Bringing Artisanal Cheeses To Beijing

When Sharon Ruwart moved from California to Beijing in 2004, she thought she'd have to give up her beloved artisanal cheeses in China's largely cheeseless society. But the group she started, Beijing Cheese Society, is spreading a taste for fancy cheese in her adopted home country. Ruwart talks with Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Visitors to China soon discover that it is largely a country without cheese. It has been for centuries. Sharon Ruwart thought she would have to give up her great passion for gourmet cheese when she moved to Beijing from California a few years ago. But the American soon found that other ex-patriots were bemoaning their cheeseless existence, so Ruwart founded the Beijing Cheese Society. The group is trying to spread the taste for fancy cheese in her adopted home. Sharon Ruwart is on the line from her home in Beijing. Welcome to the program.

Ms. SHARON RUWART (Founder, Beijing Cheese Society): Thank you.

HANSEN: What are you tasting now?

Ms. RUWART: Right now, I'm tasting Red Hawk cheese made by the Cowgirl Creamery in Northern California. Friends of mine flew in today from California and tucked it into their bag for me.

HANSEN: Ooh, would I get in trouble if I ask you how you get the gourmet cheese for the society meetings in Beijing?

Ms. RUWART: I don't think you will. But I might.

HANSEN: All right. Can you give us a hint?

Ms. RUWART: We have volunteer cheese mules, people in the society who bring cheeses back from whatever exotic country they're traveling from. They check it in their bags and bring it to my house from the airport so that we can put in our special cheese fridge.

HANSEN: OK. Is the Cheese Society doing anything special during the Olympics?

Ms. RUWART: We're trying to work out a date with the Swiss House. There are a number of country houses that get set up during Olympic times. Switzerland has a lovely one, and they're featuring Raclette and fondue.

HANSEN: Naturally.

Ms. RUWART: Yeah, naturally. So we're trying to find a time that would work for us to do that.

HANSEN: Cool. Tell us what goes on at your regular Beijing Cheese Society events.

Ms. RUWART: About once a month we gather to taste, usually focused on cheeses from a particular country that someone's coming from. And then we compose a multiple choice cheese quiz for every event. It gets highly competitive because there's prizes for the winners as well as often a booby prize for the losers.

HANSEN: What's the prize they get in the game? Crackers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUWART: It depends. It depends on what I have on hand. It can be a can of spray cheese.

HANSEN: Ooh, Cheez Whiz.

Ms. RUWART: Yeah, or it can be something from - yeah, Cheez Whiz for the cheese whiz.

HANSEN: Why isn't there a tradition of cheese making in China?

Ms. RUWART: Well, there isn't a milk drinking or a dairy tradition, mainly because of the lack of arable land, which means you can't have ruminant animals that need a lot of pasturage.

HANSEN: What do your Chinese friends and colleagues say when they get a taste of a good Gouda?

Ms. RUWART: You know, I'm not sure that good Gouda really evokes the kind of passion for cheese that true aficionados seek. But if we move it to a really profound Roquefort or a washed rind cheese, what we find from Chinese colleagues is pretty similar to a lot of Westerners who say, I don't like goat cheese, or, I don't like smelly cheese. But I always say, we just haven't found the right one for you.

HANSEN: Sharon Ruwart, she's co-founder of the Beijing Cheese Society, and she joined us from her home in Beijing. Thank you so much.

Ms. RUWART: Thank you so much.

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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