In February this year, Parsi media like JamEJamshed , Parsiana and Parsi Times carried a simple advertisement put out by one of the partners of Parsi Dairy Farm. On a milk bottle, bold letters stated, ‘100 years of legacy laced with sweetness’. That was the only real acknowledgement of Parsi Dairy Farm turning 100. Thanks to ongoing differences among its eight partners — family inheritors of the legacy of founder Nariman Ardeshir — this Mumbai icon is keeping a low profile.
Whatever the conflict between the owners, the flagship store, established in 1916 on Mumbai's Princess Street near Marine Lines, continues to attract its loyalists, who keep going back for the creamy malai kulfi, thick and flavourful sweet curd, melt-in-your-mouth milk cakes and mawa ni macchi, and the milk drops that are a class apart from any toffees you may have tasted.
The family says that the exact founding date is unknown, but when they registered the trademark, they went with January 1, 1916. The story started some years before, though.
Nariman Ardeshir Hoyvoy (the family drops the last name when referring to him) was born into a poor family, and he lived with his two sisters near the Dhobi Talao area. A Jesuit priest who often met the mischievous boy on the streets was struck by his intelligence and convinced the principal of the St. Xavier’s School to admit the boy for free education. “We were told that he was a fast learner and a very good observer,” says his grandson Urvaksh Hoyvoy, 53. “When he was in Class 5, he observed how the parents of school children would walk all the way to a nearby market to buy books and other stationery. He then decided to do the leg work and sell the stationery to the parents with a small margin that would go to the school.”
The stationery shop boomed, and the young entrepreneur looked around for more opportunity. He got a job in a cold drink shop nearby to earn some pocket money. One day, family legend goes, a customer raved about the richness of a milk drink there; another customer retorted, “It is a Parsi shop. There is no milawat [dilution].” Young Nariman knew that people trusted Parsis, and if he sold an undiluted product, it would be a hit. That became his business strategy.
He started his own business simply: he stood on the footpath on Princess Street, selling milk he sourced from tabela s [cattle sheds] in the jungles of Jogeshwari. He would sell up to 40 litres of milk a day. Within six months he was doing well enough to buy a shop near his pavement beat and opened Parsi Dairy Farm in 1916. Frequented mostly by Gujaratis, the dairy controlled more than 30 per cent of the area’s milk market, at its peak. The young man swiftly diversified, making paneer, dahi and ghee as well, and he also bought a few buffalos and stables in Jogeshwari. “The ghee he sold became a very big product. There were hundreds of customers who only preferred his ghee for religious rituals,” Mr. Hoyvoy says.
Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana , says that the milk bottles from Aarey were frowned upon by Parsis, who felt that the milk lacked the richness Parsi Dairy Farm's milk gave them. Milk deliverymen running from house to house early every morning through summers, winters and monsoons regardless of bandhs and strikes are, he says, “as much part of old Bombay as the Gothic structures and Art Deco buildings.” Mr Patel remembers, “Parsi Dairy Farm milkmen in khaki shorts and blue shirts coming to the house at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. were a part of many Parsi household traditions. The women normally woke up at that time, and watched carefully as the foaming white liquid was poured from the large haanda the man carried on his head into a small measuring vessel, then with a handle into the household utensil. The milk was then boiled and left to cool. Before proceeding to school we had to drink a glass. The milk was considered wholesome and nourishing.”
When, in the 1960s, the government ordered all tablela s to be moved out of the growing city, Mr. Ardeshir bought over 300 acres of land in Talasari, north of Bombay. There, the milk was collected and pasteurised and milk products made; these were sent to a smaller finishing unit in the city, and from there to the shop.
The competition from cheaper milk brands has seen sales plummet. In the 1980s, 40,000-odd litres a day would be sold. Today, the figure stands at 2000 litres a day. There have also been other problems, not least the current feud, which family sources say began in 2002. In 2006, the dairy closed for over eight months due to a labour strike, and in 2008, workers again threatened to stop work due to non-payment of dues. Last year, fans were devastated when a national daily reported that it may shut down. Family sources The Hindu spoke to said that at present there were no such plans: “If at all, we are planning to expand.” Since 2002, a family member said, the milk is outsourced and the products are made in a unit behind the dairy, but standards have stayed high, with vigorous checks by quality control managers.
Sarfaraz Irani, Mr. Ardeshir’s great-grandson says confidently, “Our quality is and will remain the best.”
Homiar S, who lives in Australia but travels to Mumbai once a year to be with family, says his stay is never complete without a quick trip to the Parsi Dairy Farm. “I am a huge fan of sweet curd and ras malai. I have been coming here for the past several years whenever I come to the city. The quality has not dropped one bit.”
Madhu Maru’s family swears by the white butter and cow ghee. “The kind of quality is unmatchable. One dollop of this ghee and everything becomes tasty to eat.” She says her six-year-old daughter Harshita loves the pipe jalebi and milk cake.
Ronnie Kohina, who lives on Princess Street has been a regular since he was a child. He says the quintessential Parsi sweets like bundi pan and mawa pan are to die for. "No one can match the taste. They are as good as homemade. My family is also a fan of the cow ghee from the dairy. I don’t remember having any other ghee ever.”