This cheese stands alone

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					E X PAT B U S I N E S S

This cheese
stands alone
In a land already chock full of fine cheese, English expat Michael Jones set out on
an ambitious business venture to introduce a few more. And while delivering British
farmhouse cheese to the international community in Switzerland, he’s not only
restoring Britain’s battered cheese reputation, but also converting the Swiss into
British cheese enthusiasts.

Michael Jones, slicing up some British farmhouse cheese samples, at The Cheese Club’s Fine Food Emporium.

42     swiss news ⏐ january 2009
                                                                                                        E X PAT B U S I N E S S

By Cassandra Petrakis Zwahlen | “We start-     Character assassination                        cheddar – was fittingly referred to as The
ed off targeting the English expat com-        Jones decided to import his passion for        National Cheese. “That’s where we got
munity [as a customer base],” says the         “real” cheese to Switzerland after meeting     this bad reputation,” he says.
47-year-old. “But during the year … we         his now business partner, and Swiss girl-           Many mainstream British cheeses
suddenly realised the Swiss absolutely         friend – even though his professional          have only marginally improved since the
love British cheese.”                          background was in graphics and photogra-       end of the war. The big factories outfitted
    The venture, dubbed The Cheese             phy and not remotely related to food.          to serve the wartime government are still
Club, was so successful in its first year as       So what, exactly, is his definition of     churning out much of the same, in bulk.
an online cheese counter, that Jones and       “real” cheese?                                 Jones dismisses it, saying, “That’s not real
his Swiss partner – who prefers to stay            “Cheese has to have a connection with      cheese. It’s cheese [only] in the loosest
out of the spotlight – were able to open       the land,” he explains, likening it to wine.   sense.”
a physical location in Thalwil exactly         A Bordeaux isn’t a real Bordeaux if the             Cheese, like fine wine, should be
one year later. Called The Cheese Club’s       grapes are grown in Australia and the          made in the same neighbourhood the
Fine Food Emporium, the storefront             wine is aged in Poland, and only bottled in    cows graze, he explains. Such cheese ex-
opened in the fall of 2008 and is branch-      Bordeaux, he illustrates.                      ists; it just isn’t well known or widely dis-
ing out into other things British. In addi-        British cheese ceased being real during    tributed. The Cheese Club is doing its
tion to cheese, customers can buy im-          World War II, when the government ap-          best to change that.
ported specialty teas, gourmet chutneys        propriated and consolidated the country’s
and even locally brewed traditional            cheese-making industry to maximise pro-        Restoring reputations
British ale.                                   duction and oversee rationing, he says.        And whereas the soil that produces
    The focus, however, remains on             Overnight, 1,500 British cheese-makers         grapes is largely responsible for the
“British farmhouse cheese from small           were out of business.                          flavour of a wine, the quality of grass a
producers and small dairies,” he stress-           “That killed British cheese,” says         cow eats is largely responsible for the
es. Indeed, Jones himself hand-selects         Jones.                                         flavour of cheese. For example, the cows
most of the offerings, many of which are           The resulting mass-produced, taste-        on Scotland’s Isle of Mull that dine on
organic or unpasteurised.                      less matter – designed to resemble bland       barley as well as grass are responsible for

