to graze at pastures higher up the mountain.

Troutbeat Café exudes the charm of an alpine coffee shop at the cusp of high season; the waitstaff beam broad smiles. Their signature dish is fresh whole trout and I tear through the hot, crispy skin, smacking my lips at the buttery garlic flavour. I can taste the sweetness of the river in the flaky, soft meat. My eyes light up when I stand in front of the restaurant’s glass-fronted fridge a little later. Not for the desserts inside, but because I spot in one corner, a cumin Gouda wheel made by Himalayan Cheese, a dairy brand based in Kashmir. I’d heard about how good this cheesemaker Chris Zandee’s Cheddar and Gouda are, and I’ve come a long way to meet him.

gouda wheels

Chris Zandee and Gulaam Hassan Khatana study the texture and flavour of an ageing wheel of Gouda. Photo: Sajjad Rafeeq

Back home in Edmonton, Canada, where I’ve lived for the last five years, I have become passionately involved with the local Slow Food scene. I’ve always loved cheese, but four years ago I became a cheesemaker when I made my first firm, aged Caerphilly cheese, and realised how rewarding it was to cherish something I had created myself. Through endless hours spent tinkering with recipes, I began to appreciate the delicate, regional, and geographical nuances of Western European cheeses.

In India where I’d lived for most of my life before Edmonton, my exposure to cheese had been limited to paneer. As a cheesemaker now, I’ve begun hearing about the various artisanal cheesemakers in India. Dutchman Chris Zandee’s efforts to create a sustainable, community-minded dairy business in Kashmir, piqued my interest. A long string of emails later, I’ve landed in this noisy, bustling hill station about two hours east of Srinagar. Pahalgam is literally “shepherds’ village,” named so because it is the region where numerous Gujjar and Bakarwal herders practice transhumance, moving their livestock seasonally to richer grazing areas up or down the mountains.

scenery of Pahalgam

The Pahalgam region, picturesquely set by the Lidder River, is home to pastoral nomadic communities of Gujjars and Bakarwals who migrate with their animals. Photo: Anand Purohit/Getty Images

Scheduled to meet Chris only the next day, I decide to spend the day hiking in the region. The locals call this area Mini Switzerland, a moniker to draw in tourists no doubt.

A stiff 90-minute walk uphill brings me to green pastures, snowy mountains, and towering pines, but the fat Brown Swiss cows with large bells, ruminating on a jade carpet are absent. Exploring another less frequented slope leads me to a quiet patch of tall pines, shrubby dandelions, and nettles, and then suddenly, two giant cows and a calf appear. No bells, no glaciers, but there they are, beautiful and free. For the next few hours as I wander along a detour, the forest thickens, the air moistens, the earthy fragrance of pine, wild sage, and wet grass intensifies. I see the Lidder River carving its way through Pahalgam in the afternoon sun. At one point, I meet village children holding out sedated white rabbits, as a bizarre tourist prop for photographs, the only disturbing sight on an otherwise wonderful afternoon.

cheesemaker chris zandee

Zandee has created a sustainable, community-minded dairy business over the last several years. Photo: Sajjad Rafeeq

Chris Zandee, who runs Himalayan Cheese, procures milk from a pool of 150 Gujjar vendors, semi-nomadic pastoralists who rear dairy cattle. His operation is a barebones but stunning setup in Langanbal Village, close to Pahalgam. The tall gent originally from the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands, has spent the last seven years developing a dairy network. By raising the price of milk to respectable levels, he has economically empowered the Gujjars who otherwise depend on rice loans to run their winter pantry. Chris is genuinely enthusiastic about the trickling connections made by operating a fair-trade food industry. He has also helped the local Gujjars increase milk production during winter lulls, and maintain herd hygiene.

Near the Himalayan Cheese “factory”, I stare at cornfields and the rushing Lidder River. Under the canopy of a broad walnut tree, Chris and I speak about milk, the producers, the terrain, and the terroir, but conversation quickly turns to more philosophical matters about life.

