Cave of Italian wonders
If you were looking to buy some of Italy’s most artisan cheese, then your first port of call probably won’t be an industrial estate in south west London. But that’s exactly where PATRICK McGUIGAN went to meet the founder of esteemed importer Vallebona.
There are hidden gems and then there is Vallebona. The Italian food specialist’s chic warehouse shop wouldn’t look out of place in a hip neighbourhood of Milan or New York, but is actually tucked away on an industrial estate in Earlsfield, surrounded by scaffolders and car mechanics
It’s not the sort of place you walk past by accident (unless you are getting your car serviced), but that hasn’t stopped Vallebona becoming a serious foodie destination in south London. The site attracts a steady flow of customers during the week that builds to a deluge on Saturdays, and there are regular pop-up supper clubs, tastings and demonstrations.
The whitewashed space is filled with displays of wine, antipasti, truffles, chocolates and prosciutto, but at the heart of this secret den of good taste is the fragrant walk-in cheese room. Vallebona supplies restaurants and delis with around 70 cheeses from across Italy, and the entire range is available to the public to buy at the warehouse.
Stefano Vallebona, who set the business up in 1997 and today runs it with his Japanese wife Naoko, comes from a family of food entrepreneurs – his grandfather used to supply restaurants with bluefin tuna and lobsters caught in the waters around the Sardinian island of San Pietro where the family is from.
Vallebona came to London on holiday and never left after spotting a gap in the market for authentic Italian food. “The food revolution was only just beginning in Britain,” he explains. “You had chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Giorgio Locatelli and Michel Roux Jr, who you could just call up and visit. There was really no competition. I had London for myself.”
Bottarga (dried mullet roe) was his first star product and remains a signature line today, but it was a trip to the Bra cheese festival in Piedmont that sparked a life-long fascination.
“I got lucky and met a great affineur, who works with tiny farmhouse cheese producers – some of them making just three cheeses a day,” he says. “I was living in a one-bedroom flat in Wandsworth at the time and the first batch I couldn’t fit in my fridge, so some had to be wrapped up and stored on the balcony.”
It didn’t stay on the balcony for long, with restaurants queuing up to buy cheeses that were previously unheard of in the UK. Today the company still supplies top restaurants, such as Le Gavroche, River Café and Bocca di Lupa, but has also developed an impressive retail customer list, including Paxton & Whitfield and Fortnum & Mason.
Tasting my way through the cheeses with Vallebona, it’s easy to see why the company has such illustrious customers. There’s a remarkable Pecorino Sardo, which is aged for 12 months and has a complex flavour that is both floral and meaty, and a harmonious Taleggio that is sweet, buttery and earthy. But there are also unusual cheeses that are rarely seen elsewhere, such as ‘in Vinaccia’ formaggi, which are aged in wine and grape must, a toma wrapped in seaweed and a super-aged Caprino Neto goats’ cheese that combines notes of hazelnuts, pepper and chocolate.
“I’ve spent 20 years building up incredible connections, so I’m able to buy cheeses direct from Italy that you just wouldn’t be able to find here otherwise and at really good prices,” he explains. “We buy cheeses that don’t really have names because the dairy is so small. They are village cheeses and we have to translate them in a way that people will buy here.”
As we talk, he offers me a squidge of Gorgonzola Dolce, which is rich and creamy with a pleasant funky note, and it takes on an almost truffle-like intensity with a splash of a mosto d’uva – a syrup made from concentrated grape must.
Matching cheeses with other flavours, from truffle honey to sweet sake, is something that Vallebona is passionate about, providing pairing sheets and POS material to his customers to help boost sales.
“Delis are finding it hard at the moment – there is a lot of competition and pressure is growing – so they need to add value to their products,” he says. “They need to create flavour matches and let their customers taste them.”
New strategies to boost sales are only going to become more important if the pound remains so weak against the euro with prices of Continental cheeses likely to go up, although Vallebona says he has not yet increased his trade prices beyond a few minor adjustments.
“A lot of importers are using Brexit as an excuse to increase their prices by 10-20%,” he says. “But it’s too early to understand the consequences. At the moment our sales are the same as last year with delis and cheese shops in central London definitely busier, while outside London it is a bit quieter.”
Vallebona’s own warehouse shop is proof that concerns over Brexit haven’t hit consumer confidence just yet with growing orders for corporate platters and hampers, plus a busy roster of foodie events lined up, including a lavish five-course Christmas dinner party with matching wines.
The only thing that south London’s foodies will have to bring is an appetite, and possibly a map.