My first article (published in Hello Switzerland early in 2008) about the birth of The British Cheese Centre and my new life on a farm in Eastern Switzerland with my (now ex) wife, but still business partner Astrid.
A Cheesy Tale
Think of food from Switzerland and most people will think of Cheese and Chocolate. When I first met my Swiss Girlfriend in London two years ago those are the two things I thought of when she told me where she came from. I had never been to Switzerland but seeing as my biggest passion in life is good food and especially cheese, the conversation inevitably turned towards that subject. “Oh yes, we have some good cheese in Switzerland, but give me British cheese any day!”. It was not what I was expecting but it was the start of a love affair that saw me leaving behind a hectic life running a graphics company just outside London to following her to Zurich and finally to a small farm on the side of a mountain in Eastern Switzerland.
Through her work she had been sent on a British Cheese workshop run by Juliet Harbutt, known as the Queen of British Cheese, and she started telling me things about my own country’s cheese that even I did not know. The more I delved into British cheese, the more I wanted to learn, and taste. Very few of my fellow countrymen know that there are over 700 varieties of British Cheese (that’s more than France) and over the past decade there has been a burgeoning interest in traditional styles, farmhouse production and new artisan cheeses. The King of British Cheese is undoubtedly Blue Stilton, the only British cheese with a certification trademark although there are now 12 cheeses with their own EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) including Single Gloucester, the lesser known brother to the more famous Double Gloucester, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and Exmoor Blue.
On my arrival in Switzerland I set about exploring Swiss Cheese (something that will keep me busy for many more years to come) and to find out what Swiss people knew about British Cheese - not much was the answer! I found that it was possible to find factory made cheddar in supermarkets and some fairly good Cheddar and Stilton in specialist cheese counters. But otherwise there was little of what I like to call “Real Cheese” from the UK. Real Cheese, for me, is like good wine. It represents a region, and the style and flavour of the finished cheese is influenced by similar factors: the soil, altitude, climate as well as local cultures and farming traditions. Not to mention the maturing process. Small wonder that wine and cheese are often seen as the perfect partners.
It wasn’t long after I arrived that we decided it would be a great idea, or an eccentric one at least, to introduce the Best of British to this land of cheese. Coals to Newcastle as we would say in the UK. It has been a slow process, finding dairies and distributors in the UK and Switzerland who could help arrange the transport, choosing the best legal vehicle for the business, climbing through some bureaucratic hoops regarding importing but we finally got there and started shipping British Cheese from our on-line shop at the end of last year.
Now in the new year we are busy adding Swiss cheese to our shop from small dairies making little known styles, or from those specialising in BIO (organic) production as well as sourcing other products to compliment cheese: Oat cakes from Orkney, fig and almond bread from Spain and chutnies and jellies from all over Europe are already online. Next on the agenda is Cheese tasting events and workshops in our cheese cellar on Flumserberg as well as in Zurich and the rest of Switzerland.
Here in Eastern Switzerland I am spoilt for choice in my search for good cheese. There are some wonderful dairies in out of the way places within 100 km of me - I am now a big fan of the cheese from Val Müstair in the very far east. Surrounded by Italy, it is a bit of a trek to get to but worth it for the countryside, the friendly people and the food. Then just a short hop over the border into Italy will open up for me a whole new world of gastronomic delights.
Life in Switzerland, and especially here on Flumserberg, is as different to my life in the UK as chalk and.... well cheese. Working on the farm with my Girlfriends horses and my new project, my free range Pro Specie Rara chickens, has opened up a whole new world of experiences for me. The problems I have encountered, mainly the very hard physical work and the extreme weather in winter but also to a smaller extent getting to grips with the language, have been far outweighed by the positives: the beautiful climate throughout the rest of the year, the view from my office down the Flumser valley and then to the Churfirsten mountain range, the absence of traffic jams and the clockwork public transport. Not to mention sitting on the terrace on a Sunday evening, with a slice of cheese, sipping a local wine, watching the traffic leaving the mountain to head back to the cities and knowing I have yet another week in paradise.
What will the coming year or two bring? More cheese and chickens for sure, evaluating the success of my newly planted fruit trees, converting a barn to bed & breakfast accommodation, applying for BIO status for the farm, selling cheese in a Zurich market and becoming fluent in Chickenese.
I seem to understand them, I’m not entirely sure they understand me yet though. I suppose it must be the Yorkshire accent.
© Michael Jones, January 2017