The man bringing cheese to Beijing
Many locals experience a shock the first time they visit Liu Yang’s shop: they’ve never seen something quite like this before.
Some just pass by, merely peeking in the windows of his tiny, two room workshop.
“I think some people before they come by prepare themselves psychologically,” says Yang. “Maybe they’ll come back, maybe they won’t. We won’t get disappointed because of this. Most Chinese people are not used to cheese culture.”
A gaunt man with black glasses that dominate his narrow face, Liu Yang is selling something most Chinese don’t have the tongue for. His store, Le Fromager de Pekin, is the only artisan cheese shop in Beijing that's run by Chinese people.
With a roster of 16 types of French cheeses, he's bringing the taste of strong, robust cheese to China.
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It's a challenging enterprise. Other than the nomadic herding minorities of Mongolia and Tibet, China doesn't have a homegrown cheese culture.
Lactose intolerance is common, with upward of 90 percent of the population having some form of it.
Even after operating his shop for five years, Yang says only about 20 percent of his customers are Chinese.
That doesn't concern Yang, who himself didn't acquire a taste for cheese before having it at a university buffet in France.
After boring himself working as a technician in the Zhongguancun technical district for four years, Yang spent six years in France, two years of them in an agricultural high school in a small Corsican village.
Working beside classmates as young as 16 (many from cheese-making families), and closely studying with a neighbor, he learned the art of making cheese.
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China's changing palate
Yang has been praised by an official from the French embassy in Beijing. He sells his cheeses to five-star hotels, boutique supermarkets and individual customers as far away as Shanghai and southern Guangzhou.
Because he wants to offer "authentic" French cheese, Yang doesn't adjust his recipes to suit local palates.
His market is growing. As China becomes more affluent, palates have gotten more sophisticated. The amount of French cheese imported into China has grown 340 percent over the past five years.
It's available mostly at Western-style supermarkets and restaurants.
The primary obstacle to mainstream acceptance seems to be perceptions of cheese. The booming 1990s saw the expansion of Western brands into China, with cheese arriving on top of pizzas and between hamburger buns.
This factory cheese –- along with other industrial dairy, such as yogurt and pasteurized milk –- is what most Chinese are accustomed to. When they have a good Camembert, they expect it to be sweet, says Yang.
French products have a positive image in China, but he says consumers may not know how to eat the “foreign choudoufu,” referring to the notoriously pungent variety of tofu eaten as a street snack here.
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'We need our product to be safe'
Yang may not yet have won over locals with his product, but he's earned the respect of a dedicated staff.
None of his four full-time or three part-time employees have been to France. Many were cleaning workers, and one operated construction equipment prior to joining Yang's company.
It took most of them three months to learn the ins and outs of each variety of cheese, and to learn about hygiene, acidity, aging and texture.
“Now they feel honored to be here,” says Yang.
Le Fromager de Pekin doesn't advertise, relying on word of mouth to grow the business. If customers are interested, Yang offers degustation courses and classes on how to appreciate and eat cheese.
“We need our product to be safe,” Yang says, adding that locally made products are fresher and better for the environment than imports from Europe.
Yang sees French cheese as something like Coca-Cola. He remembers the first time he had a bottle of Coke –- it was a new flavor, not yet popular, so he remained a skeptic.
Now the familiar red cans can be found everywhere in China. The same could hold true for cheese, says Yang, who believes it'll take just one or two lucky events to make cheese popular.
When that happens, he'll be ready.
Le Fromager de Pekin, 5A-6 Xindi market, Longteng Street, Hui Long Guan, Beijing; +86 (0)10 5943 7311
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