Meat and Greet

August 16, 2011 8:24 am

Vishal Mehra used to describe himself as an acronym: Senior VP of HR at an MNC in London. But a true foodie’s life is never a predictable one: he never knows where his palate will take him. Today, Mehra is a farmer, a professional gourmet and, as of last week, the proprietor of Mumbai’s newest deli, Freeman & Baker.

The story begins when an English colleague of Mehra’s, the lone survivor of a long lineage of yeomen, took him to visit his family farm in Yorkshire. Cheeses were ripening and bacon was curing, to be sold to shops under the name Freeman & Baker. “You have all this and still you’re stuck in stuffy London?” Mehra asked his colleague.

Then, six months ago, Mehra’s phone rang. “What you told me stayed with me,” his colleague said to him. “I want to be a farmer again.” Freeman & Baker, once a family-owned farm, is now an international brand, and Mehra is its first Indian franchisee. He opened the first Freeman & Baker deli in Juhu last week, and plans to launch outlets in Pune and Bangalore within the next month or two.

The Juhu outpost sells a variety of gourmet delicacies as well as sandwiches, quiches and fresh baked goods, but what distinguishes Freeman & Baker from other delis in the city is the meats on offer. Were it all pigs and cows, you could say Mehra was living out a pastoral dream like many other professionals-turned-farmers. Instead, Mehra raises Japanese quail, rabbit, Vietnamese black-meat chicken, and over 300 emu—all on a farm near Karjat.

Black-meat chicken, says Mehra, is “plug-ugly to look at even after it’s cooked,” but “fabulously healthy”. It owes its unusual colour to its high melanin count, explains Mehra who sells emu meat to stores such as HyperCity and Star Bazaar, and to the Bombay Butchers, a group with a specialty shop in Nerul. Mehra compares emu meat to mutton in taste and texture, allowing it to be eaten as a steak, in curry, or in a kebab—but with a fraction of the cholesterol. (For now, I’m taking his word for it; expect a taste test soon.)

He thinks it’s a perfect fit for recent changes in urban eating habits. “People still want to eat what they want to eat, but they want it healthy,” says Mehra who hopes to roll out the exotic offerings within another month, after customers get used to coming in for charcuterie, sliced cheeses and prepared gourmet items. Mehra has made peace with the possibility that his labour of love may reach only a handful of like-minded people. “I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t have a queue outside the store,” he says. “Just five people who salivate at what we’re offering. That would be enough.”