The Luxxury had the immense pleasure of taking part in the second edition of the Frères Marchand mature cheese tasting evening at La Serre. To read this interview in French click here.
But that’s not all – we were also lucky enough to meet Patrice Marchand, Maitre Affineur de France (Master Cheesemaker and Ripener), holder of the world record for the largest cheese platter, one of the three celebrated Marchand brothers, from one the oldest families of French cheesemakers. We spoke of his passion, his ambitions, his travels and of things he holds dear.
This unprecedented article, is a discussion with a cheese specialist, not only for aficionados, but for anyone who simply wants to know more about the tradition of cheese ripening and maturing.
Our first question was naturally directed to the Frères Marchand business, its history and that of the family. Is it true to say that your family transmitted this passion for food, for cheese?
We followed in the family footsteps, a family of Master Cheesemakers and Ripeners. We are the oldest general cheese makers and ripeners in France. The restaurant business came after. The training to become a Maitre Affineur is very long – 40 years, 20 years to train the palate for tasting and 20 years to go further into detail, learning how to make the cheese and then how to ripen it. An Affineur is considered a producer in France, as he/she changes the cheese, transforms it, taking the pure product and changing the taste and the colour. In our cellars we have 450 different sorts of cheese the whole year round. We work with 200 small producers and we take for the most part 70% to 80% of their production to be sure that cheeses in our cellars will be exactly as we want them.
And what about you ?
I left to study at the Ecole Hotelière (Hotel School) in Lausanne, followed by 12 years working abroad. I trained in Switzerland but I also worked in Germany, England, the United States and Luxemburg. My last job was catering for the European Parliament in Luxemburg.
How did the Frères Marchand business begin?
Twenty years ago my brothers told me they wanted to buy our father’s company, and asked me to join them, giving me half an hour to decide. I came to a decision within a few minutes and decided to stay with my brothers. From then on, we opened some restaurants, mainly specialising in cheese. We decided to change the name from Maison Marchand and became Frères Marchand.
Your career is your passion?
Yes, of course, especially as it demands a huge personal investment. It occupies me seven days a week, from 5 am to 1am. I say “occupies” because I don’t have the impression that it is work. I am only passing on what my parents taught me, the history of my family and the value of small producers.
And what are these values, this education that you mention? Can you tell me more?
When I arrived in Dubai four years ago, we were in a market which only knew about and consumed industrial pasteurised cheese. When I went around with Alexandra, our Ambassador here in Dubai, when I talked to chefs, the most frequently asked question was “why is the Brie that I buy much cheaper than yours?” Here we are talking about four years of education to understand that they are two completely different products, one industrial and one from a small producer – a product matured and ripened in our cellars and a product from a factory without the unique quality of our products. And even when the chef knew the product well, the problem was with the customers who were not going to understand and appreciate that difference.
And what is this difference exactly?
A pasteurised cheese is a cheese from milk that is “dead”. On the other hand, raw milk is living, it breathes, and transforms into a cheese which itself then continues to transform. We are a niche luxury product, and whatever happens, I will never sell as much as an industrial cheesemaker, I don’t produce enough. It is important for me to defend the small producers we work with. Without the producers I have no cheese and without cheese I wouldn’t be here.
Tell me about these producers
The small producers are the most important. And we have always made sure that we have the best possible relationship with them, in order to always have the best products. For example, in July 2016, we asked 200 produce with whom we work to raise their prices by 10% to give them a living wage, as we had lost five of them over the previous six months. We also invested in equipment for some of the producers. It’s tough work, every day, morning to night, with no holidays. I remember a young couple of Reblochon producers who took over their parents’ production, and who, in April, had to go up to an altitude of 2,500 metres, with the whole production unit, in order to make the cheese in situ, and cut the grass on all the surrounding mountains, so that the cows could eat the same quality of grass in winter. And, at the Abu Dhabi Gourmet Show, the Chef at Emirates Palace came to see us. He is passionate about cheese. He said that his favourite cheese was Reblochon. It was January, the wrong season. By chance I had a piece left. I let him taste it. He closed his eyes and said “this is the best Reblochon I’ve ever eaten.” The next morning, I called the producers to tell them, and they were over the moon. It’s all a question of emotion.
And what about Dubai? Tell me more, why did you decide to come here?
My brothers and I decided, in terms of developing our export market, to set are sites on particular cities. We can’t supply the whole world. Our focus is on education, explanations, exactly the same as at La Serre tomorrow evening (22nd September 2017). This is new for Dubai. Three years ago, my brothers and I started The Gourmet Cheese Club by Les Frères Marchand.
