FOOD A French family that made Puducherry their home started Mango Hill as a resort. But it’s acquired a name for its handmade cheeses
“It’s a story of four guys.” Languid pause. We watch the swimming pool for a while. Listen to a family of sun-bronzed tourists order camembert with their croissants. Take a thoughtful sip of cappuccino. Max Laederich leans back with a satisfied sigh. Mango Hill has that effect. Perhaps it’s triggered by the property’s proximity to Auroville. It makes you want to slow down. And in the case of these four guys, settle down.
Oliver Laederich started it all. “Ten years back, Oliver came here. He was an architect — an expert at building swimming pools. He was my granduncle,” says Max. “In the Sixties, everyone in France was travelling the world around. It was after the Cold War, a big revolution. Oliver was part of that wave. He worked many jobs. He’s an electrician, a cook. He can make cured meats. In Paris, he used to smoke fish.” Max adds with a laugh, “And that was really strange then. You could even say freaky.” Thoughtful pause. “Ya. You can say that about him. Freaky. He won’t mind at all.”
After travelling the world, Oliver ended up in Auroville, to visit friends. “He found an old house here. Then decided to renovate it, make it a hotel.” Max’s father Arnaud was then running a furniture company in Paris. Tempted by Oliver’s tales of India, he followed him to India. And his two sons moved. “My brother and I — we came here three years back. The first time we came, it was more for a holiday. Then, we decided to come here and help with running Mango Hill since we had some experience with the hospitality industry. My brother was a bartender in France. Although I have a journalism degree, I’ve never really used it. Instead I cooked in restaurant kitchens. Nothing fancy. Food like fish and chips. I also did some bar tending.”
Determined to make Mango Hill more than just a resort, the family decided to dabble in cheese. They began by contacting the local farmers, and experimenting with simple recipes inspired by La Ferme. (Auroville’s La Ferme started to develop hand-made cheeses in 1988. Today, it’s a successful company, with around 25 professional cheesemakers from Italy and Holland making 100 kilos of cheese in ten varieties every day.) Mango Hill, situated just outside Auroville, is a much smaller organisation. With just four staff, including Max, they’re still learning the ropes. Especially when it comes to logistics.
A feisty project
The cheese can be unpredictable as a result. Given how tough it is to maintain the cold chain, especially with two-hour power cuts in Chennai, it doesn’t always survive the cellar-to-plate journey intact. Nevertheless, Mango Hill Cheese is a feisty project, tirelessly working on improvement. And it’s just a question of time before they become a force to reckon with in the gourmet food arena. That’s because they’re determined to keep it small, traditional and handmade.
“We tie up with the local farmers. We have a milkman who picks up the milk from each of them. In one year, we want to start producing our own milk. We make just two varieties a day. Ten varieties in all,” says Max. “We’re slowly planning to increase production… Right now, we use about 200 litres of milk a day. That’s not much at all. It makes about 2 big wheels a day: About 6 to 10 kg of cheese.” (In comparison the ‘Kodai Cheese’ company, which started in the early 70s, has a throughput of 15,000 litres of milk, and manufactures approximately 500 tonnes of cheese a year.)
While the Mango Hill Cheese may not be able to compete with a good French cheese yet, Max insists that it’s still one of the best local cheeses you can find. “Besides, most of the five star hotels are importing camembert in a can. They’re using cheaper brands of cheese… brands we haven’t even heard of in France. I’d rather eat our cheese. It has more character.”
Marion, his newest cheesemaker, agrees. She’s learned how to make cheese in France. “This is very different because we do all the manual work by hand. Press it, cut it... We make it over a fire, instead of using electricity — because that’s too expensive.” She adds, “It’s aged in our own cellars. But, of course, it will taste different from the cheese in France. The cows are different, their diet is different…”
Their mission statement is to do the best they can, given their resources. “There’s quality and quantity,” says Max. “We bet on quality. We don’t want to lose that.”