My nephew was six when he received the first whiff of a peachy odour, later identified to him as Parmesan cheese. A gift from a “foreign returned” relative, the cheese by the time it came home had got slightly rancid. But all the same, he gobbled it up with relish.

There was never a dull moment thereafter and he started ferreting out large chunks of cheese and butter from sundry fridges without as much as a whey and what-for. Unlike Miss Tuffet he squirreled off some to his room and hid in various closets, under the stairs, in the attic and satisfied his desires.

He was always preceded by a familiar odour and whoever was in the immediate vicinity would throw open the windows to let in fresh air. His vocabulary included everything on milk, yeast, bacteria, curd and other dairy produce and his geography encompassed all the varieties of cows and the countries rearing them.

The thing that did puzzle him immensely was why cheese had those holes in them.

Some time later I had an opportunity to go to the city of Ahmedabad. My aunt with remarkable
foresight handcuffed me to this smelly relative. After reaching Ahmedabad, I found myself escorting my nephew to a ‘milkhaus’.

The story of Gujarat’s milkhauses is an interesting one. Locally-bred cows, Murrahs and Surtis vied with the international Holsteins and Freisans, to yield rich milk here. Gujarat became the one state in India where the supply of milk actually outdid the demand for it.

Say Cheese!
Say Cheese! [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
To keep the farmers and dairymen from drowning in a sea of milk, a bright spark came to the rescue with a brilliant idea: that of starting milk co-operatives. These co-operatives, handled the sale of milk and dairy products for the farmers, buying it wholesale and milking the products elsewhere.

We drove down to one such model dairy unit on a bright and sunny day. The sprawling campus looked like a brochure advertisement for one of the rich Universities in the good old US of A.

Perhaps it was the wrong address. But no, we were told it was the campus for a management school run by the Board. This cow campus had city-bred students lazily walking up or down.

We were told the school was hoping that these students would later join hands with rural India and help uplift them – perhaps by starting chicken cooperatives, piggery farms, wheat cooperatives etc. We were met by a natty looking cowman wearing a grey (banker’s) suit who escorted us to the farm house.

“A typical Gujarati dairy”, he intoned with a phoney accent, a prelude probably to a job in the West not, mind you, the wild west – maybe sunny California?

“Note the barn, the cowery and our processing plant,” he continued in a nasal tone. We duly noted.

The place was divided into neat cow-stalls. Each stall had an overhead tube hanging with an automatic milk sucker attached. Muslin curtains that were pristine white, doubled as doors and the fodder was neatly arranged before the cows. The floor was waxed and polished to a brilliance that we could have skimmed across.

Moving on through rows and rows of curd kneaders the cowpoke pushed a hidden switch and with a gentle hum a huge basin started rotating and nearly snapped my arm off as I was leaning on it. “This is our curdling trough,” he said, just in case I thought it was for some unsavoury cause.

We walked past whey extractors and cheese processors with my nephew nodding his head sagely. Finally we came to a small cozy cafeteria. I ordered a plate of cheese balls (what else?) with a glass of lassi (sweetened curd) – the other option being milk – as my nephew asked the 64 million dollar question that must have preyed on his mind all day:

“Why does cheese have those holes in them” he asked. “And what does happen to those little round missing pieces?” Before our guide could think of a suitable reply we were interrupted by the arrival of the waiter. Distracted by the food, he inquired, “What are these? ”

“Cheese balls”, I replied. “Oh! he exclaimed, overcome by the gravity of the answer. “Just as I thought! So that’s what they do with those missing pieces!”

We grazed our way through the meal after that.