We set up the club in each of the cities in which we were based: Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Berlin, Paris, Nancy, and the Gourmet Cheese Club in Dubaï will be in La Serre. But I have never wanted to set up our club in a city or place unless people are truly passionate
Why Dubai? By chance, Alexandra was here in Dubai. I have known her personally for many years. I really wanted someone to relay my knowledge and education. And my cousin worked for the Lorraine Region Chamber of Commerce here in Dubai. She organised a business trip and I took part.
It was then that I realised there was real potential. So we began to put something into place. Over the last four years, I have come here between five and seven times a year. Success abroad of a company like ours will rely on businesses such as La Serre, which will truly promote a good, real product. It’s a company of true worth, with the same values as those of my own business, in terms of the products purchased by La Serre.
You hold the World Record for the largest cheese platter. Can you tell me about this adventure?
Actually we are in the book of Guinness World Records 2018. It all started with my brother Philippe’s mad idea. My father had already beaten the French record for the largest cheese platter. Philippe came to see me last year and said “We are going for the world record”. He suggested making the largest cheese platter in the world. The record was held by a French person, with 330 different cheeses. Easy, we had 450. Then we realised straight away that although we had 450 types of cheese, they were seasonal. Consequently, we couldn’t have them all at the same time.
So we called Guinness, to say that we wanted to beat the record, and they replied that the new record was 489 cheeses, held by the Chinese. We had already decided to take up the challenge, but not just that. We had also decided to use 95% of cheeses from small producers, made from raw milk. It was a real challenge in terms of quality and not just quantity. (Video on Youtube and pictures on the site, photos of platter and presentation of cheeses by employees!). Our idea was also to present whole cheeses, which were not pre-cut, so that people could understand what a cheese really was. That is all part of the education. We are so used to seeing cheeses in blister packs in the supermarket, already sliced. You can’t see the colour, the size… For the public presentation of the platter, we hoped to get 2000 people. We had 30000.
I saw my father with tears in his eyes for three days. He was at the exit and everyone shook his hand to thank him. “I never imagined there could be so much emotion linked to cheese”, my father said to me. He had never seen stars in the eyes of people across the world that I had seen during my many trips. It lasted three days and there was a queue of between fifty and one hundred and fifty metres long. We wanted it to be free, to be truly educational. We gave over half the platter to the food bank. We wanted to share what we were presenting to people who did not have the possibility of purchasing our cheeses, as they are luxury products. This led to over 500 articles and worldwide coverage.
And what about the platter itself?
We had over 500 producers with us for this world record, from all over the world, from Thailand, Japan, Australia… We presented 730 different types of cheese. There were 2124 pieces on the platter. This was the equivalent of five tonnes of cheese, a fifty metre long tent, a semi-trailer pulsing air at a temperature of -25°C, in order to have a constant ambient temperature of 6-8°C under the tent, when the temperature was actually 28°C. Just after, I went on tour for three months, presenting it from Dubai to Tokyo. My first stop was Dubai. The first Chef was Stéphane Cocu to whom I gave special cheese platter cut from the record exhibit. We were mutually honoured to meet each other. La Serre and Stéphane Cocu made me want to work here, as I explained earlier, as I immediately recognised people truly passionate about cheese.
What can you tell me about the evening tasting you are organising tomorrow?
Tomorrow will be a different kind of culinary experience. When you got to a restaurant, you eat a main course in which there are five flavours at most. Over and above five, it’s too much, and they get mixed up. Tomorrow evening there will be forty flavours, forty different tastes, which is why this experience will be so interesting. There is an order for tasting: beginning with goat cheese, followed by those cheeses with mould rinds (Camemberts, Bries), then come mountain cheeses, hard cheeses, character cheeses (Mûnster), ending with blue cheese. If you were to start with blue cheese the tasting would be totally impossible. This is the way we educate, something I will explain tomorrow. You must move slowly and gently, in order, without rushing. Wax covered blue sheep cheese, Roquefort to begin with, taken from the cellars when it is white, soaked in a bath of cold wax, and then matured for six months in our cellars, without oxygen in the dark. A Roquefort much more creamy and less salty than traditional Roquefort, as all the humidity stays inside, ending with a Roquefort but more gentle.
So what would be your final word?
Cheese is human contact, encounters with people, the producers that I respect and at the other end of the chain, there needs to be people who share my vision. The most important thing for me is that tomorrow you will come and taste the cheeses, and I will tell you forty more stories in front of the cheeses (laughter).
Interview by Gigi Morelli