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French restaurants lament China's ban on stinky, soft cheese

  • Chinese authorities banned a host of soft cheese on worries about the bacteria found on some varieties
  • French restaurant owners in Beijing say there will have to be some adjustments
An "x" is drawn through a selection of cheeses that are no longer available after bans from Chinese authorities.
CNBC
An "x" is drawn through a selection of cheeses that are no longer available after bans from Chinese authorities.

BEIJING – Axel Moreaux, a French restaurant owner in Beijing, just wanted to plan a new cheese board for the menu.

"I said, 'OK, now, I'm going to buy a lot of cheese from you,'" Moreaux said, recalling the start of big cheese negotiations with a supplier a few days ago. But the meeting ended abruptly when he learned he could no longer buy the cheeses he wanted.

Chinese authorities have banned a host of soft cheese over worries the bacteria colonies found on some varieties aren't officially approved for import. Impacted cheeses include French brie, camembert and roquefort, Italian gorgonzola and English stilton. It's perplexing foreign restaurateurs as they scramble to stretch remaining cheese stocks while revamping menus.

"You cannot provide a plate of French cheese if you don't have all that stinky, famous cheese, like camembert," said Moreaux, lamenting that he'd already printed new menus and purchased wood plates in preparation for the cheese spread launch. He's also getting rid of one of his bestsellers, a goat cheese salad.

Across town at Maison Flo, French chef David Thiery is gearing up for the restaurant's giant 18th anniversary celebration in three days — without any cheese.

"Normally, we should have cheese for everyone, but the supplier just cut off the order," he said. "No more cheese ... it's not a joke."

Cheeses Thiery cooks with — hard varieties, like parmesan, emmental and mozzarella — are unaffected by the ban, so many of Flo's dishes will stay the same.

Without the ability to replenish the restaurant's 10 or so cheese varieties on hand, he estimates Flo's current stock of soft, stinky cheeses will be gone in a week. And that means explaining the death of the cheese trolley to customers. "They will understand, I think," he said. "We are living in another country with [its] own rule and regulation, and we have to accept it."

"Life continues, and I just have to adapt," he said, making it clear he planned to consume large amounts of cheese on visits back home to France.

Others are even starting to wonder if the cheese ban is meant to encourage domestic companies to get in big on the cheese-making business.

"If they close now the border, I think it's that they know this will be a big market — so why import, instead of producing it?" said Clement Bacri, owner of Beijing's Bistro 108. It could "increase [the] economy of China — from my point of view, it may be the reason."

Clement Bacri, the owner of Beijing's Bistro 108, stands at a display case.
CNBC
Clement Bacri, the owner of Beijing's Bistro 108, stands at a display case.

Foreign firms have long complained of China's protectionist policies, a debate that normally centers on sectors like technology, so applying it to cheese might seem a bit unusual. Still, China's cheese market is ballooning, forecast to hit $800 million this year, with sales to grow on average 15 percent a year through 2022, according to Euromonitor. The smelly, softer varieties now blocked from import, though, are typically more popular with foreigners.

Whatever the reason behind the ban, Bacri, who opened shop less than a year ago, refuses to be fazed — even as he acknowledges profit growth might be a little harder to come by without certain cheeses on the menu.

"Now we need to find solution ... we are thinking about making cheese ourselves," he said. Bacri's already started looking for raw milk providers in the area. While he can't make brie or camembert, fresh cheeses like feta and cream cheese are possible, and could spice up a salad, a soufflé or even pastry puffs.

And although people often think of wine and cheese when it comes to France, "people have to know that France is not only cheese," Bacri said. "We're good with oysters, very good with foie gras, with duck, with beef."

If European officials have their way, the cheese ban might end up getting reversed.

"The European Commission is in contact with the Chinese authorities on this technical issue and we hope that this matter can be resolved satisfactorily and normal trade can resume as soon as possible," the European Union's delegation to China in Beijing said in a statement.

After all, this isn't China's first cheese ban — British cheese in 2014 and Italian mozzarella in 2008 were temporarily axed over food safety concerns.

But until then, lovers of pungent, soft cheeses are facing a hard, new reality.

Moreaux, who owns five restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, beelined for the closest grocery store after his botched cheese supplier meeting. "I ran," he said. "And I buy the last two camembert."