A labour of love

A labour of love

Passionate cheese maker Philippe Marchand believes human relationships are the secret of his success

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Philippe Marchand, a master French cheese refiner
Philippe Marchand, a master French cheese refiner
Photo: Philippe Marchand
Cheese making is like a love story for Philippe Marchand, a master cheese affineur, or cheese refiner, from France.

Marchand comes from the oldest family in the cheese-making business in Nancy, eastern France. Since 1880, family members have passed on their love for cheese and traditional recipes to six generations.

Since childhood, he has witnessed how the tradition in cheese making was valued with love and respect. "When I was 10, I would follow my mother to the market every weekend to help sell our home-made cheese," says Marchand, 49, a father of two. "I still remember the way she talked to customers about the product - how everyone loved it.

"In the old days, cheese was sampled after the main course of lunch and dinner - and also at breakfast, when families in the countryside would dip cheese in freshly brewed coffee. Now, we enjoy cheese at any time, day or night. It is accompanied mostly by wine, also with beer - but never with soda or juice."

Influenced by the family's passion for cheese, Marchand grew up learning about the food and how to make it. Today he is one of the top cheese refiners in France; his technique has twice won him the prestigious cheese artisan of the year title from France's influential Pudlo food and restaurant guide.

Now he and his brothers, Patrice and Eric, take care of the family brand, Les Freres Marchand. They produce 400different cheeses that are refined in five cellars and sold in France, Europe, North America and Asia.

Marchand works with more than 200local farmers, who produce the cheeses. One of his jobs is to ensure they all mature perfectly in the cellars. The process involves varying the temperature, humidity and time period - plus the touch of a human hand to wash and "gently massage" the cheeses, he says.

"I love cheese because it is a living creature; it is organic and ever-changing. A small change in the refining process will change the taste or texture," he says.

His job has also involved reviving a long-forgotten cheese, after the discovery of one of his grandmother's recipes. "Five years ago, I found a round mould made of fir wood," he says. "Inside was a notebook with my grandmother's handwriting. When I read her detailed notes on how to age Gros Lorrain I was very excited. I knew my mission was to reproduce this long-forgotten cheese."

The cow's milk cheese, from the Lorraine region, disappeared around the time of industrialisation in France, in the mid-1800s, as people turned to mass cheese production using pasteurised milk. Marchand found a farmer that shared his passion for reproducing the cheese. He spent two years testing it until he was happy with the result. Today, Gros Lorrain is sold around the world.

Marchand says human relationships are at the heart of his business - and its success. He visits his farmers regularly and shares with them a passion for producing top-quality cheese; he also enjoys a long-term relationship with his many business partners.

Two years ago he created "Wasabique", a cheese flavoured with wasabi - a spicy-tasting Japanese plant - to mark the 10thanniversary of his partnership with restaurants in Japan.

"It is a combination of two cultures: French and Japanese. I spent two years trying to find the right balance of taste and strength by combining raw wasabi and fresh goat's cheese. I didn't want to simply drop wasabi powder onto cheese, or put paste on top of the cheese.

"Every cheese has a story - of men and nature, of finding the best season and soil where animals graze, so we get the best milk. It's also a story of human relationships between cheese makers and customers. It's about passion and love."

Marchand held cheese-tasting workshops in Hong Kong last month following the city's first Cheese Festival. His cheeses, including Wasabique and Gros Lorrain, are available at Chez Patrick Deli, in Star Street, Wan Chai.

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