Buy the world's 'oldest' cheese ... in China

Buy the world's 'oldest' cheese ... in China

This stinky, tangy, 15-year-old, part goats' milk cheese has us wondering about the meaning of dairy in China

Bitto cheeseExtra mature Bitto, sold exclusively in China. Next thing you know, stinky tofu will be sold at taco stands.

After "most skyscrapers in the world" and "world's biggest bottle of cooking oil (nearly five meters tall)," China has another superlative to add to her list. And it is the least likely one of all.

What has been claimed to be the world's oldest piece of edible cheese is currently located in China.

Get this: the owners want to sell this extra old cheese to Chinese people.

For the Chinese, cheese itself does not have a meaning, it’s basically an ingredient of other foods like pizza

The phenomenal "relic" is a 20-kilo cut of Italian alpine cheese called Bitto, produced in 1997 and valued at HK$2,500 (about RMB 2,040) per kilo.

Profood Limited, a Hong Kong importer, got hold of the lot and aims to sell it to consumers and collectors around greater China.

Profood’s 28-year-old manager Ivona Grgan puts it like this: “Our experience is that Chinese people love good food. They like tasting new flavors, especially if we talk about rare and unique products."

Bitto is unique, no doubt about it. It is believed that Bitto was first produced 2,000 years ago, its name coming from an ancient Celtic word meaning “perennial." True to its name, the cheese can mature for upwards of 10 years. 

According to Paolo Ciapparelli, 60-year-old president of the Association of Bitto Producers, some hypotheses credit the cheese’s long life to early processing that begins about 30 minutes after milking, which halts bacterial formation.

The addition of 20 percent goats' milk is said to improve preservation. No scientific consensus has been found yet.

Today, Bitto up to 10 years old is normally sold at cheese auctions around the world, but the 1997 lot is by far the oldest on the market.

Stuff white folks eat

Western cheese is a difficult sell in China. It is more pungent and challenging than any indigenous dairy by-product in China and Bitto, in particular, acquires a tanginess as it ages.

Younger generations are starting to appreciate cheese as part of a general westernization of tastes. In a Chinese family, it is not uncommon that grandma will shun the stinky cheese while their grandchildren clamor for it.

Audrey Zhao, a 26-year-old designer from Shanghai has lived in New Zealand and is quite fond of cheese. 

"It's true, old generations don't traditionally eat cheese," says Zhao. "But the youngsters in the big cities are more internationalized and have grown up with pizza and French cuisine. I think China will become a big cheese market soon."

Market research company Euromonitor shows China’s cheese market doubled from 2005 to 2010 to RMB 916.4 million and is set for robust growth in future years.

However, 61 percent of sales are in spreadable cheese, while in recent years local producers have launched chocolate and strawberry-flavored cheeses with considerable success, showing consumers still prefer mild-tasting dairy.

“For the Chinese, cheese itself does not have a meaning, it’s basically an ingredient of other foods like pizza or cakes -- direct consumption is still very low," argues 34-year-old Guido Kreimer from Saputo, a large-scale importer of cheese to China.

But while this might be a hindrance to selling the 15-year-old, intensely aromatic Bitto, Grgan is confident the legendary story behind the cheese will be a purchase incentive in itself.

“People here like to learn about food, so if you tell them the story behind the product, they will be more interested in trying it."

Profood has already sent some slices to Chinese connoisseurs. One of these, who chose anonymity for privacy reasons, reckons the cheese is a bit strong, but when matched with honey or a full-bodied red wine it becomes a perfect end of a meal.

Unless, of course, chocolate-flavored dairy spread is more one’s kind of thing.

For details of Bitto cheese, contact Profood Limited on their Facebook page.

Sinologist, freelance journalist and avid collector of Master's degrees, Andrea Fenn is an Italian/British graduate student at the Journalism School of the University of Hong Kong.
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