New importer championing lesser-known continental cheeses
Belgium is not the first nation that springs to mind when discussing heavyweights of European cheese, but the space-age maturing rooms at Van Tricht’s headquarters in Antwerp tell a different story. Eight sparkling glass rooms are filled with hundreds of cheeses from artisan producers, each with their own unique characters and stories to tell.
“Everyone knows our beer and chocolate, but there’s a really interesting cheese scene here,” says Frederic Van Tricht (pictured above). “We are proud of our producers and part of our job as affineurs is to support them and spread the word on Belgian cheese.”
Set up by Van Tricht’s grandfather in 1970, the company works with a diverse mix of Belgian cheesemakers, maturing everything from raw goats’ cheeses and organic blues to the last remaining raw milk Herve – the country’s only protected cheese.
As part of his mission to “spread the word”, Van Tricht has joined forces with two other champions of less well-known European cheeses to export to the UK – Norbert Sieghart of Bavaria-based Kaeskuche, who distributes German and Austrian cheeses, and Konrad Heusser of Mundig in Switzerland. The managing director and co-founder of this new joint venture, called European Fine Cheese, is Tom Chatfield – previously head of sales and marketing at Quickes.
Between them, they have a huge range of cheeses that could be exported to the UK, but the initial focus is on hard varieties, which are easier to transport and have the shelf-life to cope with any logistics problems caused by Brexit.
There’s The Tender Heart, a hard-cooked cheese from Switzerland, and Alp Blossom, an eye-catching Austrian cheese covered in dried flowers.
There are also Belgian Goudas from Van Tricht, including the young, creamy Greendal and the intense, crystalline 18-month-old OG Kristal. Chatfield has already secured listings with Rowcliffe, Cheese Plus and Curd & Cure.
“The interest is evolving faster than I expected given the current climate,” says Chatfield. “With Greendal and OG Kristal, there’s a level of familiarity with these types of cheeses. People are comfortable with Gouda, they have a point of reference, but these cheeses broaden their horizons.”
All three companies have a good record of converting people to their unfamiliar cheeses in the US, where they have each built strong businesses. Exports accounted for just 5% of Van Tricht’s sales when it moved its maturing operation to the De Koninck brewery in 2012. Today, it is 30% thanks to a strategy of convincing cheesemongers by getting them to taste the cheese.
“It’s all about getting the people behind the counter enthusiastic, so when customers come in they say, ‘We have something new and interesting – you have to try it’,” says Van Tricht.
Chatfield is no stranger to getting cheesemongers excited about cheese, either. He visited 25 US states and hundreds of retailers during his time with Quickes, helping the cheddar become a fixture on counters over there. A similar strategy will be adopted with the European Fine Cheese range in the UK, he says.
“We need to build the brand, presenting cheese to journalists, influencers and direct to cheese shops. It’s about taking people down a rabbit hole of different, lesser known European cheeses.”
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