The European country of Portugal and Bandel, the beautiful town of Bengal, is separated by continents but is united by their gourmet taste. Hereby, introducing the Bandel Cheese, craft cheese connects the historical European food legacy to the roots of medieval Bengal.
Numerous European traders have visited the area of the current state of West Bengal for many centuries. In the 15th century, Vasco da Gama was the first Portuguese to visit India. Almost a century later, the Portuguese settlements came up along the rivers, and the area around present-day Hooghly turned into a Portuguese stronghold. The name Bandel itself is probably from the local word ‘bondor,’ which translates to port in English. By 1599, the Portuguese built one of the oldest churches – the Basilica of the Holy Rosary. More famously known as the Bandel Church.
One such legacy is Bandel Cheese, named after the colonization by the Portuguese. However, they never established a stronghold settlement once the British came to its shore. Nevertheless, they did enrich the land and taught cheese-making, which has survived over centuries despite all odds.
Traditionally, orthodox Hindus considered split milk as taboo and unholy. Handheld by the Portuguese, the local population learned the art of cheese making. Firstly, cheese is made by separating the curd from whey with lemon juice. Secondly, cheese is shaped in circular perforated pots. Finally, salt is the only preservative, so it is intensely salty and prolongs shelf life.
However, it took the Portuguese some time to realize that they did not last very long on their own. Therefore, smoked small round balls for flavors and extend shelf life for long sea voyages. Additionally, a group of chefs from Chittagong who worked as cooks in these ships, also known as ‘mog’ cooks, found it of great value and carried it along.
Bandel Cheese is dry and crumbly. Also, it is highly smoky and aromatic. Aside, salt is the only preservative, so it is intensely salty. Further, soak in freshwater overnight, making sure to make it is bit creamy and hydrated. Additionally, it helps to get rid of the excess salt. Clearly, the consistency is similar to feta. Best to sprinkle on salads or cook with pasta or risotto.
Personally, Bandel Cheese makes for a perfect bar or evening snack for its salty flavors and underlying smokiness. The cheese does not melt in the heat. Sorry to disappoint if you are a fan of pizza-style molten cheese.
GI Tag and Future
For obtaining the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Bandel Cheese, the Department of Food Technology at Jadavpur University met with the last few people making Bandel Cheese. I believe the researchers are trying to understand and analyze the cheese-making process. Hence, to explore the scientific option for packaging and exporting Bandel Cheese. Therefore, a GI tag will recognize its unique taste and history and exponentially increase its marketability.
Curse of Pandemic
Bandel Cheese production felt the brunt of the lockdown and pandemic and indefinite closure of shops. Hence the demand went down. Therefore the existing stockpiled up and expired. The pandemic reduced cheese production by 70%.
The production of this iconic cheese has shifted from Bandel to Tarakeshwar and Bishnupur. In Kolkata, Bandel Cheese is not available in hyper malls and niche cheese counters. In New Market, J. Johnson and Mallick & Sons, two stores sell Bandel Cheese for generations.
Small disc shape molds are available in two varieties, cream-white color plain and brown color smoked. For a long time, moderately price small cheese discs were at INR 8 per piece. However, post-pandemic, the price has escalated to INR 12 per piece.
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