ISLAMABAD: I knocked on the gate of a guesthouse in the G-6 sector of Islamabad. After what turned into rapping and thumping, the gatekeeper approached leisurely, finally opening the door. “I am here for cheese,” I said, and he beckoned me to enter. Inside, I met the cheesemaker.
It is through such encounters that Pakistan’s affluent gain and trade in knowledge on where to get the best of something ‘over here’. I remember a baker who made delicious dinner rolls in Karachi’s now half-demolished Metropole Hotel. Imran Saleh, the founder of Farmer’s Cheese, falls into this category of secret food purveyors. He travels from Lahore to Islamabad and Karachi and with the assistance of two business partners; he sells cheese to small businesses, urban food snobs and foreign diplomats. Fascinated by his story I travelled to Lahore to find out more.
“Everything changed a decade ago,” said Mr Saleh. He was running a trading company supplying air ducts to textile plants. “I had a pipe supplier and one day some big guns came and started buying out all the pipes so I was left with no supplier,” he recalled. “So I decided to make a machine [to make pipes] myself, even though I am not an engineer.”
Trying to build an industrial-grade pipe-making machine turned out to be a frustrating challenge that took over three years to materialise. Around the same time, Mr Saleh saw a television programme about cheesemaking: “I decided to try it out as a hobby,” he explained.
It was love at first knead. Like all passionate affairs, there were complications and accidents, but this only made the cheese better. “I used to follow the recipes but the cheese was not good,” he said.
“One day I had an accident…it helped me understand that there is more to making cheese than what is in the recipe,” he added.
Mr Saleh started in his own home kitchen — where he took me and showed off his professional pizza oven — and later moved operations to a small storage space in the backyard.
Mr Saleh had not yet explored cheesemaking as a business venture — what he produced was eaten at home and used on pizzas he made when hosting friends and family. Things changed when he was invited to open a stall at a Lahore farmers’ market.
The result surprised him: “Whatever I had made, I took it over there and it was sold within a couple hours so that was very encouraging,” he said. It was after this success that he decided to expand his workspace to a commercial site in Lahore’s Valencia Town.
“But even at that time I was not thinking of it as a business but more as doing something that people are appreciating and also because I enjoyed it,” he added.
Just as Mr Saleh’s cheesemaking was coming together, the pipe-making machine he built also turned into a success. His business has since grown and he now exports industrial-grade pipes to the Middle East out of a small room next to his cheese shop.
Working with his hands and building everything from scratch seems to be a theme with Mr Saleh: “I made the equipment myself,” he says, pointing to the cheesemaking vats in his production room. “It’s customised and I am thinking of making professional equipment for other cheesemakers.”
Mr Saleh would love to see cheese become his only business. “That is the goal. This is my passion, so the quality is very important. It’s not just a business for me,” he said.
It is a dream he only thought possible two years ago. “I was selling cheese in Islamabad for the first time at Gia’s Deli,” he recalled. “In one day, right before my eyes, all the cheese was sold. That’s when I knew that this was possible,” he added.
What would it feel like to be able to do what one loves for a living, I ask him: “This is everything,” he responds. “It is what you live for.”
Today, mistakes and accidents still happen and Mr Saleh stresses that they can be very costly. “I am making cheese in such large quantities so a lot of milk is lost if we make any mistakes.” But he also insists that these are still learning experiences. “One client of mine asked me to make buratta which is mozzarella with cream in the centre,” he says.
“It used to burst in my hand…. In the time it took to make two kilogrammes of buratta, I could make 100kg of mozzarella,” he added.
But Mr Saleh persisted and continued making burratta, even after his client stopped ordering it. “Now I make a very good buratta,” he said with a proud smile on his face.
So what does the future hold for Farmer’s Cheese? “I would like to open production centres in Islamabad and Karachi.” But he is careful to stress that these facilities would only make mozzarella, focusing on one product and doing that well.
“The hard cheese I will make myself in Lahore,” he added. Despite the inclination to grow his business, Mr Saleh’s passion will always stay close to home.
Originally published in Dawn, August 17th, 2016