Some find their happy place in the gym, pounding on treadmills and lifting weights. Not Ai Ming Syu, the founder of The Cheese Ark. She eschews what we think of as a workout, opting instead for pure physical labour. She prefers to shovel poop, lead cows to greener pastures, and of course, make cheese.
“I’m not afraid of working hard. In fact, it’s rather refreshing,” says Syu. That’s also demonstrated by the former advertising honcho’s year as a baker, where she relished “bouncing out of bed at 3am and running off to work”.
A petite figure who sports a distinctive bowl cut, Syu laments how her hairstyle has become a fashion statement. “I couldn’t care less about my hair. I wanted a style that I didn’t have to comb,” says Syu, who is usually in and out of her hairdresser’s in 20 minutes.
Her blase attitude towards her hair is the opposite to how seriously she treats her cheeses. Since opening The Cheese Ark in 2013, Syu now works with over 20 artisanal farms in Europe. Most of these farms are run by husband-and-wife teams, and Syu has come to call these couples her friends, whom she visits once or twice a year. When with these artisans, she takes part in the production process, shaping cheeses; and the farm work (she has trimmed goats’ hooves).
Her close relationships with these farmers have captured the attention of top chefs. Julien Royer, chef-owner of Odette restaurant, is one. Like Syu, he shares a passion for working with artisanal producers. Royer now carries a selection of cheeses from The Cheese Ark at Odette. You can also buy them from the Keyyes Marketplace.
Do you still shop for cheeses at the supermarket?
I consciously try to stay away from the supermarket, only because it makes for a very bad picture if I am seen sniffing at commercial products! Sometimes, my friends try to set me up — they might make me hold a giant pack of Chesdale and force me to take a picture with it!
How do I store cheese properly at home?
If the cheese is already sitting in an air-tight container or tub, leave it as is.
Cheeses also like clean surfaces. They enjoy new dressings every day, and they like to change their outfits. So, you should be changing the cling film every two to three days, even if you don’t eat or touch the cheese. Always use clean hands and clean knives when you do so.
What’s a big no-no when it comes to handling cheese?
Taking it out, not finishing it and then putting it back in the fridge. You should always cut out how much you want to eat. Otherwise, the shelf life of your cheese is significantly compromised.
What’s the best way to enjoy stinky cheese?
By stinky cheeses, I assume you mean washed rinds. Their attack on the nose is just too much even for me — I don’t enjoy the sensations. Having said that, if I were to eat washed rinds, I’d enjoy it with lots of sweet things. I prefer honey over jams. And you know what’s really good? Middle Eastern date syrup. It’s delicious. Just drizzle some over the cheese. You can get it from Mustafa.
What’s the deal with affinage?
Everybody makes the mistake of thinking that cheese can be aged when they take it home. No. That’s a hard ‘no’. It’s like trying to ripen a cut avocado — it just does not work. Tell the cheesemonger the level of ripeness you prefer, and he or she should be able to pick you a ready-aged cheese you can take home.
What wines pair well with cheeses?
Actually, I’d do it the other way round. Pick a cheese to go with the wines that you’ll be having, instead of vice-versa.
If you are having champagne, go for something really creamy and mild. The slight crack of the bubbles with something luscious and flowy is a nice experience.
For a dry, crisp white wine, a nice hard cheese will go with it. I also like big, heavy reds from south of France. Lots of sun, lots of rich flavours. This will always go very nicely with a gruyere or comte.
Peaty whiskies actually go really nicely with a fresh, fluffy goat’s cheese, while sweeter whiskies work better with a mimolette or blue cheese.
What cheese should I have for dessert?
I don’t have a sweet tooth. I eat the odd piece of chocolate every few months. But I do like a blue cheese, called Blu del Moncenisio. It’s a crumbly and creamy blue, and it’s like savoury chocolate to me. I’d take a cube and eat it just as I would a piece of chocolate, slowly letting it melt in my mouth.
Julien Royer’s selection of his favourite cheeses from The Cheese Ark is available on the Keyyes Marketplace.