A question I regularly get asked when I am in the UK is ‘do the Chinese eat cheese?’ and my answer is always ‘not really’. This is because many Chinese are lactose intolerant, and dairy produce does not feature in traditional Chinese foods, although there are one or two regional exceptions where a type of cheese is made and eaten after cooking.
The cheese that is available at the big supermarkets and in shops which cater for foreigners is limited – vacuum packed blocks of cheddar-type cheeses, feta, and halloumi (all of which are made in, and imported from, either Australia or the US) as well as one or two European cheeses such as Parmesan, Emmental or Gouda; they are all factory produced and whilst ok for cooking they are not exactly what you would put on a cheese board. Being imported they are also extremely expensive.
Having some cheese and fruit with a glass of wine at the end of a meal has always been one of life’s pleasures, and how we missed it when we first arrived. Then, just over a year ago, I heard of Le Fromager de Pekin and tracked down some of his wares – hooray! cheese was back on our menu!
Le Fromager de Pekin is a man called Liu Yang, and how he came to be making cheese in a small shop in the Huilongguan district of Beijing is quite a tale.
In 2001 Liu Yang went to study management at the University of the Auvergne which is in the city of Clermont-Ferrand (in the center of France). To welcome the fifty new students from China, the University laid on a ‘Welcome’ buffet dinner and it included various cheeses. Liu Yang had never eaten cheese before, but he tried them all and for him it was an epiphany – there and then he fell in love with cheese. Eventually he moved to Corsica for two years to complete his studies, and a neighbouring farmer who made his own cheese inspired him to join a local agricultural college for an intensive 4 month course in cheesemaking after he had finished his degree. Needless to say he was the only Chinese person on the course!
In 2007 he returned to China and a few months later decided to try making and selling cheese. After persuading his new wife to support his idea, he set about experimenting with different types of cheese. Because he was not making cheese on a dairy farm he was buying the milk he needed in cartons from a local supermarket. By 2008 he was confident enough to hold a cheese tasting at the French Cultural Center in Beijing, and finally in 2009 he opened his shop in Huilongguan.
Le Fromager de Pekin’s first, and best-selling cheese (and my favourite) is Gris de Beijing
which is half-way between a Camembert and a St Marcellin, and is covered in cracked black pepper, it is absolutely delicious; the other cheeses are Tome de Beijing, Buchette, another camembert-style cheese covered in herbs called Flavour of Provence and Beijing Bleu. He also produces Crottin (large and small)for which he uses goats milk, fromage frais and crème fraîche.
He aims to produce “a taste of France, away from France” and he certainly succeeds, there are now a few places in downtown Beijing which sell his cheeses, including one of the booths in the market I go to every week; and now several of the top French restaurants here serve them too – including the Michelin starred Maison Boulud.
If you are really lazy you can order on-line and every Wednesday your cheese will be delivered to your door. Needless to say most of his customers are ex-pats but some Chinese are beginning to enjoy his cheeses, particularly the mini-Crottins.
The pasteurised milk he uses is supplied by Wondermilk, an American owned company who have a big dairy farm of 7000 cows one hour east of Beijing.
Last week I attended a talk at The Bookworm and Liu Yang was one of the speakers – it was great to meet him in person and chat about his passion for cheese, and I was really grateful that I had learnt French as he spoke little English and my rudimentary Chinese was hardly sufficient for asking questions about the milk he uses, and how his business is going. He was amused when I told him that when I buy his cheese I have to wrap it in something to hide it from the DH who might well guzzle it all before I planned to serve it!