For all the cheese in China

Chinese consumers may learn to love French cheeses, but they'll need to get past the first bite

For all the cheese in China


Cheese tastings in China can be unpredictable events for those looking for insight into the nation’s palate. At a recent tasting held by Shanghai Roria, which imports European foods to China, staff sampled a wide variety of French, Italian and Spanish cheeses. Unbeknownst to those eating the goods, Han Jin, Roria’s business development manager, was following the most potent cheese as it circulated through the room. Later, he surveyed his staff on the strong blue cheese in question. What he found was telling.

“About 70% said they hated it, they never wanted to see it again; 30% said it was amazingly good,” he said. “These people knew nothing about cheese.”

To appreciate pungent European cheese, Han said most Chinese consumers will need to try it more than once – perhaps several times. They’ll also need at least a basic understanding of the product. The cheese tasting reminded Han of the first time he ate fresh cheese during a trip to Europe in 2008.

“At the first moment, I totally didn’t like it. I overate and then I couldn’t face it the next day,” he said. Han said it took about three months for him to acquire a taste for potent varieties of Italian, Spanish and French cheese. Now he’s a connoisseur of Old World cheeses, and one of China’s few experts on the products.

Cheese is an altogether alien product in Chinese shopping centers and eateries. The market for the food is one of the country’s youngest, and by most accounts cheese is a fledgling import among other Western goods.

The market has grown rapidly, albeit from a low base. In 2011, China imported about US$139 million worth of cheese, a 27% increase on the year before, according to the Italian Trade Commission. France’s share of the market is small but increasing. Those involved in importing French cheese point to China’s taste for pricey European goods, such as wine, as proof that the cheese market will grow.


Chinese curds

In 1995, Western shoppers might have considered processed cheddar and mozzarella a luxury on the Chinese mainland. To feed the demand from the growing number of foreigners in China’s biggest cities, importers began placing large orders for cheese in the mid-1990s. By that time, many Chinese may have known the word nailao, which translates roughly into “milk jelly,” but few had tried it.

It wasn’t until Western fast food chains such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s began to expand rapidly across China in the late 1990s that Chinese ingested cheese en masse. New Zealand, Australia and the US became major exporters of cheese to China. This processed cheese, produced on an industrial scale, first shaped China’s understanding of the product, according to Han. Chinese manufacturers such as Bright Dairy & Food, which would move in later to compete with these so-called “New World” cheeses, produce flavored and nutrient-enriched processed cheeses. Though a far cry from traditional recipes, the mass-produced products are what many Chinese would identify as cheese.

European styles of cheese, or “Old World” cheeses, have been available in China for a much shorter period of time. The difference between traditional European cheeses and their New World counterparts can be startling to those weaned on processed products.

Traditional cheese ranges in flavor from mild, soft and nutty to acidic, crumbly and often too pungent to consume in anything but a tiny portion.


An evolving diet

France still accounts for only a small percent of China’s cheese imports, just US$6 million in 2011, compared to US$58.2 million from New Zealand.

France’s share of the Chinese cheese market, however, is increasing quickly. During the past five years the amount of cheese imported from France has jumped by more than 340%. Among Old World varieties, French cheeses such as Brie and Camembert had the largest share of the overall market in 2011 at 4.3%, according to People’s Daily. The milder Parmesan and mozzarella of Italy trailed at 3.4%.

Insiders credit the prevalence of Western shopping centers and restaurants with the growing demand for expensive cheeses. Representatives at Ole’, a Guangdong-based supermarket chain, said the demand for French cheese has moved in step with the spending power of Chinese consumers.

“The Chinese diet is changing along with the increase in middle class and high net-worth individuals,” said Tiffany Pan, a communications officer at Ole’. “[Their] demand for taste and delicious food continues to grow.”

Conquering China’s unfamiliarity with cheese is a challenge, but the newfound popularity of dairy in the country defies even physiological reasoning. More than 250 students at a middle school in Shanxi province were taken to the hospital in 2011 after consuming dairy products, according to China Today, a monthly state-owned magazine. The diagnosis wasn’t bad milk: The students had consumed the milk on empty stomachs and suffered mild lactose-intolerant reactions.

