As is widely known, the Chinese traditionally have little taste for cheese. In the past, eating it was seen as a barbarian habit. The American anthropogist E.N. Anderson mentions in his The Food of China that he once heard it described as ‘the mucous discharge of some old cow’s guts, allowed to putrefy’ – a quote I always like to repeat to Westerners expressing disgust at Chinese eating habits.
When I lived in Chengdu in the 1990s, it was impossible to buy any cheese except for small packages, exorbitantly priced, of some horrible processed stuff – and even this was available only at the city’s single backpackers’ cafe, the Flower Garden. This was why, when a British TV producer for whom I’d done a little translation work asked me if her crew could bring me anything from London, the first thing that came to my mind was cheese. A week later, a large piece of Stilton, perfectly ripe, was handed over to me in a hotel lobby – it was such a treat I threw a dinner party in its honour.
I’ve had little success in introducing cheese to my own Chinese friends. Most of them find it pretty revolting, if they’re willing to taste it at all. I’m very curious as to how the Stilton venture will go, particularly as Stilton is towards the more extreme end of the cheese scale in terms of its smell and appearance. The European ex-pat community will be thrilled, no doubt, but will they be able to persuade the locals to give it a try?