I’m finally sitting at my desk after a very busy couple of weeks. I’m back after one of the most enjoyable and hectic few days in London. It’s always lovely to visit, primarily because I get to catch up with my closest friends. London is a happening place – there’s always something new to see and do and this time was pretty special. Here’s why.
A month or so before my trip, I was contacted by Quarto Publishing asking me whether I would like to have a look at one of their new releases: A Year in Cheese. The team behind the book are the guys from Androuet, a charming artisan cheese shop which opened in 2009 at Old Spitalfields Market (shop entrance in Lamb Street). It is owned and run by the Guarnieri brothers, Alex and Leo, and the recipes are developed by their Italian chef Alessandro Grano. Androuet in London forms part of a number of shops including eight in Paris and two in Stockholm. Androuet started in Paris in 1909 and the London branch is run under license by the Guarnieris.
Apart for my fondness for cookbooks in general (no news there, of course), the title and concept behind this book caught my attention. At that stage, right before I was sent the book I was just interested. The book took a good three weeks (more close to a month I would say) to arrive. It got stuck in some postal office, goodness knows where. Perhaps you can imagine my frustration. Four days before my trip to London, a courier rang my doorbell at 6.45am with a package. (That may be an insane hour for you and me, but that’s how they roll here on the rock.) Finally. I read parts of the book later during the day and decided to write something about it, although by then I knew there was no way I could produce a review before leaving.
What I didn’t realise then is how lucky that delay was to be. I contacted the guys at Androuet that morning and asked if I could visit the shop, take a few photos and perhaps have a little chat with someone at the shop. Then I went about my day, left my phone at home and couldn’t check my messages. No one’s going to answer this today I thought. Boy was I wrong on that one! Alex answered and a meeting was set up on the 4th December. So exactly 6 years to the day of the shop opening in London (as proudly stated by Alex during our chat) J and I headed over to Old Spitalfields Market, cameras in tow of course, feeling excited and somewhat nervous.
The front of the shop on Lamb Street is simple and elegant, with copies of A Year in Cheese displayed behind one of the windows. The customers inside seemed to be regulars, and the team were busy. By the time we moved to the cheese bar on the opposite end of the shop for lunch, this was also almost full.
We were greeted by Geoffrey Nivard, who is in charge of the wholesale side of the business. A huge smile right there. “Alex is here and will be with you shortly!” And he was. He leapt up the stairs, big grin, right hand outstretched ready for a handshake, a heartfelt “Buongiorno”, introductions made and bam, we were ready to go. (Whatever nervousness I was feeling just went away because there was no formality here.) What was important for him was to explain the philosophy behind the company, the mindset and drive of the team. It is clear from the start that for Alex and Leo Guarnieri this enterprise is more than a business.
Alex kindly presented me with a signed copy of the book and sat down with us for a brief chat about how he initially worked at Androuet in Paris after he left university. The result of his working there developed into a genuine appreciation for cheese and he trained as a fromager. He decided to move to London after he was introduced to British cheeses at Paxton & Whitfield, with whom Androuet is partnered today. It is clear he likes to travel and I take it that he’s a citizen of the world at heart. I get that.
The Guarnieris’ love of food is evident. The ‘About’ section in the book starts with the basics: they were raised surrounded by genuine ingredients from the start.
“…We had cheese, butter and homemade jam. We both grew up with exceptional food.”
You cannot sell something unless you know what you’re talking about. Such a business cannot do well without commitment, discipline and lots of heart, and the brothers have bucketloads of each. In the beginning they worked from a stall at the Market and did everything themselves. Eventually they opened the shop and a restaurant and wine bar. From what I understood they decided to close the restaurant recently, while keeping the wine and cheese bar going. Alex told us that he prefers to focus more on the quality of the product and to make sure of this he had to let something go. Their business has grown a lot during these past six years and they now employ around fifteen people. The Duck & Waffle and the French Embassy are customers.
Next Alex showed us around the shop itself, rows and rows of beautiful cheeses, all in sections: hard cheeses, soft cheeses, cow’s milk, goat’s milk, ewe’s milk, all seasonal and in all shapes and sizes, from Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland and the list will continue to grow. As expected, this 31-year-old is a well of information – all given freely with a lovely French accent…
I was genuinely blown away by the selection of cheeses in the shop, even more so when Alex gave us a tour of the basement where they are stored and matured. Alex took some in his hand so that I could take some pictures. It was as though he was handling a baby. We went to the shop for one last time to sample some cheeses. I may have the memory of a goldfish, and I can barely even remember the names of the cheeses in the shop, however I will not forget the Gruyère. Never. And after that I was completely hooked, so I decided that J and I and my brother-in-law should stay for lunch. After taking some more photos of the place and one with Alex.
From the menu, we chose to have the fondue, some charcuterie, wine and of course dessert. We went for the fondue because it seemed the natural choice. It was really good – I hoped that my beloved Gruyère was included somewhere in there but I don’t think so. If what they do at the cheese bar is the same recipe in the book, then it’s Comté. So I guess it’s a good excuse to go back and ask! The real star of the show for me though was the cheesecake. It’s served with a raspberry compote and one of my dining companions described it as “divine”. I have to agree!
A few more words on the book
I never thought of cheese as seasonal. Asparagus yes, strawberries yes, cheese? Well I just learnt that it is. To me, A Year in Cheese is something in between a beginner’s guide and a manual, without the pretension. I don’t know much about cheese and yet I didn’t feel patronised when reading the book. Always a good thing. The guys know what they’re doing and are an authority on the subject. This comes across in the confident writing.
Apart from its beautiful photos, especially the ones at the front and the close-ups, there are a number of reasons I took a liking to this cookbook. The recipes are honest. I find that there are two kinds of recipe books on the market: those nice coffee table cheffy books that are precisely that – good for keeping on display or collecting dust, and those to be used and reused to infinity. The latter is what you get from chef Grano. He doesn’t need to show off in order to showcase his talent. The recipes reflect his cooking style, simple and with the freshest of ingredients. At the end of each page the book offers a short description of the cheese used in that particular recipe. If that is not available in your neck of the woods (as I suspect will often happen in mine) an alternative in texture and taste is suggested. The book has a cheeseboard guide at the end of the chapters and there’s a small section on wine pairings at the end. Perfect for this time of year.
A Year in Cheese is published by Francis Lincoln, RRP £20.00
(This is not a sponsored post. I was kindly sent the book and press release by Quarto Publishing UK. My lunch at Androuet was paid by my own monies. Just to be clear.)