He is the only priest I have met to hand me a business card. But then Father Michael K L is also an entrepreneur, with a variety of mouth-watering products to his credit. The fresh Italian cheese he churns out every day from Gualbert Bhavan, the Vallombrosan Benedectine monastery in K R Puram, is lapped up by restaurants in the city and outside, with the Leela Palace in Bangalore, the Taj President in Mumbai and The Trident in Kochi as part of his regular clientele. But how did a monk become the go-to man for cheese?
Primarily because of the Benedectine order’s motto of ora et labora, “prayer and work”, says Father Michael, whose forbidding bearded countenance relaxes when he begins talking. The 39-year-old native of Kottayam in Kerala, one of 10 siblings, became the first member of the order in India in 1988, and to complete his training he was sent to Italy. “Once I returned to Bangalore in 2000,” he says, “the big question was what to do to become a financially self-sufficient monastery because that was an imperative.” Many of the monasteries in Italy made wine and liqueur, but he felt that would not be viewed as a respectable occupation for monks in India. An Italian businessman who exports rosaries from India suggested cheese-making, pointing out that there was no good mozzarella, made from buffalo milk, in India. The idea appealed to Father Michael, who had picked up the process in Italy, and felt it was suitable artisanal work.
The company was registered in 2004 and the machinery imported from Italy (“second-hand, to reduce investment”), and by 2005 it was making 25-30 kg of mozzarella and ricotta every day. Buffalo milk was brought every day from Hosur, a town on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, and the cheese was made in a building right next to the monastery.
To get his first customers, Father Michael admits, he took a shot in the dark. “I went online and searched for Italian restaurants in Bangalore, chose one that was not too far off, and asked them to try my cheese,” he says with a smile.
But it was not that simple, says Manjit Singh, chef of the popular Italian eatery Herbs and Spice, the first customer. “When he called, we didn’t take him seriously.” It took a mutual acquaintance who was a supplier to the restaurant to convince Singh to try the cheese. Once he had tasted it, there was no room for doubt. “The product was fantastic. I haven’t had cheese of this quality in India,” says Singh, who has been a regular customer since, and has also helped market it by generously spreading the word. All the marketing so far has been word-of-mouth.
The fact that he was a priest eased the way for him to learn to make cheese in Italy, says Father Michael. He went to Italy for another two months in 2006 when he expanded his repertoire to include parmesan, mascarpone and feta. “Luckily, the abbot of our monastery was acquainted with the owners of the cheese factories and assured them that we would not use the knowledge for commercial purposes,” says the priest, who for this reason has to turn down, almost every day, requests to teach people how to make these cheeses.
One colleague helps him in his work and, with the assistance of a couple of hired workers, the K R Puram monastery produces about 95 kg of cheese a day, which is sold to restaurants and a few retailers in the city. Apart from the cheese varieties mentioned above, the monastery also makes bocconcini, caciotta and pecorino (feta and pecorino are made from goat’s milk and the rest from buffalo milk). There are no plans to scale up production, because the current output earns the monastery — which currently houses three priests and 20 students — enough for its upkeep. “We thought of starting a similar unit in Kerala, but the tropical climate turned out to be unsuitable,” says Father Michael.
Since cheese-making is a hands-on job, it also ties one down, the priest says. “You have to be present during the processing and when it has finally matured. You can’t rush off to do something else in between.” After our walk through the cheese-making unit, he lets us sample the superb bocconcini. Then he takes a call from a catering institute, which is asking whether its students may visit the premises. The next day, a crew from the BBC World news television channel is expected. Evidently, people can’t get enough of the monk who makes cheese.