Those of you that have read Treasure Island by RL Stevenson may remember the character Ben Gunn who had been marooned for three years on the aforementioned island by his crewmates for failing to find the aforementioned treasure. During his isolation he developed an obsession with cheese, and when eventually found by Jim Hawkins he has much to say on matters cheesy.
Whilst my own circumstances here in Pakistan are quite unlike that of Ben Gunn in the matter of cheese, the availability and consumption thereof, Mr Gunn and I have notable similarities when it comes to cheese. Cheese is to be had for sure, but it is for the most part imported and costs the proverbial arm and a leg, notwithstanding which it is purchased by the cartload by foreigners and a scattering of Pakistani cheeseaholics. Just to avoid any misunderstanding — the cheese I am talking about is Danish blue, gouda, brie and cheddar, all strongly flavoured and unlike cheeses produced in Pakistan which tend to be more bland. Or so I thought. Wrong again.
Enter stage left with considerable fanfare — Imran the Cheeseman. It was at one of the discreetly legendary breakfasts hosted by my friend RK that I first made the acquaintance of I- the-C. Rather, I made the acquaintance of his product. For there spread among the many comestibles was a chunk of Bocconcini, another of Taleggio and yet another of what looked and tasted like mature English Cheddar. Urgent inquiry produced the information that these were made in Lahore by I-the-C who had developed his own passion for cheese and had quietly built himself a niche market for his products, all locally sourced and produced.
By now hot on the trail and aided by a Facebook post inquiring about what I mistakenly called ‘niche foods’ because it transpires that as niches go, the niche food market in Pakistan is more of a substantial cavern than a humble niche — I was eventually in touch with I-the-C, who had an interesting tale to tell.
A businessman and trader, he travelled widely in Europe and developed a taste for the diversity of European cheeses, so much so that he wondered about producing his own for family and friends. Making cheese is a complex process that takes years to learn and perfect, and I-the-C duly spent years working at his craft. Rennet had to come from abroad, and he tutored himself through the online community of craft cheese-makers, getting to the point where he was heading up a thriving cottage industry, complete with a distribution network, for a range of cheeses of varying degrees of exoticism. His customers were predominantly Pakistani, not foreigners, and he is on the verge of cheese-making being his primary business with factory premises on the horizon.
Also springing from the FB post came a wealth of detail about a diversity of food products that were non-standard, and the rise and rise of farmers’ markets where organically grown produce is sold direct to the public by the producers. Pakistan and food are synonymous, and it is perhaps unsurprising that this strata made of cheese and some very fancy carrots and jams and chutneys and dried fruits, to say nothing of breads as diverse as any you may find in any French boulangerie — is finding its way on to tables across the country.
Some may pooh-pooh this as ‘Westernisation’ but I see it as diversification. After all, I guess that in the UK in my adult life I never lived more than a 10-minute walk from a restaurant that was owned by Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. I could dine French, German, Spanish and Afghan as well if I wanted. ‘Curry’ — a generic term in this context — has become as much a part of the British way of culinary life as has roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and the country is all the richer for it. Nothing has been lost by the growth of opportunities to eat other than in the Brit mainstream, and nothing will be lost if I-the-C successfully transforms his hobby into a thriving enterprise, and my custom is guaranteed. Now if somebody could just open up a craft bakery here in Bahawalpur… bon-appetite!
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2015.