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Fonterra

Say it isn't faux! When the fine print reveals an indigestible truth

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2012, 12:00am

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There can be few more dispiriting experiences for a cheese lover than viewing the contents of the dairy product chiller at either of the major local supermarket chains.

Dozens upon dozens of non-biodegradable plastic packages are stacked one on top of the other. They contain, for the most part, a substance that's called cheese, but tastes barely distinguishable from the material it is wrapped in.

Count them - 'cheese sticks', 'cheese singles', 'cheese' in toothpaste tubes. I've yet to come across it, but I'm informed it is even possible to buy it in an aerosol can.

What all these products have in common, of course, is that they are designed to sell cheese to people who either don't like it, or don't yet know enough to decide.

It is a myth that Chinese don't eat cheese, but this is the cheese that a good proportion of the population eats, or there wouldn't be so much of it on sale. That means many are clogging up their arteries with bland generic products that use additives for flavour and long shelf lives.

Children, meanwhile, at whom many processed cheese products are aimed, are having their expectations of a noble foodstuff distorted to the point where a programme of cheese re-education is needed.

Cheese, like wine, is supposed to be an expression of the terroir of a region, and the passion of those who make it. It is supposed to supply a continuous thread of endlessly renewable enjoyment in a local culture. At the very least, it should taste of something.

The people who make and sell it are meant to be honest about its origins, and by honest I mean saying where it comes from in large letters on the front of the package rather than small print on the back.

Wellcome sells a range of undistinguished products branded Perfect Italiano. The packaging includes a representation of the Italian flag, and in large lettering on plastic containers the names of Italian cheeses. Much smaller print will tell you that it is not from Italy, but Australia, and your nose will tell you that neither the 'parmesan' nor the 'mozzarella' will taste real.

A number of supermarkets and food halls stock another - relatively upmarket - Australian brand called Lemnos, which also uses the names of Mediterranean cheeses but at least owns up to its Australian origin in reasonably large print on the label. Two of its most successful lines are 'fetta' and 'haloumi', however, and the eccentric spelling is no accident.

Feta, as the word is transcribed from the Greek, has EU Protected Designation of Origin status, and halloumi enjoys similar protection as a Cypriot product in the US - hence the extra T and the dropped L.

The only reason New Zealand-based Fonterra's Perfect Italiano gets away with calling one of its products 'parmesan', is that the maker doesn't have the effrontery to try to sell it in Europe, where the name, along with 'parmigiano-reggiano', is protected.

Fonterra's 'Premium Quality' Mainland brand markets 'brie', 'cheddar' and 'edam', and the company dementedly believes that a good way to promote cheese consumption in Asia is to sell it in chocolate-covered slices.

Kraft Foods, whose products dominate the calories-and-cholesterol-without-taste market, actually has the nerve to market in Europe an ersatz parmigiano it calls Pamesello Italiano. The Swedish-Danish co-op Arla Foods is another offender. It makes 'camembert' and 'brie' in the US and has the cheek to describe it as 'handcrafted in Danish and French traditions'. Denmark is also the source of much of the ersatz 'feta' in Hong Kong.

Obviously, no discerning cheese buyer is fooled by this for a minute. But people who are new to the subject are being duped. What's more, the deceptive labelling is shoddy and unnecessary.

Australia - and the US, although its cheesemakers suffer a straitjacket of restrictions on pasteurisation - produce perfectly good cheeses of their own, which they should market proudly as such.

Decent cheese is available in Hong Kong. If you go to ParknShop's Fusion in Clear Water Bay, they are in a separate cabinet. Unfortunately, they are cut into tiny shrink-wrapped pieces which dry out quickly and are insanely priced.

This is particularly true of the chunks of parmigiano-reggiano, at HK$80 or more each, of which a good part is rind. Maybe that's why some buy bags of Perfect Italiano 'parmesan' instead.

Thanks to factors including the abolition of EU subsidies to dairy farmers and the cost of airfreight, good cheese is expensive. But if you shop around, you can find bargains.

From a good cheese supplier - such as the branches of Classified(classifiedfoodshops.com.hk) or Monsieur Chatte in Sheung Wan (monsieurchatte.com) and at Elements - you can buy quality farmhouse cheeses.

Classified has more than 50 varieties in the Hollywood Road branch Cheese Room, and Monsieur Chatt? offers both an extensive range of farmhouse cheeses matured by Paris-based French affineur and cheese master Eric Lefebvre, and a selection of still good but humbler cheeses you might find in supermarkets in France, at competitive prices.

If you are buying bite-sized portions, the Marks & Spencer Food Store in Wan Chai (www.marks-and-spencer.hk) has some reasonable offerings.

Classified's cheese expert, Wendy Wu, conducts cheese education classes: the next two are on March 14 at Classified in Exchange Square (Cheddar), and on April 11 at Classified in Sheung Wan (English vs French cheeses).

Classified and Monsieur Chatte claim a good proportion of their customers are Chinese and well informed. But it is a possibility there are those who never will take to one of the world's great foods, not because they are Chinese but because they are introduced to it in the form of Kraft Singles.

 

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