It's an amusing fantasy to believe that somewhere in the hulking caravans traversing the Silk Road, that ancient network connecting China to the Middle East and Europe, a single piece of cheese was slyly hitching a ride amidst the piles of fabrics, gems and spices that otherwise comprised the bulk of that era's transcontinental trade.
Hundreds of years later, Beijing is still a veritable dairy wasteland. In fact, there's only one true artisan of proper French-style cheese operating at enough of a clip to satisfy the increasingly cosmopolitan flavors of the city's dining scene.
Cheese to the Chinese
"One block of cheese weighs about 150 grams, and in one month I can make 800 to 1,000 blocks," Liu Yang, founder and CEO of Le Fromager de Pekin, told me at his small Huilongguan workshop, the setting for a distinctly non-Chinese kind of alchemy that must look like absolute witchcraft to his neighbors. As expected, Liu doesn't count too many native Chinese among his clients, though his stated success rate at converting Chinese people to the epicurean glory of cheese isn't nearly as bad as one might expect.
"I'd say half the Chinese people that come in here like the cheese after they try it," he said. "Chinese people have an entirely different menu, different preferences - but they're increasingly curious about new flavors."
Liu refutes the common misconception that the higher prevalence of lactose intolerance in the Chinese populace leads to discomfort in eating and digesting cheese.
"Actually, cheese has no lactose," he said. "Instead, the issue is fat - at 20 to 40 percent, it's far too fatty for most Chinese."
Tall and lanky, with a soft, rumbling voice that constantly lapses between French, English and Chinese, Liu spent six years living on the French island of Corsica, studying la fabrication du fromage from his neighbors before returning to Beijing to establish his own shop, which opened in May 2009 and has been gaining a slow but steady drumbeat of publicity over the past several months. Customers can order cheese from his bilingual website, where all prices mentioned (both there and here) are quoted per 100 grams.
"We haven't done lots of marketing, though we'd like to do more," he said. "Our budget is tight enough as it is."
Eating up no small share of that strapped budget is the shop's production apparatus, which Liu says is "just as good as what they use in France" and includes a massive milk-churning machine, industrial-grade ventilation system and exquisitely temperature-controlled walk-in freezer.
"The basic process for making cheese is simple," he said, leading me around his laboratory. "Start with milk, add in some cultivating bacteria and rennet" - the enzyme that breaks milk down into curds and whey - "separate the solids, add salt and spices, and let sit. My softest cheese is a Greek yogurt that takes just a day and a half to ferment, while my hardest cheeses can sit for a good month at least."
Products includes a 'Taste of Provence" cheese (30 yuan), a white cheese in various confits (10 yuan) and a generous "tasting platter" of his confections costing 200 yuan. Liu said that the only difference between his cheese and the golden ingots dot-ting the shelves of French stores from Picardie to Aquitaine is the result of factors beyond his control: "You simply can't get as high-quality milk here - the cows in France eat fresh grass, whereas in China they're eating processed grain."
A unique Chinese taste?
Nevertheless, he claims to be relatively satisfied with his supplier, a company called Wondermilk which totes iself on its website as additive-, hormone- and antibiotic-free and produces milk richer in fat and protein than most standard Chinese milk - 4 and 3 percent respectively, versus 2.2 and 2-percent fat and protein for Chinese milk.
"I eat cheese everyday, constantly tasting to make sure it comes out right," he said, preparing a few choices for us to sample, including his personal favorite, a close relative of Camembert he calls "Beijing Gray," marinated in olive oil and herbs de Provence (30 yuan). Resoundingly savory, with a crumbly, earthier texture than standard Camembert, it's not outlandish to call it a distinctly Chinese cheese, perhaps the first ever. Liu, however, claims to have no interest in changing his recipes to suit his Chinese clients.
"I don't even know what Chinese people would like more, so how can I change my cheese to suit them?" he said. "I'm just trying to fill this niche and create a product you can't find anywhere else in Beijing."
Le Fromager de Pekin
Address: 5A-6 Jindi Market, Longteng Streed, Huilongguan
Website: www.lefromagerdepekin. com/