Matthew Feroze describes himself as a ”Food obsessed Francophile chasing the cheese dream”. Well that dream came true for Englishman Matt as on January 27th 2013, he became the first foreigner to win the Concours National des Fromagers at the prestigious Salon Mondiale de Restauration et Hôtellerie in Lyon. What makes it all the most astonishing is that he spent just 24 months in the cheese business in France after deciding to learn more about his hobby – cheese!
It’s an amazing story of a young man’s passion and commitment that led to his achieving such glory and we caught up with him a couple of days after his spectacular win. When I put it to him that he is the Rocky of Cheeseland, a rank outsider in a country where cheese is ingrained in its cultural heritage, he was amused but adamant that anyone can do it and he doesn’t consider himself special in any way.
Matt revealed that as his parents lived in France in their twenties he was bought up with an understanding of the importance of French cuisine and food. When he left university he took a gap year and spent time in Aix en Provence “where I had access to a whole new selection of food and I ate a lot of cheese”. After returning to London he got a job as an accountant for the civil service but the call of cheese was still strong.
In March 2010, aged 27, Matt spent a month on a goat farm making cheese in the Côte D’Azur, working for board and lodging and leaving then girlfriend (now wife) Jen Wainwright behind in London. He says he spent time “half way up a mountain and I smelled like a goat but it was an awesome experience and I loved it”.
A year later Matt was offered a two year unpaid sabbatical from his job. By this time he says he had become a “happy consumer of cheese, seeking out the best cheese shops in London”. What does a cheese crazy man do on a two year break from work? Well, if you are Matt Feroze, you propose to your girlfriend that you both take off for France and follow the cheese dream, and that’s exactly what they did.
Matt and Jen, an editor of children’s books, left their friends and family behind in London and took off for Lyon in the south of France. Matt says he chose Lyon because “I’d been there on holiday about ten years before… it’s a big city with great culture and a really high level of gastronomy. Jen and I went for a week first to make sure it was the right thing to do. We walked through Les Halles [an indoor market considered to be of the highest gastronomic order] and I saw a cheese shop – Fromagerie Mons-Etienne Boissy… and it rang a bell but I couldn’t think why”.
The pair returned to London and started to make arrangements to move to France. Shortly before they left, Matt was shopping at Borough market in the City of London and called in to his favourite cheese shop. The bell that had rung in his mind in Lyon rang again, the shop was called Mons. Matt spoke to the manager and asked if there was any chance of work experience in the shop in France. He says “Jon Thrupp, the manager told me he’d put in a word for me and see what he could do”.
Matt and Jen moved to Lyon and were hopeful but not at all confident that anything would come of his chat with Jon Thrupp. They spent a few months waiting and got the odd encouraging email but nothing definitive and Matt started to look for work elsewhere.
In December 2011, Fromagerie Mons-Etienne Boissy offered Matt two weeks seasonal work in their shop. “I did menial jobs but I learned more in those two weeks than I’d learned in all my time before about cheese”. He met the owners Hervé Mons and Etienne Boissy, themselves both Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. They liked his passion and thought he had potential “but they said I had a lot of training to do and put me through five months working in the cheese caves and improving my French before I moved onto working in the shop”.
Talking to Matt about his training is to understand the deep level of commitment and hard work this young Englishman needed to put in to get him to where he is now. As he says “It’s not a lucrative industry but people are passionate – it’s almost a calling. When you work in the cheese world in France you don’t have to dig far to get to social history, science and human interaction stories, there are so many great stories about cheese and I find it fascinating”.
He constantly praises his employers and the people he works with saying that “I’ve come through the educational system of the French cheese industry”. Without their commitment to teaching him, he would never have been able to build his knowledge and understanding of the cheese world as he has. He says that “in France the artisanal style of working is heavily ingrained and skills such as this are celebrated”.
Matt describes working in the caves as “quite physical, there’s lots of lifting in the ageing process of a cheese. If you’re creating a rind, the point of contact between the cheese and the world, e.g. a maturing cave, is humid and musty around 10-12°C… mould forms in the rind; it can be different colours according to the different bacteria where it is exposed to the air. But where the cheese touches the surface its sitting on it behaves differently, so you have to regularly turn it over – every cheese. In the shop there are about 130 cheeses, but in the maturing caves there are many more. In the winter there are fewer in number but they are bigger, a wheel of Emmental can be up to 100kg – sometimes more. We turn them by hand. Some cheese houses mechanise the process but if you do that you can’t see the process in action, you don’t see how it’s developing and for a fromager that is part of the training, a deep understanding of the ageing process in the caves. Sometimes we get batches of thousands of a particular cheese, they must all be turned over – we check how humid they are, how wet, the salt content, how fast they are developing, sometimes we separate them… “
Matt loves the history of cheese saying that every cheese has its own story. “Knowing the history of a cheese makes it more enjoyable to eat… when you know that a cheese has been produced by a certain farmer and that in his fields he allows no dogs, there are no footpaths, the milk tastes different – it comes through in the cheese but when you know it, you taste it better”.
One of the hardest things for Matt to overcome was to learn improve his French language skills which he says was a critical learning curve, there are specialist words in the cheese world and if you don’t know them “it causes suspicion, that you don’t have the knowledge or the know-how. In this job, you have to prove yourself, every day”.
Matt clearly proved himself to his employers as just a year later they put him forward for the biggest cheese monger competition in France. Held every two years, the best cheesemongers in France compete for the title of the Champion Fromager de France. Matt says he went in not expecting to win but to be “stretched and challenged” and enthuses about the support he received from his company and even his fellow competitors.
The contest involved several stages including a blind taste test which required competitors to recognise three cheeses, the type of milk used to manufacture it (cow, goat, sheep, mixed), the family of the cheese, the soil and the time of ripening. There was a test to cut cheese to the most precise and specific weights and critically a test to create a perfect cheese platter.
For this last task 25 cheeses were to be chosen for the platter; the role of fromager is to source all the cheeses – to build a relationship with suppliers, try the cheeses, understand their history and the depth of taste and bring all the knowledge to create a spectacular cheese board. Ten of the cheeses were imposed by the competition organisers and with his own choices Matt says he “tried to get balance and a good representation of international cheeses, different milks. I needed to remember that the cheese platter ultimately had to be eaten”.
Against all the odds Matt’s hard work, dedication, passion and commitment have bought him the most covered cheese title in France, perhaps even the world – 2013 Champion des Fromagers de France.
Read how Matthew Feroze put his award winning cheeseboard together and his wonderful descriptions of the cheeses.
Review of Matt Feroze’s The Cheese and I, Matt’s story of this cheese journey, a great book of a man’s passion and winning against the odds…
Goats cheese with vegetables quiche recipe from Daniel Galmiche
Chavignol – goats cheese and oodles of charm