Locally-available cheese in Sri Lanka has long been restricted to Kotmale and its imported jovial bovine counterpart, Happy Cow. Over the last year or so, however, there's been a new player in the high stakes cheese world. Meet Maia Cheese, a company that started up in Goa and has now shimmied down to Colombo's Central Province.
The two owner-partners decided to open up a manufacturing outlet in Sri Lanka, which is currently based in Madipola, Matale, where they provide steady incomes to local farmers and workers. Their aim is to dish out European-style artisanal cheese at reasonable prices - which they're doing admirably.
The most exciting feature of the cheese is how cheap it is! You're paying between Rs. 200-400 for around 100 g. They're packaged in blocks/balls of roughly 100 grams each (it varies slightly), and vacuum-packed into little plastic bags. I don't love the packaging, as it's not really good for gifting or the environment, but it's practical and cheap and I can't think of a feasible alternative for them to use especially with delivery and storage issues. They've got a full selection of a dozen or so cheeses, from fresh and smoked mozzarella to feta, brie (although they mysteriously spell it bree), and blue cheese. Check out their online brochure for a complete list.
The website wasn't clear about whether they use animal-origin rennet or vegetable rennet so I contacted them directly and learned that they use vegetable rennet rather than cultures, and they also don't use any colour additives or preservatives. This makes it vegetarian-friendly and also a lot more fresh and healthy!
I picked up some Blue Cheese at Rs. 216 for 90 grams, Smoked Mozzarella at Rs. 326 for 170 grams, and Maia Jano at Rs. 390 for 130 grams. Their website says they also have a halloumi (which I love grilling as a snack!) but I unfortunately haven't been able to get my hands on it yet.
The blue was a fairly soft, crumbly, lightly smelling block, with very minimal spots or veins. I made a vague attempt at a cheese plate with stuff I had lying around the house (no walnuts sadly), like raisins, pumpkin seeds, and a cinnamon-apple preserve. The cheese didn't have that overwhelmingly sharp smell or taste that a traditional blue does, it was a lot gentler and less veined. Still, it made for a good appetizer and went well with the preserve. At Rs. 200 odd, I wouldn't think twice before buying this again!
The smoked mozzarella was very hard, much harder than any I've tried before. It did have that salty tang and chewiness you'd expect from a fresh mozzarella ball, but also had this incredibly rich, strong smoke aroma that reminded me distinctly of cured ham. I didn't appreciate the cheese as much at room temperature on its own, but I'd imagine it's superb in a caprese salad or melted lightly with meats or pizza.
The Maia Jano is in the style of a Parmigiano-Reggiano, and matured for a couple of months. I've actually tried cooking with this one before, shaved over a plate of steaming hot aglio e olio. I also tried it last night to make my carbonara sauce, and it melted beautifully into the dish without much resistance, helping to create that creamy texture and flavour that can't quite be duplicated with fresh cream. This is a perfect ingredient for your Italian-at-home date nights, although the flavour is marginally less piquant than a DOP parmesan.
You can either pick up a variety from the Good Market Shop on Reid Avenue (which is what I did), or order online for delivery. According to the site, you'll generally get your order within 1-2 days, which is great.
Cheese, locally sourced, with ethical labour practices, vegetable rennet, and cheap prices? That's the dream. I wouldn't compare these cheeses to the family-produced blobs of heaven I've tried in tiny villages in Europe, but it's a far cry better than mass-produced commercial cheese slices or paying over Rs.1000 a pop for imported varieties. At this price point, Maia Cheese has our allegiance!
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