                                                                                                             swiss news ⏐ january 2009

cheddar cheese that whispers of whiskey.        Fan base and the future                        cows,” he grins. He tells me about one of
And then there are the lush meadows in          Now, Swiss customers make up about 20          his favourite farms to visit, Sparkenhoe
Ireland’s County Cork, fragrant with            per cent of The Cheese Club’s base. Jones’     Farm in Leicestershire where they make
thyme, marjoram and parsley.                    goal is to hike that figure up to 50 per       Red Leicester, a traditional British cheese
    “You close your eyes, and it’s very         cent, and he’s confident it will happen in     full of nutty and citrus flavours that was
sweet … like toffee,” he says, proffering a     the short term. His customer list also         first produced 300 years ago. And yes, the
taste of the Coolea cheese produced             now includes expats from Ireland, New          cows are happy, Jones assures me.
there.                                          Zealand, Australia, Canada, and even                Another of Jones’ short-term goals is
    The creamy marvel melts on my               France.                                        to become a supplier to Swiss retailers,
tongue like sweet butter, infused with a            Though start-up and storefront ex-         restaurants, hotels and delicatessens.
hint of thyme.                                  penses ate up any of The Cheese Club’s         Lest he get bored, Jones also wants to ex-
    The Cheese Club’s selection is fluid.       potential profits, Jones says, “During         pand The Cheese Club’s catering service
With nearly 500 different styles of cheese      2009, we’ll go into profit, I’m sure.”         to more company events and apéros.
in the British Isles, there are 900 different       Thus far, the online shop’s best sellers        Goat and sheep cheeses, gaining in
cheeses to choose from. Naturally, Jones’       have been what Jones calls Tasting Packs.      popularity among expat customers, have
favourite changes every couple of months.       Including a selection of three or four dif-    faced a bit of Swiss resistance, he admits.
At the moment, he’s keen on Harbourne           ferent cheeses, plus bread, crackers or        Yet he’s making progress, he says, relay-
Blue from Devon, a hard, dry blue goat’s        chutney, the packs are designed to high-       ing an exchange he had during a recent
cheese he compares to fresh vanilla ice         light a range of cheeses from one country,     apéro, where The Cheese Club had been
cream.                                          or a certain category of cheese. One,          hired to cater the cheese.
    “It’s probably the most exceptional         called the Cheesemaster’s Selection, in-            Approaching a group of Swiss gentle-
cheese we’ve ever tried,” he says, as I         cludes whichever cheeses make Jones’ list      men with a tray and an offer to try some
lament the fact that it’s also currently        of favourites each month.                      goat cheese, he was rebuffed.
sold out.                                           Considering he and his partner                  “We have so many goats in Switzer-
    There are some shop staples, as well,       picked one of the shakiest financial peri-     land, why would I try English goat
however. They typically include: Crop-          ods to venture into a new business, Jones      cheese?” one said, in dismissal.
well Bishop Organic Blue Stilton (de-           says they haven’t experienced a down-               “Because English goats have a differ-
scribed as creamy, with a “farmy” taste),       turn in buying behaviour. “People always       ent accent, sir,” Jones, not easily deterred,
Shropshire Blue (similar to Stilton but         need to eat … and Swiss people are really      shot back.
with the addition of Annato spice to give       into gourmet, bio and naturally produced            The gentleman not only sampled the
colour), Quicke’s Cheddar (a traditional        food,” he adds.                                cheese, but complimented it as well.
English cheddar) and Appleby’s Cheshire               And, he says, any impact high soft            So bring your taste buds and your
(subtle and clean with notes of savoury         commodity prices may have had on costs         sense of adventure, because there is a
vegetables).                                    has been offset by the favourable ex-          cheese tasting event at The Cheese Club’s
                                                change rate between the British pound          Fine Food Emporium every Saturday
Shocking revelations                            and Swiss franc, thus fostering a friendly     during the shop’s open hours.
Jones initially focused on British, and to      environment for exporting from the UK
a lesser extent American, expat groups          to Switzerland.
as his most likely customer base, relying           Prices run anywhere from SFr 3.50 to
heavily on online expat forums for pro-         SFr 7.90 per 100 grams. Jones says The
motion. Yet it was through English-             Cheese Club’s prices are on average
speaking expat events, like St. Patrick’s       10–20 per cent less than the British farm-
Day parties and the Highland Games              house cheeses offered by Globus and
held in Fehraltorf and St. Ursen last           Coop, because he can order and sell them
summer, that The Cheese Club also de-           in bulk. During our talk, Jones says he’s       Bits and bites
veloped part of its Swiss following.            expecting a cheese delivery weighing in at
    “At first they think it’s a bit of a        close to a ton. It’s near the end of No-        Sign up for The Cheese Club’s newsletter
                                                                                                to find out what’s new, as well as receive
joke,” laughs Jones, of the typical Swiss       vember, and he anticipates the supply will
                                                                                                educational, cheesy tidbits:
reaction to his offers to sample the            be decimated by mid-January.          
goods. But after a taste, they invariably
say one of three things: we had no idea         Accents and taste buds                          You can also register for ‘new cheese alerts’,
you could make cheese in Britain; we            Deciding which cheeses to sell isn’t al-        so that you can be among the first to
                                                                                                sample new arrivals. All cheeses can
had no idea you cared about cheese;             ways easy. It involves research, collabora-     be purchased online, as well as in person.
thank you … it’s a revelation!                  tion with farmers and dairies through his
    One Swiss family, he recalls, was so        membership in the British Specialist            Visit The Fine Food Emporium at
taken with the samples they tried at the        Cheesemakers Association, and of course,        11 Seestrasse, 8800 Thalwil, Canton Zurich.
Fehraltorf Highland Games that they             lots of sampling.                               Check the website for current opening
shelled out SFr 350 for a selection of              Jones also visits many of the farms         times and special events.
cheese to go.                                   and dairies himself. “I even meet the

44      swiss news ⏐ january 2009