Dubbed the cheese ambassador, Frenchman Xavier Thuret landed in Phnom Penh recently to share his love of cheese and nurture its popularity in the Kingdom at a six-course, cheese-influenced feast at Topaz restaurant. Writer Jessica Tana sat down with him to discuss his obsession with cheese.
What are you doing with cheese in Cambodia?
I work for Lactalis Group [of famous cheese brands, such as President, Galbani and Lactel] and together we hope to strengthen the knowledge of cheese in Cambodia. Here you already have access to high-end cheese, but one of our objectives is to make it accessible to more people. To make cheese accessible to a bigger audience. When you travel, you discover a new country, a new gastronomy and it’s interesting to create a bridge between the French culture, that is the culture of cheese, with the local culture. I think, in Cambodia there will be a lot of cheese with pepper. Cheese with spicy [flavours] is very interesting. In France, I make a lot of pairings with sugar. Such as, cheese and jam and cheese with fruit. I work with a physician of taste and we concluded the body wants salt and the brain wants sugar. But, there is a third element. Spice. When you add the third element, it makes a taste explosion.
What is the best time to eat cheese?
In England, people eat cheese after the dessert. It is hard then, because you are full, you have already eaten. When you eat cheese as an aperitif, at the start of the dining experience, and you pair it with alcohol, your palette is virgin, and it is the better moment to taste the cheese. In France, I do a lot of work to make cheese part of the aperitif.
Cambodia is hot and humid, what is the best temperature for cheese and how should it be stored?
Cheese likes humidity, it doesn’t like heat. That is because heat quickly develops the maturation of cheese. Humidity, in general, is very good for the cheese as it conserves it. The work of the cheesemaker is to control the humidity. Cheese likes the cool. In the 1960s, we invented something very great to store cheese in, it’s called the fridge. So, to store the cheese it is important to put it in the fridge inside a sealed box. Ventilation in the fridge dries cheese out. A plastic box is very good because it creates humidity naturally inside the container. Keeping your cheese cool and humid. Soft cheese, like Camembert is very good for Cambodia.
What reaction do you get from Cambodians trying new cheese?
I have travelled a lot in Asia, and here the reaction is very positive. In France, we compare a lot, so to give you an example: in Japan, the reaction is very scientific. Chinese people, however, are like Mediterranean people, they love to eat! So, the Cambodian people are in the middle. They like to eat and they really want to understand more. They enjoy cheese in a very positive way.
Wine is becoming more in popular in Cambodia, will this inspire more cheese?
Yes, definitely. You can observe this in many countries where the consumption of wine increases, the consumption of cheese increases. Cambodia has a culture of tasting wine and alcohol that will help them appreciate cheese. Cheese doesn’t like water. Cheese with beer is very good, cheese with coffee is very good, cheese with champagne is good as you have all the bubbles, but cheese with water, no.
What about cheese with whisky?
Whisky is very aromatic. You have woody, you have smoky, you have salty, you have a very large palette of aromatic flavours. Whisky is complex so it works with cheese very well. When you drink spirits, you have a lot of alcohol, so it is necessary to eat while drinking. Not peanuts, peanuts are fat, cheese is better.
Is Cambodia ready for cheese?
Yes, I think so. Because they eat a lot of vegetables. They have a good palette and a good sense of gastronomy. They are curious. Cambodians love eating as much as the Chinese and are as curious as the Japanese. It’s a new experience for the Cambodian people to eat cheese, but I think it’s going well. The only one they find hard is goat’s cheese. The taste is very strong.
On your shirt is the famous French motto: liberte, egalite, Camembert. Fraternity is missing.
That is because fraternity in France, will be saved by cheese. Cheese is something you share with people so it brings people together. Maybe it will be a political party someday. On the front, it says the league of extraordinary cheese makers. It is an organisation we created of crazy cheese makers like me.
Why are you called the cheese DJ?
My job is to give pleasure with cheese. To create a new experience with cheese. For example, I create a pairing of Roquefort and banana, Camembert with kiwi, a lot of different caviar with cheese, and my friend, who is a journalist, said “you are like a DJ” because I mix cheese like a DJ. So, this is the creation of a journalist, that I am the Cheese DJ. In France, we have a lot of nicknames, so for another friend in America, he calls me, Cheese Guru and in France he calls me Cheese Whizz.