About 92% of Chinese have some form of lactose-intolerance, though that number is as low as 40% in children aged 7 to 13 in northern Chinese cities, according to the magazine. In rural areas, where parents have little experience with dairy products, a child’s first sip of milk often comes in the classroom. In 2000, China’s State Council approved an effort to get “school milk” onto pupils’ desks in an attempt to improve national health.


Epicurean dynasty

But getting students to drink pasteurized milk is a world apart from convincing consumers to pick up an expensive wad of Roquefort at the supermarket. Sopexa, a French marketing and communications company that promotes wine and cheese in China, is trying to do just that. Emilie Martin, senior project manager at Sopexa, says the challenges start from the ground up. Organizing promotional events to introduce French cheese to China is difficult when the staff she works with has no concept of the product.

“As a French person, it’s obvious to me. Of course I know how to eat Camembert. Of course I know how to eat Brie. But the people I work with have no idea,” she said. “So first I have to educate the people I work with and then I can organize some events.”

Understanding the highly regulated world of European cheese is no small feat. French cheese and wine fall under a government system called “controlled designation of origin.” The names of traditional products can be used only for those that originate in specific areas of the country. There are some 40 French cheeses that are protected under the system, and hundreds more that are not.

In China, learning about wine, another popular French import, is far easier than learning about cheese. More people will take classes offered by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust this year in China than in the UK, where the trust was founded, according to Edward Ragg, co-founder of Beijing-based Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting.

Urban Chinese aged 25 to 40 are learning more about wine than ever before. Women as of late have shown a particular interest, Ragg said. An older generation of Chinese enjoyed wine for the prestige associated with it – in other words, for gaining face in the eyes of their peers. Younger Chinese are taking classes to better understand the flavor.

“They are absolutely thirsty for wine and wine education. And they are more interested in taste than they are in face,” Ragg said. Wine imports could double this year, according to Ragg. Chinese wine imports were worth about US$1.1 billion in the first half of 2012.

Education will similarly be crucial to the market for stronger varieties of cheese, Han at Roria said. In fact, Chinese consumers who blindly buy and consume such products will likely keep away from the imported dairy aisle.

“For example, someone buys a Danish blue. Imagine if you don’t know what this is, and you just eat a big piece directly. You’ll never try it again,” said Han. “A lot of people are buying cheese, and they think they will put it in their noodles, fry it or boil it.”


All the whey

Chinese who want to learn more about European cheese can find pamphlets and books on the subject. But the literature, much of which is produced by European chambers of commerce or trade promotion groups, is scarce, and experts were unaware of formal cheese training courses available in the country.

Despite that, Han said French and Italian cheeses will play an important role in his company’s next phase of business operation, in which he tries to introduce some of the strongest varieties of cheese to the country. “I think [French cheese] will have a very, very big space in the future.”

For the time being, Martin at Sopexa says her company will focus on promoting French cheese where people have the money to buy it, namely Western-style supermarkets and restaurants. Chinese in smaller cities will not be purchasing wheels of Reblochon any time soon. In rural areas of the country, 300 grams of French cheese may cost more than 50 times the price of the same portion of tofu, a protein-rich bean product integral to the traditional Chinese diet (and an increasingly popular dairy supplement in the West).

One sign that fresh French cheese is making true inroads into the Chinese market is the appearance of traditional cheesemakers in Beijing and Shanghai. Representatives at Shanghai Ambrosia Dairy, a wholesale dairy importer, said they started making fresh cheese after importing it for several years. The company makes 23 styles of cheese including several from France, such as Camembert and goat cheese.

Le Fromager de Pekin, also called the Cheese Maker of Beijing, produces 16 styles of French cheese in one of the capital’s suburbs. Founder Liu Yang, who studied cheese making in France, said he opened the business to tap into China’s growing demand for quality dairy products.

When asked about the Chinese palate, Liu said his countrymen have a diverse interest in flavor that could easily embrace the tangy tastes of France. In fact, he said the pungency of France’s fresh cheese is comparable to some Chinese dishes such as chou doufu, or stinky tofu.

The ripe odor of stinky tofu, a fermented and often deep-fried tofu dish, has been turning up foreign noses in China for decades. If Chinese can consume this street-vendor classic, he reckoned they could eat the strongest Roqueforts of France. 

“Chinese people are very flexible with their food,” Liu said. “In China, some of our food is very strong too, like chou doufu … Chinese people will accept [strong] cheese in the future.”