It’s nearly impossible for any Westerners to remember the first time they tried cheese. From pizza to pasta to hunks eaten on their own, cheese’s ubiquity in our diets means that we’ve been enjoying it since before we could eat most other solid foods. For Liu Yang, a cheesemaker in Beijing, the opportunity to try fresh cheese didn’t occur until he was abroad in France in his late twenties.
In 2001 while he was studying business at Université Clermont-Auvergne, Yang’s school held a reception for international students. He vividly remembers sitting at a large round table with students from various European countries when someone brought more than 10 types of cheese for them to sample. Unfamiliar with how to eat it, Yang followed the lead of his classmates topping a slice of bread with a chunk of cheese and sipping wine between bites.
It was the first time Yang had tasted real French cheese, and he remembers it being different from anything he had ever eaten before. Years later when he moved to Corsica to continue his studies in business, Yang discovered that his neighbors were cheesemakers and soon their small-batch, handmade goat cheeses made such an impression on him that he decided to learn how to make cheese himself. He became the first international student to learn cheesemaking at small agricultural school in Bastia. It was then that he traded in his career in business to become one of Beijing’s few artisanal cheesemakers.
His studies in Corsica mainly taught him to make sheep-milk cheese, but in China, it’s difficult to find sheep and few produce milk. Instead, Yang started making a Camembert-style cheese with local cow’s milk in his home kitchen; he called it Beijing Grey.
Fast forward to nearly a decade later and Yang is now the owner of Le Fromager de Pekin where he makes 20 different cheeses, including Camembert, ricotta, and an award-winning blue cheese. For Yang, making cheese is easy but convincing Chinese customers to eat it regularly is the hard part.
“Chinese people aren’t afraid to try new foods. They are very open,” said Yang through a translator. “We have foods like stinky tofu and molded tofu that are very strong and sharp because of how long they’ve been fermented, and cheese can taste similar to that. Some people will try it because they are curious about what cheese taste like, others want to learn about how to eat it, and some are interested in it because in China cheese is considered the gold source of calcium.”
In the beginning, many of his customers were Western expats who missed snacking on cheese and baguettes and had a hard time finding fresh cheese like Camembert in China. Since then, Yang has made it his mission to educate the Chinese on cheese culture so that they, too, can enjoy the food that inspired his career path. Today, nearly half of his customer base is made up of locals who have come to enjoy it.
“Many Chinese people don’t drink milk or have only had milk powder, so something like cheese was out of the question for them,” said Yang. “I think that my commitment to making fresh cheese has intrigued a lot of people. I can only make high-quality cheese by using high-quality milk, so I choose to use milk from small farms that don’t use antibiotics and are essentially organic.”
While the journey to entice locals into his shops has been a long road, his cheesemaking has been recognized internationally. The Beijing Red, a strong cow’s milk cheese, was added to The World Cheese Book in 2009, and in 2015 he was given two awards by the International Cheese Guild in France for his Beijing Blue cheese.
As the country becomes more accepting of cheese, Yang has started to sell it to five-star hotels and French restaurants in such cities as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shandong, and cooks have started incorporating it into local dishes. The popular Beijing-style sesame pancake known as shao bing can now sometimes be found with cheese between its folds. Some locals will put a layer of cheese on a bowl of cooked rice while others top chuan, or meat skewers, with cheese. Yang suggests finishing a roasted lamb leg with some Beijing Grey over the top.
Yang’s French-inspired Chinese cheeses are definitely worth traveling for. You can stop into any of his three shops in Beijing to try his creations: his workshop in Huoying, a neighborhood in the outskirts of the city, at the Sanyuanli market in the Chaoyang District, or at a new food hall called The Crib where he’s not only selling cheese but also making pizza. If there’s one food that is universally loved, it’s pizza.