Chennai: The train carries this precious load of fragrant butter, coming from green pastures dominated by herds of herbivores including goats, sheep and buffaloes of Uthukuli, a taluk headquarters in Erode district of Tamil Nadu.
The train travels daily from Erode to Chennai central station. From here it is collected by the various retailers, who sell this either as butter or as ghee. In fact there was this only shop in Mylapore which was selling Uthukuli butter and ghee in the whole of Madras. Now there are a few more shops doing the same, though Saravanan warns that not everybody who offers Uthukuli butter outside on the board, is selling the same.
Ganapathy’s Butter and Ghee store is in a small lane off one of the Mada streets of the old and ancient Kapaleeswarar temple. Mylapore is at the heart of all that is quintessentially Chennai and the Ganapathy’s Butter and Ghee selling the fragrant Uthukuli butter and ghee became a landmark.
The shop continues to stand in the same place, a little bit modernised and better stocked than earlier days, with a lot more goodies. But you get the feeling of familiarity when you see the steady stream of buyers, considering that this shop has stood for seven decades. While it does speak of the age of the shop, there are now three generations of people who walk in, smile, call out by name and buy one or two things and return.
The shop was started by S. Ganapathy Pillai in 1942 and then they would sell butter and ghee and applams. “We continue to make our own ghee,” says grandson S. Saravanan, who along with his wife Sasikala and brother continue to look after the shop with great pleasure. He understands the historical aspect of the place, apart from continuing with a tradition thus keeping Chennaiites happy.
While the family continues to live on Adam street, earlier on they used to have 60 cows and they were into milk supply and curds. “There were no other players or packaged players. Certain people would make applams for us since this was a Brahmin locality,” says Saravanan. The shop is on Chitrakulam West street, near the ancient Kesava Perumal temple. It is close to South Mada Street and near the another ancient temple of Kapaleeswarar and Vallishwarar temple.
Getting directions are not difficult, even if you are near the Mylapore tank. But the streets are narrow, congested with shops all over the place, selling everything that you might need. In fact outside this ghee and butter shop is a small vegetable market with two and three wheelers whizzing buy, while four wheelers slow down a tad, because of all the turns and twists of the lanes.
G. Sankaran, S. Ganapathy's son, continues to be the proprietor, as the eldest son of the family and expanded the business by adding pickles to the list of items available then. “During Appa’s time, he would deliver milk, ghee, butter on his cycle” says Saravanan and adds that “I have been visiting the shop since my school days, let us say 1994-95,” with a smile.
Though there might have been a decline in the milk, butter and ghee business because of private players, Saravanan says, “Our business has improved and we are looking to expand,” adding “We have now a trademark and are registered as Mylapore Ganapathy’s.”
They now have 25 varieties of podis or powders to be eaten with rice. These are made of dals, leaves and various other things. Then there are a variety of ‘vadaams’ made from different pulses, which have to be deep fried and sometimes stand in good stead for a vegetable curry and 25 varieties of pickles, made of mangoes, lime and various other items. They are also thinking of a farm at Thingulur in Tirupur district near Uthukuli and Saravanan says “It will be an overnight journey.”
There is a comfort in coming to this shop, where the smell of butter along with the wafts of other spices, jaggery and something fried is dominating. It actually smells like the storeroom of your grandfather's house. Saravanan says that the same dairy merchant has been continuing to do business with them since his grandfather’s time and so the flavour of the butter and the ghee has not changed.
The making of ghee (clarified butter) from butter is a laborious process and takes close to three hours to make. “Earlier the ghee would be made in the store and this was like a strategy where we could attract the people to the shop,” says Saravanan. He is quick to add that they might continue this tradition and make ghee right in the shop at the next place they plan to set up. While the butter is being hand churned, “We make ghee the way you would do it at home. It is turned into ghee in brass vessels and 60 kgs of butter converts into 45 kg of ghee,” he adds. This is all done at their residence on Adam Street. But even Saravanan rues that “we do not get the smell anymore.”
He is also trying to move with the times which means stocking what people want, like organic stuff which would include wood pressed oil made at their Salem unit and where they use wood of the ‘vagai maram’ or commonly known as East Indian walnut. There is also groundnut oil and gingely with karupatti vellam or palm jaggery and virgin coconut oil. “There is a demand with people asking for these products and with my brother back we are trying to bring back the old times,” says Saravanan, who is now in expansion mode with his brother, Balaji, who was into banking. Balaji has quit banking and is focusing on online for the shop, home delivery and focusing on the second store.
While many think of Uthukuli as only cow ghee, Ganapathy’s is famous for its buffalo ghee also. The store gets about 30 kg of butter each day and of this only one fourth is cow butter. According to Saravanan, the flavour of the ghee made from the buffalo is better, and the ghee is also thicker since the fat content here is little higher.
“We owe our gratitude to our repeat patrons, most of whom have been our clients for several decades for three generations. They know that we believe in quality and that is why they continue to come to us,” says Saravanan.
Meanwhile Ayurveda is back in fashion, and it had always advised ghee in peoples’ diets and according to the good books cow ghee is more nutritious with more carotene and vitamins, while buffalo ghee has more fat, protein and calcium. And apart from those who come to the shop there are also those who are strict followers of this fragrant unguent and some have referred to the Uthukuli ghee as liquid gold....