Introducing the Beijing Cheese Society
"There are 10,000 journalists here," Beijing resident Sharon Ruwart told me the first time we chatted. "You're at the bottom of the barrel, my friend, if you want to write about cheese."
My intention, I should say, was NOT to write about cheese. Sure, the Cheese of the Day had been my thing in Torino, creating the "Cheese Boy" persona still favored by certain multimedia personalities. But that was Northern Italy, home of Raschera and Robiola. This is China, home of sour cucumber and spicy fish. I figured I should embrace, I don't know, the Salty Snack of the Day. Then I gazed at aisles of Prawn Crackers and Chicken Flavoured Chicken Rings and reconsidered.
"All the greats say 'You write what you know,' " pointed out Chairwoman Tracee, our on-site editor.
And so a few minutes later I was chatting with Sharon, the co-founder and leader of the Beijing Cheese Society, a 500-member strong group of ex-pats, diplomats, and students of all nationalities and ages who join together once a month or so to, you know, taste cheese. In Beijing.
"We're it," Sharon said, when I asked about the city's cheese scene. "I'm sort of Patient Zero for cheese. I'm your cheese vector."
Well, perfect. Sharon, if you're curious, is a 45-year old executive from Palo Alto, smack in the middle of artisanal cheese heaven, who, as a hobby several years ago, began offering cheese tastings to raise money for her children's school in California. Her family moved to China in 2004, and she consigned to storage her cheese books, cheese knives and other cheese gear.
"I was like, 'I'm moving to China, right?' No cheese," she recalled.
But she had hardly been in Beijing before she met a chef who wrote a food column for an ex-pat magazine, and he demanded that together they form the Beijing Cheese Society. He soon left the city, but the idea grew tastier and more valuable with age, and Sharon's e-mail list quickly sprouted into the hundreds. Friends told co-workers. Ex-pats brought their out-of-town friends to tastings. Members started an after-market trading system to divvy up the strictly controlled 50 spots available for each event.
"It has a quality kind of like a rave," Sharon told me. "I get e-mailed all the time, 'Hey somebody told me hush hush, can I get in, what do you have to do to be a member?'...It has a mystique."
Members include several CEOs and managing directors, quite a few high-ranking diplomats, bureau chiefs and senior journalists from a host of countries, as well as dancers, artists, artists, traders and bankers. The allure, of course, comes from the limited supply of high-quality cheese in typical Chinese markets. The country, Sharon thinks, will first have to "go through a 'Velveeta' phase," just as we did in America, before moving on to the good stuff.
In the meantime, whenever a member of a friend of a member is in an appropriate country, they are dubbed a "cheese mule," tasked with bringing back five different cheeses, about two pounds each, of various flavors and consistencies. The mules drive directly to Sharon's house from the airport, keeping the cheese as happy and healthy as possible. The total commitment fills about three shoe-boxes.
"One guy called from Canada before he moved here," Sharon said. "I was first person he met, when he came to my house to empty his suitcase full of cheese. People will do pretty extreme things for cheese in extremis, when they're desperate."
I can understand. After a full morning of wandering Beijing, I found two stores selling cheese: one an organic mart that offered cream cheese and other flavored spreads, and the other a German outpost with extremely basic supermarket-style offerings.
So, will there be a Beijing Cheese Society tasting during the Olympiad? Some members dream of holding a late-August event with eliminated athletes; say, the Serbian archery team. And Sharon has already inquired as to whether the Swiss House would be interested in hosting a big Raclette party. They're intrigued, but still waiting for their fondue sets to clear Chinese customs.
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