How a Beijinger brought artisanal French cheese-making to China
Liu Yang’s Beijing-based company Le Fromager de Pekin aims to offer discerning Chinese cheese lovers a ‘taste of France away from France’
Liu Yang loves cheese so much that he didn’t just eat the creamy dairy product when he lived in France for six years – he learned how to make it.
Liu is the man behind Beijing-based artisanal cheese company Le Fromager de Pekin, which translates to “the cheesemaker of Beijing”, and aims to offer discerning cheese lovers a “taste of France away from France”.
Liu took his first bite of processed cheese in 1997 in Beijing, but it wasn’t until 2005, when he was living in Corsica, France, that he tried artisanal cheese.
A fluent French speaker, Liu began watching his cheese-making neighbours, and soon became the only foreigner at the nearby cheese-making school where he studied for a year and a half.
When Liu brought the art of making artisanal cheese back to Beijing, he had a hard time winning over locals. Today, 70 per cent of his Chaoyang store customers are Beijingers. He has even opened a pizzeria which utilises his creations.
What can you tell me about your first taste of cheese?
When I was in university, 20 years ago, I bought cheese in the supermarket [in Beijing] and I think it was from Guangming, a brand from Shanghai. It was processed cheese, in a triangle, very creamy. At that time it was not very common [to eat cheese in China]. I wanted to try it because I never had it. I liked it very much.
After that, you went to France on a scholarship to study the French language, management and international business. How did you get into cheese-making?
In the beginning I didn’t have this idea to learn cheese-making. I stayed in France for six years [two years each in Clermont-Ferrand, Aix-en-Provence and Corsica]. My neighbour [in Corsica] made cheese with sheep’s milk. I was very curious, because during the four years I had lived in France I’d tried a lot of cheese from the supermarket, but never artisanal cheese.
How did you decide that you wanted not just to watch your neighbour make cheese, but to actually make it yourself?
I found it fantastic. The cheese is amazing, the flavour is so complicated and strong. I began to help them to make cheese. I enjoyed this work a lot – better than working in front of a computer in an office. So one day I have this idea come into my head: why not make cheese and not work in a company, but work as an artisan?
What did the locals think of a foreigner making cheese?
The professors were very curious to see what this student can do. When I went to restaurants, a lot of curious students looked at me. They wanted to know if this person could do kung fu. But they were all very nice, very generous to me.
When you went back to Beijing in 2007, what made you decide to start up a cheese-making company?
When I came back to China, I brought with me some tools and some cheese culture. But I asked myself: what kind of cheese can I do? Who will be my customers? Where can I buy milk? I had no idea. But I just wanted to try and do it. I started to make a soft cheese, like a Camembert. In 2009, I opened a cheese shop. Before I opened my cheese shop, I already had a lot of expat customers. We had some cheese [sampling] degustations. At the first degustation there was over 20 people, only French. At the second degustation there was over 50 people. After the second degustation I had an email list, and all of these people wanted to order my cheese. It was they who encouraged me to open the shop.
When you opened, what did local Beijingers think?
Almost all of my customers are expats. Maybe 1 per cent of the Chinese who passed by my shop came in to see what I was making. Some thought I was making a Chinese cookie or dangao (cake). I gave everybody a try, to see the reaction. Some people liked it, some people didn’t. Some people found this flavour too strange.
What has changed to make Chinese people eat more French cheese?
It’s much more popular than it was eight years ago. Maybe the children’s parents, they don’t like it, but they want their children to eat it even though they don’t eat it, because they know cheese is a good food for calcium, protein. Old people eat it, it’s good for the bones.
Do you think a growing fascination with France in China has helped your business?
I think the Western stores are more and more popular in China. That’s because China is more open and the Chinese people know more and more Western culture. They know more about the wine, they know more about the handcrafted coffee, and they know more about the gastronomy.
What is your favourite cheese?
I don’t have one favourite cheese, I like to eat five or six cheeses together, like a cheese platter. I like almost all of my cheese. Currently we have 27 products – we make four kinds of fresh cheese, we can make over 10 kinds of soft cheese and we even make cheese with doujiang (soy milk).