CHINA: The Chinese palate is changing, with cheese, chocolate and wine making their way on to the menu – Irish food producers, take note, writes CLIFFORD COONAN in Beijing
IU YANG, A SOFT-SPOKEN young man from Heilongjiang province, became a cheese connoisseur when he was studying international relations in Clermont-Ferrand, in France.
His passion for cheese was so intense that he is now one of the foremost evangelists for fromage artisanale in a country where cheese is generally considered a bit odd, and where dairy is not really considered appropriate food for adults.
China is a country obsessed with food, and the primary social activity is a noisy, chatty feed with friends. Chinese food is terrifically varied, sophisticated, occasionally challenging and generally incredibly delicious.
A common greeting in this country is “have you eaten?” But some international staples don’t even figure. Dessert is not a feature of Chinese cuisine and, because of the number of courses, wine has tended to be nudged out by beer or fiery baijiu liquor, especially at banquets.
But while they were sceptical initially, Chinese people are coming around to the idea of eating cheese. And chocolate. And breakfast cereal. Even to the idea of drinking wine. Growing wealth has translated into an expanding middle class, and this new bourgeoisie wants European cheeses and New and Old World wines.
This is not something you see in every corner noodle shop, but it is beginning to take hold.
Known widely as “Le Fromager de Pékin”, Liu studied the craft in Corsica in 2006, and opened his shop in 2009.
“I love cheese but couldn’t find it in China. I thought it could be a niche to make something original. Most Chinese people have no idea what is real cheese. If told them they have no idea. They think cheese is for pizza. I let them try and they have a different idea,” says Liu. “They think it is very special.” His parents initially thought he was crazy and urged him to get a proper job, but they came around to the idea and helped him start the shop. Now they even like some cheese.
“Chinese people are very adaptable. People like to try foods,” he says, speaking outside his Beijing shop, on the outskirts of the city.
“At the beginning it was only foreigners, now I have 50 per cent foreigners and 50 per cent local people. Some Chinese people have experienced cheese abroad or they care about food,” he said.
Among his highlights is a “Gris de Pékin”, similar to a Camembert and a St Marcellin. He uses milk from Beijing’s two best-known high-quality dairies, although he bemoans the difficulty he has getting the same milk as in France.
His cheeses are sold in shops primarily aimed at expatriates, such as Le Boucherie Gerard, April Gourmet, Schindler’s German Food Centre and the Central Park Deli, but increasingly these venues are seeing a lot of Chinese custom. There is a chain of supermarkets called Jenny Lou’s which started life as a fruit stall and morphed into a number of outlets providing the foodstuffs that foreigners hold dear, such as corn flakes, baguettes and chocolate. Nowadays about half the clientele is Chinese.
The changing middle-class palate offers great opportunities for Irish companies – it’s one of the few examples where Ireland’s small size relative to China is a bonus.
Ireland is always going to be too small to meet the mass demands of 1.3 billion people, but it is well placed to provide quality, specialised products at the higher end of the market.
During a recent agribusiness delegation to China, led by Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, the delegates were taking a very close look at these niches. Irish seafood, for example, is flown several times a week into China’s cities and the seafood producers were obviously keen to up their presence on Chinese tables.
Aidan Cotter, chief executive of Bord Bia, pointed out how our natural grasslands and rich fishing grounds were a great selling point for Irish companies in China.
“It is a good starting point in building Ireland’s reputation as an exporter of safe and sustainable food, and we realise how important safety and sustainability is for consumers’ health and consumers’ confidence, and for our reputation. And we go to extra lengths to prove it,” he said.
The visit of future president Xi Jinping earlier this year means that people in China now know where Ireland is, and photos of him with a new-born calf have boosted Ireland’s reputation as a food producer.
This makes it a lot easier for a small company coming to China to sell chocolates, whiskey, or cheese.
The Irish Dairy Board has launched Kerrygold UHT Milk in China and is selling Irish butter and cheese in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hangzhou, which have a combined population of more than 150 million.
One product they also sell in China is Weetabix, which has just been sold to the Chinese food company Bright Foods. Expect two Weetabix and milk to start working its way on to Chinese breakfast tables soon.
Food safety is a key reason people have embraced overseas bands. After a series of food safety scares in recent years, including the death of a number of infants from tainted infant formula in 2008, there is strong demand for quality food products in China. There are also regular reports of recycled cooking oil being used.
A growing concern about quality assurance has also given greater appetite among the burgeoning middle classes for imported foods.
The US Association of Food Industries believes China will become the largest consumer of imported foods by 2018, with a market worth €60 billion.
“I like western food,” says Gao Qian, a sales executive from Hebei province. “I have it once every couple of days when I’m working but I can’t have it every day. It’s hard to say you don’t like western food, everyone likes delicious food. Western food is welcomed by food lovers everywhere.”
She likes the way Italian food uses olive oil and fries less, and loves pasta in particular, but also French and Spanish food.
“Western food is fashionable. People think it’s romantic to date in a western restaurant and they often have a better environment and better service by comparison, although it is more expensive than your usual Chinese restaurant,” Gao says.
Of her clients, she says, 85 per cent are Chinese who regularly eat international food. She also thinks that more international cuisine has food safety ramifications, as it is easier to taste in the food if inferior or bad oil has been used in the preparation.