Homemade cheese of Kishoreganj's haor-surrounded upazila Austagram has a niche but loyal market. Famous for its unique flavour, the cheese from Austogram has often found its way to Bangabhaban and Ganabhaban – the official residences of Bangladesh's president and prime minister.
But just like any other businesses, 12 to 15 families who make cheese as part of a legacy are facing Covid challenges. The sales, which amounted to more than Tk1 lakh a day before the pandemic, dipped 25%. Cheese makers are also in crisis of cash and facing limited supply of milk.
With diminishing profits, they feel forced to move to other professions.
It takes 10 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese and the whole process costs Tk550-600. The cheese is then sold at Tk700-750.
Feroz Mia from Madhya Austagram said it was increasingly becoming difficult to do the business that was hardly profitable.
SM Nishan, whose family has been in the business for generations, said he had incurred losses due to the pandemic.
"I used to sell around 15kgs of cheese a day, but now sales have come down to about 10kgs," he said.
Feroz Mia thinks if the situation continues to be this way, businessmen like him may not be able to stick to cheesemaking much longer.
Unique in its flavour and consistency, cheese from Austagram is known as cottage cheese. Paneer is a soft cheese that is white and tastes salty.
In South Asia, paneer was first introduced by the Mughals. Since then, it has become one of the core ingredients in South-Asian cuisine and is an integrated part of the tradition of Austagram.
Cheesemakers from Austagram sell paneer in different parts of the country.
On special occasions, paneer is also supplied to Bangabhaban and Ganabhaban.
Traders believe that Austagram's paneer has huge export potential since the demand for cheese is high abroad, but without adequate government support, the potential will not be explored.
How the paneer is made
The key ingredient of paneer is milk. First, milk is poured into a large cooking pot through a strainer to filter the impurities. Then, vinegar is added to the milk. Then, the milk is covered with a lid and is kept like that for some 30 minutes.
By then, the liquid gets separated into curds and whey. The curds are then cut into pieces, mashed, and squeezed to remove excess water.
Then the paneer is placed into small baskets to remove excess water and when the paneer completely dries out, salt is added as the final touch.
Safeguarding the local business
Local businessmen of Austagram and other stakeholders believe that to expand the business and reach its export potential, the sector is in dire need of adequate capital.
One of them, Selim Reza said that if there were local dairy firms, a steady supply of milk would have been easier to make paneer. But cheesemakers do not have the capital to set up a dairy firm.
"Only government patronage can help this sector flourish," Selim said.
Austagram Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Rafiqul Alam said, "We are aware of the problems of the local cheese makers and we empathize with them. We are already working to find a solution."