Cheese in China: An unlikely industry?

Cheese in China: An unlikely industry?
Sep 07, 2009 By Ellen Schliebitz, www.eChin ,

As the daughter of artisan farmhouse cheese makers in rural Ireland, cheese has been something I’ve always taken for granted. I can’t recall a time when our fridge wasn’t stocked with various cheeses. As a child I would accompany my parents to food fairs across the country, and in the summer I would earn extra pocket money vacuum packing and labelling cheeses in the dairy. At the dinner table, my family would erupt into passionate debates about cheese, the ways other might discuss politics.

Photo: Nitro 101

Looking back now, I realise how cheese, as my parents’ main source of income, has gotten me to where I am now with a new and exciting life in Beijing. It’s no surprise then that coming to China for the first time in 2006 was a bit of a shock to the system. Within days, my body was aching for cheese, my digestive system yearning to break down those lactic compounds and my bones desperately longing to absorb its calcium. However, at the time I was stubborn and ignorant. “Chinese people don’t eat cheese”, I thought. “There is no cheese in this country; it’s simply not part of their culture”. I tried to get cheese out of my mind. After all, I had to make do without it for a whole year, or so I thought.

What I, like many others, didn't realise at the time, is that the Chinese cheese industry is slowly beginning to open its buds, and is forecast to blossom into one of China’s largest sectors in the not so distant future. When I first began searching for cheese on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets in 2006, I was mildly disgusted, to say the least, by a range of artificial products pretending to be cheese. However, at the same time the presence of the ‘chocolate flavoured’ cheese slices did signal the emergence of a new acceptance and interest in the product, despite its low quality standard and rubber-like appearance.

At the time I was also unaware of the fact that in a far away farm in Shanxi Province, one man was creating the product that most expats drool over: Dutch Gouda. In 1997, Dutchman Marc de Ruiter moved to China with his family with the dream of setting up a small cheese making farm in Shanxi Province. Six years later, he produced his first batch of organic Gouda cheese, with the same texture and quality as those produced in Holland. Wind the clock forward another six years to 2009, and you’ll see Marc’s Yellow Valley Cheeses stocked in most major Western stores across China. As Marc’s successful business venture proves, not only does China provide an excellent natural climate for the production of high quality cheeses, but contrary to popular belief, there is actually a large market for cheese on the mainland (as the presence of all the Pizza Huts alone proves).

Expats are easily misled into believing that China has no conception or understanding of cheese. However, in the small mountain town of Langdu in Western Yunnan Province, local villagers set up the area’s first cheese factory, using the pristine, high quality milk of their yaks. Every morning, the farmers milk the yaks and carry the milk to the factory and within 5 hours, their first batch of a mild, haloumi-style cheese is produced. Tourists can visit the factory directly or enjoy it at the luxury hotel resort in nearby Zhongdian. Langdu’s Yak Cheese Factory is part of a social, entrepreneurial project that helps to provide opportunities for the local villages. Apart from this cheese, anyone who’s travelled to Tibet or Tibetan regions in China will probably have seen or tasted their traditional sour-milk yak cheese (with a mozzarella-like texture and platted into braids). Then there’s the latest China produced cheese, Beijing Cheddar. While it’s still a rubbery factory cheese produced for the masses, the cheese which sells at 14.5 RMB in most supermarkets, is a step up from the previous artificial, suspect products carrying the same name.

Apart from the imported cheeses currently found in Western shops in China’s major cities, I think we can expect many more local cheese-making enterprises in the future. But for now, I’ve compiled a brief list of the shops currently selling Marc de Ruiter’s Yellow Valley Cheeses. Click here for a fuller list.

Beijing stores:
Jenny Lou’s: Almost all stores, including branches at Shunyi, Chaoyang Park, Ritan Park, Lidu and Sanlitun
April’s Gourmet: All stores
South German Bakery: by Lucky Street, Chaoyang District
-Kempi Deli in the Kempinski Hotel
-Pekotan: Butcher and Deli

Shanghai stores:
Bastiaan Bakery and Cafe: 3338 Hongmei Lu, shop no. 18, Puxi and at 238 Beihua Lu branch, Puxi
Slice: Pudong Store, Shanghai Times Square and Lakeside Ville
-Feidan Store: Anfu Rd, Dagu, Jianguo Xi and Jinyan Road branches
-Hans Wurst: Corner of Laohuqingping Rd and Zhuzhuang Rd.

Related articles:
Viva Variety! Escaping Chinese Food
What’s Cooking on the Shanghai Food Scene

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