My French Melbourne: French cheese with Harper & Blohm
Hummm, le fromage ! Nothing says French more than a slither of Brie or a wedge of Camembert…
Olivia Sutton shares our feelings: currently owner of Harper & Blohm fromagerie in Essendon, she has had experience with cheese from Dublin to King Island, and harbours fond memories of taking 3kg wheels of brie back to boarding school as a treat… So, we couldn’t think of anyone more qualified!
Come with us as we delve into the world of an expert fromagère: which cheeses sell the quickest, what you’ll learn in a cheese masterclass, and why we should take the time to sample some “not-so-pretty looking cheeses”.
Tell us the story behind Harper & Blohm. Where does your passion for cheese come from?
The name is both my grandmothers’ maiden names. I worked for the Calendar Cheese Company (CCC) for almost ten years; a lot of my interest comes from the large array of cheeses that Will Studd has given us access to in Australia. I also worked for Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in Dublin while taking a year out from working at CCC where I learnt a lot about raw milk European cheese.
I spent a lot of my childhood holidays on King Island and ate a lot of their cheese during the 80s and 90s. I have fond memories of taking 3kg wheels of Brie back to the boarding house at school for the other girls as an after-school treat.
During my early 20s I did the travel and working in London thing – this is where I discovered real Brie de Meaux, [which] was such a luxury. Some time after returning to Melbourne, I found Fromage de Meaux, but I was somewhat disappointed because it did not taste the same. This is when I discovered the difference between pasteurised and raw milk cheese.
What was the most challenging part of adapting French cheese to the Melbourne lifestyle?
Quality not quantity: getting people to purchase small amounts regularly.
More and more French people are moving to Melbourne. Why do you think this is happening?
The grass is always greener. Most Australians would love to live in Paris or a small French village. I’m guessing the French want to live in Australia to enjoy the wide-open space and beautiful beaches. Also, Melbourne is the most liveable city in the world, so why would you not want to stay here?
What do you love most about Melbourne? And what do you love most about France?
Melbourne’s parks and green spaces, and also the diverse array for food that has been brought to us from all over the world. We are spoilt.
People’s respect for food [in France], and the small markets in regional villages specialising in their local seasonal products that are available more than once a month or once a week.
What is a typical day like at Harper & Blohm?
Restocking cheese, finding new products, looking after customers and assisting them in finding just the right product, and lots of cleaning. The fun bit: tasting cheese.
I really enjoy seeing the joy an amazing cheese can bring to somebody who may have only tried standard supermarket cheeses in the past.
Tell us more about your masterclasses. Who comes along, and what can an attendee expect from one session?
Most [attendees] have a love of cheese but are unsure what wines to serve with each cheese.
We work through six cheeses and six wines. I talk a little about the cheese and the history, what to look for when purchasing, and what to avoid. Then we do the same with the wines. A lot of Australians are unsure what they are getting when they purchase French wines or what the labels mean so we go through this. So next time your go to get a Sauv Blanc you will maybe try a Sancerre because you now know that’s a Sauvignon blanc.
[We also teach] basic, classic, wine and cheese pairings. Then [we have] an open conversation about either wines or the style of cheese. “What’s the difference between Brie and Camembert?” is also a question that comes up. It’s really up to the group; sometimes you get some really good questions, which then leads to a good group conversation.
What do you enjoy most about the masterclasses?
I like to see people try new cheeses and try things they may not normally purchase. More often than not, people are very surprised how much they like a very smelly or wrinkly cheese that they may not normally pick. I really enjoy seeing the joy an amazing cheese can bring to somebody who may have only tried standard supermarket cheeses in the past.
Hmmm, that’s like asking who is your favourite child! My favourite cheese changes with the seasons.
What are three most popular and three least popular cheeses? Why do you think this is so?
Comté is by far my most popular cheese – it’s sweet, fruity and well balanced, everybody loves it. Then Epoisses de Bourgogne – I think because of its looks, people are interested in trying it, then once they do they can’t believe how good it tastes. And truffle Brie – a luxury treat or to take somewhere special.
Some people really don’t like goat’s cheese but I always offer them a taste of some good quality goat’s milk cheese and this often changes their mind. Then you get people who don’t like blue cheese.
Is there a cheese that you believe to be underrated and that more people should try and why?
The sometimes not-so-pretty looking cheeses from the Loire Valley such as Sainte-Maure de Touraine logs with ash or the Valençay style pyramids. Once you get past the darking wrinkly rinds, you have the cleanest and most flavoursome porcelain white cheese. I often say the ugliest cheeses are the tastiest.
What qualities does an exceptional fromagère need to succeed and really excel in this business?
Knowledge, quality products, and not to be intimidating to educate the customer without being a know-all.
Businesses selling local, artisan products seem to be an integral part of the French identity. A sense of tradition has managed to continue in French communities, more so than in many others around the world – why do you think this is so? How do buying habits of Melburnian residents differ?
The French respect food and where it’s from more than Australians. [Melburnians] are more weekend shoppers, or special occasion shoppers; we are getting better at being seasonal shoppers.
In Melbourne, do you have a favourite boulangerie, fromagerie, café, patisserie, boutique … ?
Tivoli Road bakery for bread and pastries, Market Lane Coffee for coffee, Macarons by Josephine for macarons or lunch, Burch & Purchese for desserts or chocolate, Gerald’s Bar (North Carlton), Harry & Frankie (Port Melbourne) or Bellota (South Melbourne) all have an amazing selection of wines by the glass and fantastic food.
What’s your favourite type of cheese? Have you visited Harper & Blohm already? Let us know in the comments box below!
Harper & Blohm is located at 80 Primrose St, Essendon – watch out for the online store opening soon! We’d also recommend following Olivia on Twitter for details of upcoming wine and cheese pairing master classes.All photos courtesy of Harper & Blohm.