What I had initially thought was a one-man operation, is in fact a three-person job handled by a trio of Gujjars working under Chris’s supervision. Among them, is Gulaam Hassan Khatana, a lanky man with gentle eyes, who is assisted by Shabbir Ahmed and Amna Gorshi. Together they produce hundreds of kilos of artisanal cheese each year.

using a cheese harp

Khatana carefully cuts curds with a cheese harp while making Cheddar. Photo: Sajjad Rafeeq

Until I came here and noticed that Himalayan Cheese sells it, I hadn’t heard of kalari or maish krej, a traditional cheese made by Kashmir’s Gujjars. Some people call it Kashmiri mozzarella. Intrigued by this indigenous cheese, I enlist Khatana’s help to cobble together a trek which I hope will allow me a peek into the Gujjar way of life and the making of kalari. I set out for a two-day trek to Draydaar, along the banks of the Lidder where numerous Gujjar families live during the summer.

Our small troupe also includes Manzoor, Khatana’s talkative nephew, who has just completed his tenth grade, and Nizaqat, Khatana’s son, a quiet seven-year-old who expertly steers the horses that carry our supplies. He also efficiently sets up the tent at night, and makes sure everything is in order.

The two-day hike from Aru Valley has me spellbound. Aru, situated about 12 kilometres upstream from Pahalgam is the last point of vehicular access. The Lidder River winds its way through a confluence of two ranges of snow-capped mountains, expanses of green curtains tightly draping their slopes. Occasionally, a thriving patch of wild flowers intercepts this scenery with blotches of yellow, pink, and white. After clearing the tree line, we arrive at rolling hills of green, dotted with flocks of sheep, cows, and buffaloes chomping on the herbage, and horses wandering languidly. We are in Gujjar territory. Every gentle hillock is occupied by a family, and each is crowned with a wide log house that blends in with the rocky background of the mountains. I feel as if reality has been suspended, as if I am the only human on Earth and am able to roam this land freely. In these few otherworldly moments, I feel like I have experienced the Scottish highlands, the Swiss Alps, the Milford track, the Muir trail all at once. In this emerald terrain, captive of the mighty Himalayas, I both understand why and feel dismayed at the struggles of vested parties to claim ownership of this glorious land.

herds of sheep and goats

The Himalayan town of Pahalgam (left) is a vibrant green in the summer; its meadows naturally landscaped by herds of sheep. Bakarwals steering herds of goats (right) from one pasture to another are a regular sight in the area. Photo: Uniquely India/Getty Images (sheep); Blaine Harrington/Age Fotostock/Dinodia (goats)

We set up camp at night at the very spot Chris had first pitched his tent, in the tradition of the alpine cheese huts of Switzerland, using basic tools and fresh milk from the pastoralists in the neighbouring meadows. Sitting in front of the campfire, I imagine myself, working out of a cheese tent in the mountains and being remarkably happy with everything around me. Coming from the city, where instant gratification is taken for granted, the effort required to simply survive in these parts is profoundly humbling.

Himalayan Cheddar cheese

Manzoor shapes chunks of Himalayan Cheese’s Cheddar with Nizaqat (left) and his other young friends. Photo: Aditya Raghavan

By the campfire, I bring out the wheel of delicious, creamy, farmhouse-like Cheddar I had picked up from Himalayan Cheese. Salty noon tea is consumed. Nizaqat has brought his friends over and everyone samples the cheese on offer. Manzoor, chatty as ever, is quick to correct my Americanised pronunciation of Gouda. It’s ghow-duh, not goo-dah, he says. I grin back, basking in the delightful absurdity of this moment. Here I am, in a Himalayan meadow with children so different from me, speaking a language I can barely understand, sharing notes on artisanal cheese with fellow gourmands. Cheese that is born of the very meadows we stand on. The evening ends with Manzoor performing a song in the gauche dialect of Bakarwals, fellow nomads of the region. The performance might be exaggerated but the camaraderie is real.

Log huts

Log huts are used as winter residence by the Gujjars. In summer, they move to higher altitudes where each family has a summer house that tends to be even more basic. Photo: IP-Zero 03/Indiapicture

Dressed in long, thick, Jedi-like clothing, and flailing sticks with decisiveness, Gujjar young ’uns deftly traverse higher reaches of the mountains with long strides. The men spend days working the land, growing staples. Their evening job is to direct cattle herds back down to their enclosures for the night. Gujjar women work on everything to do with the household as well as on phulkari-style embroidery using yarn spun from sheep. I see these motifs on the men’s hats, women’s dupattas, and on embroidered accessories that adorn the horses travelling with us.

