Cheese-Makers Chase Huge New Market in China

Culinary habits are shaped by culture and history. But while Chinese people may not have a tradition of eating cheese, some savvy entrepreneurs are hoping they can make cheese palatable for Chinese tastes. From Los Angeles Times:

A small number of artisanal cheese makers, both Chinese and Westerners, want to change that perception. Their task is daunting: Except for a small number of ethnic Mongolians and Tibetans, China has no tradition of cheese making, and an estimated 90% of the population is lactose intolerant.

Exacerbating the issue, Chinese are especially wary of dairy products amid a continuing problem with tainted milk that has killed dozens of people.

That doesn’t deter Liu Yang, who runs Le Fromager de Pekin, a small French cheese factory on the outskirts of Beijing, an outpost that could be the best chance for educating China’s nouveau riche on artisanal cheese. He believes his company, the only one run entirely by native Chinese, can better predict the demands of local consumers.

Local shops are also pushing to tap into China’s growing interest in foreign goods. At a shop called Cheese & Wine in Beijing, which has been open for eight months, Chinese already represent half the clientele.

“At the end of the day, you have 20 million Chinese in Beijing, with a growing middle class who have money and want to try new things,” said owner Christophe Pompeani. His wife, Anna Chen, runs a Chinese-language blog on cheese and answers questions from curious readers.

Can European products like cheese actually succeed in the China market or have businesses bit off more than they can chew? From BBC:

After more than 3,000 years of its own high dining, China has seen everything from cockroach to eel on the menu. But it’s only in recent decades that milk or dairy products have been consumed in significant numbers, and many in the population remain lactose intolerant.

On top of that, European fine foods have plenty of local competition. China may have no indigenous whisky, cappuccino or blue cheese, but it has a plethora of white spirits, a rich legacy of traditional tea and its own soya-based “stinky” tofu – which resembles Stilton with its blue veins and effervescent odour.

These products are much more familiar and much less costly than their European equivalents. Stinky tofu, for example, comes relatively cheap in market stalls around Shanghai but 200g of Stilton costs 100 RMB, or £9.

Others say that Chinese may not like cheese, but they’ll try it and buy it regardless, for other reasons. From BBC:

“Today, it’s about increasing individualisation,” he said. “People want to show they are capable of learning, and making a decision. It’s about making a statement as to which food I truly like.”

Cheese, wine, whisky and other pricey European foods are finding a new market in China’s rush for status and identity – not because Chinese people necessarily appreciate the taste.

But until the day they adapt to the Chinese palate, or Chinese people fall in love with alien flavours, the potential for growth may ultimately be limited.

May 20, 2011 5:20 PM
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