China develops appetite for cheese, with surge in imports from EU. Elite’s evolving tastes, and pizza, behind the trend

China develops appetite for cheese, with surge in imports from EU. Elite’s evolving tastes, and pizza, behind the trend

  • Most Chinese people have never savoured dairy products, and many are lactose intolerant, but things are changing
  • Imports are increasing every year, and French and Italian cheese ambassadors believe a niche market for cheese is opening up

Something smells funny in China. Cheese and other dairy products are not part of the traditional Chinese diet, yet there has been a surge in dairy imports.

According to European Commission data, the volume of Europe’s cheese exports to China in the first 11 months of this year was 24 per cent higher than for the whole of 2018, amounting to more than 18,600 tonnes. Exports of European butter to the country have grown at an even greater pace this year – by 36 per cent.Cheese has historically been alien to the diet in China, where research shows that a great many people are lactose intolerant. However, a 2018 report by China’s National Institute for Nutrition and Health found that Chinese citizens needed encouragement to consume dairy products to improve their intake of calcium and proteins.

“The spread of cheese awareness and consumption in China is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it is growing and has enormous potential due to the dimensions of the country’s consumer market,” says Roland Barthélemy, a celebrated master cheesemaker from France and supreme judge of the annual World Cheese Awards.

It would be wrong to say China produces no cheese, Barthélemy says, but cheese making is not widespread.

“Cheese made with yak milk is produced in Tibet and Mongolia, but it [has historically been] confined to those areas,” he says.

Other yak milk products – such as ice cream, butter, yogurt, milk and fruit drinks, and powdered milk – have experienced a surge in popularity. Additionally, a few big Chinese dairy companies have flourished in recent decades.

Yet, despite the rapid spread of these sweetened dairy products, cheese until now been regarded by Chinese consumers with some scepticism.

“It’s a matter of specific, historical eating habits,” Barthélemy says. “Most Chinese, particularly those who live in the big cities and not in rural or mountainous areas, are not acquainted with the distinctive flavour or scent of cheese.”

Barthélemy has been on a mission to promote and spread awareness of prime European cheeses in China, holding tasting sessions at gourmet food events and dairy boutiques. He recently flew to Shanghai to sponsor French soft cheese made with sheep’s milk, and cream cheeses that appeal especially to children’s palates.

“The Chinese aren’t yet quite ready for our strong-flavoured, highly elaborate hard cheeses,” he says. “It will take some time before they get accustomed to such pungent tastes, but things are changing. The Chinese cheese market is evolving, even if it’s opening up at a rather slow pace compared to other Asian countries, such as Japan, where people are consuming tonnes of European cheese.”

In his role as a cheese ambassador, Barthélemy tours the world to promote not just French but also Italian, Swiss and American varieties.

“As most Chinese people have been on a cheese-free diet, it’s crucial to take baby steps in getting them to discover and appreciate something totally foreign to their culinary tradition,” he says. “That’s why I also involve local Chinese chefs and dairy tasters, trying to conjure good cheese combinations with typical Chinese foods that are familiar to local palates. Chinese herbs and mushrooms, for instance, go well with cheese.”

The growing appreciation for cheese, especially the top European varieties, is still confined to China’s rich and upper-middle classes, according to Barthélemy.

“We need to look at the Chinese niche population that travels around the world or hangs out at luxury Western hotels in China, where they get to taste European cheese at top restaurants,” he says. “The Chinese jet set, having experienced the Western lifestyle and tasted Western food, are more inclined to adopt cheese in their diet.”

There’s another reason cheese has never been an everyday menu item for most Chinese families, according to Beppe Casolo, a member of Italy’s national cheese tasters’ association.

“On the traditional Chinese farm, animals have always been used to do the dirty work; needed in the fields for rural use and often even as a means of transport,” Casolo says. “That was, and still is in many areas, the primary role of sheep, goats and buffaloes, which were certainly not used for milk or other dairy products, let alone cheese, which represents the end product of the milk processing chain,” he says. That is why many Chinese people are lactose-intolerant.

“Given that rural industries in China have hampered the spread of cheese and other dairy products, people’s stomachs are just not used to breaking down these substances. So the elevated quantity of enzymes in the lactose has always been, for the Chinese, an issue in their digestion.”

Now that times and tastes are changing, the popularity of Italian cheese is rocketing in China. According to Italian dairy industry data, the country is China’s second-biggest source of imported dairy products after New Zealand.

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Italian exports of Mozzarella cheese to China this year up to the end of November grew by 106 per cent compared to the whole of 2018, alongside a significant increase in the exports of Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano. The ageing process makes these types of cow’s milk cheese more digestible for people with lactose intolerance.

The significant increase in consumption of mozzarella – which is made using buffalo milk – is tied to the popularity of pizza. (Pizza is also one of the most searched Italian words online in China, according to Italy’s Academia della Crusca linguistics society.) The soft cheese is made in balls and has a delicate, milky taste.

Mozzarella and other creamy varieties provide a gentle introduction to world of cheese, but blue cheese, with veins of mould that add a pungent flavour and aroma, is a more difficult sell, according to the experts. Yet certain types of soft blue cheese are beginning to be appreciated among a niche Chinese clientele, including Italian Gorgonzola, a creamy variety that can be spread on slices of bread or eaten with a spoon.

“The particular thing with Italian blue cheese is that, despite the mould, it maintains a delicate, creamy texture that appeals to the Chinese consumers,” says Alessandro Carpenedo, an Italian cheese producer who exports to Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong, and will soon begin selling in China.

Carpenedo makes a tasty, sugary blue cheese called Blu ’61, using sweet passito wine (made with dried grapes) as an ingredient, and covered in a layer of cranberries.

“The Chinese love the combination of fruits and sugar with cheese and other dairy products,” he says. “They like cheese that has a rather sweet end taste and is not too elaborate. The added passito wine and the cranberries perfectly counterbalance the flavour of the mould, which could scare away consumers.”

Carpenedo chose Hong Kong as a stepping stone to market Blu‘’61 in China. “It is one of Asia’s main business destinations; the most Western-style one, where there’s a huge market for Western niche food,” he says.

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As well as Blu ’61 he exports another sweet, soft cheese called Gran Monteo, which ends a meal perfectly, he says.

Chinese aficionados savour cheese differently, however. They tend to eat cheese either as an appetiser or as a main course accompanied by red or sparkling wine, Carpenedo adds.

According to Casolo, Italian cheeses have come to represent the country’s lifestyle and taste in China.

“They’re a Made-in-Italy product, just like fashion and cars,” he says. “Cheese has become a popular, trendy food, and not just because the Chinese elite has come to acknowledge its nutritional qualities.”