It is a cloudy day when we reach the highland meadow of Draydaar, only a few kilometres away from the Kolahoi glacier. In the kitchen of Ghulam Hassan Kohli, another Gujjar with a similar name, I nearly sear my tongue sipping the steaming noon chai. “Dheere,” Kohli grins, cautioning me to slow down as he brings over two rotis for breakfast. The day-old rotis are made without salt and I eagerly dunk them into my milky tea. The warmth is a blessing on this chilly Himalayan morning with the temperature at about 2°C, even though it’s the month of June. Sitting cross-legged on the cold floor I look across at his wife Niyaji, who is occasionally obscured in a flurry of rising steam or smoke. She is vigorously working the milk in a butter churner-like cylinder with an apparatus I’ve never seen before. Her husband, meanwhile, recounts the early days when Chris first started to buy milk from the Gujjars and produce cheese here.

Niyaji and her family take a mid-morning break in their kitchen (top). Later, freshly made kalari (bottom) is shaped like local bread and set aside to cool off. Photos: Aditya Raghavan

Niyaji and her family take a mid-morning break in their kitchen (top). Later, freshly made kalari (bottom) is shaped like local bread and set aside to cool off. Photos: Aditya Raghavan

Niyaji’s technique has me excited and perplexed. All the cheesemaking I know of begins with the formation of curds, which happens when rennet and microbial cultures are added to milk. What follows, varies according to the type of milk and cheese being produced. When Italian-style mozzarella is being made, for instance, the curd is heated and gently stirred with kid gloves to preserve the structure of the cheese. The Gujjars obviously do things quite differently. I’m taken aback as I watch Niyaji and her daughter vigorously churn the partially skimmed milk with a wooden plunger-like tool. I’m as intrigued by the apparatus as by the method. Her intricately-carved butter-churner is made of wood. At its base is a blackened iron pot. The richly detailed vessel is in stark contrast to their spartan dwelling.

On transferring the curds into an aluminium pot and working it over heat, Niyaji tilts the pot towards me. She is stirring a hot, molten mass of milk solids. I am stupefied. My understanding of the biochemistry of milk is thrown out the window. It looks like stretchy mozzarella curds, ready to be shaped into balls. She takes a blob of hot curd, flattens it out by slapping and flipping it against her palms, the casein network in the milk allowing the curds to stretch out into milk-rotis. Once stretched, the cheese is cooled on the black iron pot of the kalari apparatus.

My mind wanders to ancient Italy where cheesemakers like Niyaji, discovered stretchy curds. Perhaps one of them noted the similarity in structure to bread dough and made balls out of it. And bam! mozzarella was born. Here in a remote Himalayan kitchen, I watch the lady of the house fashioning cheese in the shape of the rotis her family consumes.

I enjoy another cup of noon chai, a staple in these parts, but this time with fresh, moist, and mildly sour kalari. The cheese has a bit of a squeaky bite to it, reminding me of queso Oaxaca, a stretchy cheese from Mexico. Next, Niyaji goes on to prepare qudam, another indigenous cheese of the region, prized for its longer shelf life. Qudam has a more rubbery texture but is also a tad crumbly. It reminds me of Caciocavallo, a dry cheese from southern Italy that translates to “cheese on horseback”. I chuckle when I realise I will carry qudam back with me on a horse’s back.

horses in pahalgam

Horses are essential to the local way of life as most of the region is accessible only on foot or horseback. Photo: Partha Pal/Getty Images

On the trek back to Pahalgam, I marvel at the beauty of this land, and the incredible exposure to a unique way of life that I’ve just had. As the sky darkens over our camp, I stare at the faint outline of the Lidder, thinking about the many avatars of the river I have encountered on this short journey. Pale blue waters near the Kolahoi Glacier, milky rapids and mini-waterfalls in the Aru Valley, and its fullest expanse in Pahalgam. And through milk—from noon chai to kalari, to Chris’s exquisite six-month-aged Cheddar—I have experienced a fragment of Kashmir’s cuisine, and broken cheese with its wonderful people.

Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Breaking Cheese”.


    Aditya Raghavan is a physicist turned cheesemaker whose passions include food, libations, and travel. He divides his time between Canada and India.

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