Tell us some background about yourself?
Premier Cheese is the story of two people, myself and my business partner Amnon Paldi. We met around twelve years ago and, finding that we had a natural shared enthusiasm for cheese, decided to launch Premier Cheese at the end of 1998, sourcing, maturing and supplying cheese to the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Amnon and I launched Premier Cheese with the two central principles of providing a quality product and service to our clients. We have never been producers of cheese but consider ourselves ambassadors, representing the many small farmhouse and artisan producers that are creating some extraordinary products that might not otherwise reach the consumer.
Originally, Premier Cheese sold exclusively to restaurants (including a number of the UK’s Michelin starred establishments) and we received a great deal of feedback from restaurant goers asking where they could buy our cheeses. Amnon and I gave a great deal of thought to how we could meet this demand, and in 2007 decided to open our first retail outlet, La Cave á Fromage in South Kensington, London.
The objective of La Cave á Fromage is to bring the very best quality French and British cheeses to consumers in a relaxed environment via our knowledgeable team.
To give a little perspective, artisan cheese constitutes just 4% of the market in France, with the remainder being industrially mass produced cheese. We believe the taste difference and overall quality of artisan cheeses is far superior and it is this knowledge and passion that we share with our customers every day.
How is cheese produced and matured?
The most critical and essential thing to understand is that good cheese has to come from good milk; good milk comes from the right animals; the right animals have to enjoy the right farming. The recipe is simple: it typically requires milk, salt and a natural enzyme called rennet that grows naturally in the stomach of calves. The process of making cheese is very fast, taking between 24 and 48 hours.
A cheese’s identity is based on how and where it is produced, and the type of milk that is used. This can be more specific than simply what animal – be it cow, ewe or goat – that the milk comes from. Comte, for example, can only be called Comte if it is made from one or two particular types of cow’s milk, and just like wine, the terroir (the geography, soils and climate) of where a cheese is made is very important.
Maturing cheese is where the vast majority of the flavour comes from and many producers will have secret processes for adding depth, complexity and character to their cheese. Like wine, it is “the man who maketh the cheese” – great grapes in the hands of a poor producer will result in inferior wine!
Epoisses, for example, is brushed (commonly known as washed) with Marc de Bourgogne (a Pomace brandy) during the maturing process. This is what gives the cheese its distinctive strong flavour.
What are your favourites and what are the fine dining favourites?
It is difficult to name favourites because a person’s tastes and emotions change over time, so I tend to find people do not have absolute favourites – it’s like asking someone what their favourite music is. Having said that, Comte is the best selling cheese in France and is very popular with our customers.
We are seeing more and more demand for British Cheeses, and we are lucky in that we have sourced some of the finest farmhouse cheeses available in Britain. These are fantastic cheeses, and are very different from cheeses from France, for example, as they are produced using different techniques in completely different terroir.
While Britain does not enjoy the same level of cultural heritage in artisan cheese production as France, the quality really is breathtaking and Britain quite rightly celebrates this during ‘British Cheese Week’ that takes place 26 September-4 October each year.
What is the difference between pasturised and unpasturised cheese?
To create a pasturised cheese, the milk is heated to around 78 degrees Celsius for approximately ten seconds to kill off as much bacteria in the milk as possible.
Bacteria provides a great deal of the depth of flavour, complexity and character to a cheese, so an unpasturised cheese will have a very different taste and texture to a cheese made from pasturised milk.
In terms of health and safety, regulations have changed significantly over the years. The making of unpasturised cheese is monitored to ensure it is handled and managed correctly from the dairy right through to the restaurant cheese board, and there are at least four separate independent testing and monitoring procedures that take place between production and consumption.
Have changing EU Health and Safety Regulations impacted the restaurant cheese board?
No, not really because all the appropriate measures are taken to ensure that the cheese meets the end consumer in ideal condition.
These days, restaurants might stock slightly fewer cheeses but will change those they do have more regularly. This is less for health and safety reasons and more to offer the best quality, seasonal cheeses to their customers.
What trends have you noticed in the marketplace?
A lot more British cheese! Eight years ago, British cheese made up just 12% of our turnover and we stocked around ten different types of cheese from the UK. Today, 55% of our turnover is from British cheese.
This change is owing to the incredible development of the artisan cheese industry in Britain, and we now have access to far more cheeses of fantastic quality. Consumer awareness has also played an important role, and thanks to the work of farmers, chefs and industry associations, consumers are far more knowledgeable and interested in learning more about the cheeses they are buying and eating.
What condiments work particularly well with cheese?
In France it is traditional to eat cheese before dessert, and eat it either on its own or maybe with bread. It is more a British phenomenon to eat cheese with fruit, celery or something sweet. Anything that works as a combination for people is to be respected – we have even experimented pairing cheese with things as diverse as chocolate and tea!
What is your cheese academy?
We have decided to pass on our knowledge and passion to our clients and customers. We have created a cheese academy and currently offer a level one course, explaining how cheese is made, the different varieties of cheese available, how to store cheese and how to serve and sell it.
We hope to start a level two course in the beginning of 2010. This will be a two or three day course for a dedicated cheese expert working front of house, which will include cheese and wine matching. We are working on creating a badge or some kind of tangible proof of their knowledge for successful candidates – like the bunch of grapes awarded to sommeliers.
Tell us about La Cave á Fromage?
La Cave á Fromage is our outlet for consumers, located in South Kensington, although I suspect there may be opportunities to expand in London in the future. The shop is a bright and airy space, with tables where people can come and enjoy some cheese, wine and bread. Today, we had three generations of the same family sitting at one of our tables enjoying some of our seasonal cheeses.
Our philosophy is to have an open, friendly and consultative style. There is no counter at La Cave á Fromage. Todd Bridge, the manager, will talk to the customers to understand their needs and perhaps offer them a tasting, imparting his knowledge to help them find the right cheeses and discover new varieties. We also advise on some creative cheese and wine pairing – we have a small select stock of wines at reasonable prices that we have found match our cheeses very well.
We are very proud of the level of customer service we provide, which as I said at the very beginning is one of the key principles of Premier Cheese and La Cave á Fromage.