Coffee Gets Cheesy in Chennai
As I walked into Käse’s artisanal cheese-making factory, the bustle in the air was palpable. A large steel pot of milk sat bubbling on the gas and a lady stacked blocks of muslin-wrapped goodness into a makeshift cheese cave. Namrata Sundaresan, one of Käse’s founders, was chatting with a customer who’d travelled from the other end of the city for a taste of locally-made cheddar and gouda. They were joined by Namrata’s ten-year-old niece, and Divya Jayashankar, founder of Beachville Coffee Roasters, a specialty micro-roaster.
It was my third visit to the 1,000 square-feet facility since Käse (rhymes with “laser”) took Chennai by storm in 2016. My first two visits were entirely about cheese: Namrata and her business partner Anuradha Krishnamoorthy talked me through the cheese-making process, from sourcing fresh cow and buffalo milk to coming up with quirky flavours like milagaipodi-crusted young cheddar or honey-stewed apricot ricotta.
This time, however, I wasn’t there just for cheese. With Divya and Namrata to guide me, I was there to experience another novelty – pairing cheese with coffee.
A Natural Pair
The first time I had a taste of caffeine, I was just shy of three, my mother tells me, though I do not remember my great-grandmother sneaking me my baptising sip. My predilection for cheese developed much later in life, at about eight, when I had it in pasta at a relative’s place. In all these years, I would’ve never imagined them together!
It’s not an absurd combination, Namrata assured me. She likened it to wine; just as wine’s tannin content, which helps discern separate flavours, makes it a perfect conduit for cheese-tasting, coffee has the naturally-occurring textural element too. “While wines have about 500 flavour characters, coffee has about a 1000,” Namrata chuckled. “When you pair coffee and cheese, it is quite a revelation.”
While conversing about the similarities between wine-and coffee-cheese pairing, Namrata rustled up a platter of different kinds of ricotta, cheddar and black jack. Simultaneously, Divya brewed the first pot of coffee for the three-course pairing with seven kinds of cheese.
Divya explained that to balance out flavours, she starts with a low-acid coffee and takes it from there, pairing amild cheese with a mild brew and stronger ones with more acidic beverages. Most of her specialty beans come from higher-altitude estates in Chikmagalur or Yercaud.
Swirl, Smell, Slurp
The first drink was a medium-dark roast espresso blend, served in a white Käsemug plastered with a caricature of a cow. Namrata set out a bowl with water and three spoons. “Swirl, smell and slurp,” she said, “and then bite into cheese.” I followed her lead, dunking my spoon in and raising the brown liquid up to my nose for a whiff. It smelled of raw earth. After slurping my first spoonful, I bit into a little pinkish clump of soft, creamy rose-and-honey ricotta. It melted on my tongue. “Now try the coffee again,” Divya urged.
I repeated the three S’s once more, and finally it began to make sense.
The caffeine blended with the lingering sweetnessof the cheese, and I was suddenly reminded of the comfort of eating dark chocolate ona Friday night. Namrata asked me if I could taste some tobacco, which my imbecile taste buds failed to detect.
Next, we tried the coffee with a herbaceous European-style cottage cheese. It was coarser and I could taste a certain smokiness, or maybe nuttiness. Maybe it was completely psychological; I couldn’t tell for certain. It’s a unique experience for every palate, Namrata said.
The mid-course was a more deep-bodied, acidic coffee from Nachammai Estate. Paired with gouda and young cheddar, this was supposed to elicit floral notes on my tongue, but I could only relate it with a tart, dry red wine. Divya assured me I wasn’t too far off the mark.
Before the final course, I cleansed my palate with a swig of water. A vibrant Kelagur Heights Geisha Arabica coffee awaited me; even before I took a sip, I could feel it on my nose.
The black jack coated with peppercorn and cacao nibs was my favourite of the last three cheeses. It was piquant and peppery on my palate— perfect for a cold-night bonfire, I thought. I was surprised by a honeyed undertone that the coffee brought out. Divya said she could taste passionfruit. The final cheese was a mature cheddar wrapped in an edible grape-leaf rind. Washed down with the Geisha,it left a zingy, fruity aftertaste.
Forty-five minutes, three coffees and seven cheeses later, I figured I’d learned everything I could about coffee and cheese pairing. But then Namrata mentioned that Käse does tea and cheese tastings as well! Guess what I plan to do next weekend?