The story and philosophy behind Slow Food-approved trader Mons Cheesemongers
In some respects, you could say that Mons Cheesemongers was born in Slow Food—for it was at a Slow Food festival in Bra that Jon Thrupp first met business partner Herve Mons. Herve was an affineur at his family business in France; Jon was working at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and the two quickly became engrossed in a fierce, friendly competition as to who could sell more cheese. The question of who won the contest is shrouded by history—but the sense that Mons, like Neal’s Yard Dairy and so many others at Borough Market, is the offspring of Slow Food values, endures.
“Italians understand it. If you pay five euros for a piece of parmesan and 30 for another, the five euro piece will be the worst quality and the 30 the best,” says Jon. “In the UK, however, the worst could be 30 and the best 22. The consumer has no idea of the value of cheese.” This is changing, he says, and companies like Mons are a part of that. “At their very inception, the Slow Food organisation pointed to differences in production methods and said they need to be brought forward and presented to the consumer.” They need to know what respect for traditional methods of production and maturation means—not just for communities, but for the quality of the cheese.
“If you want to force a cheese that’s four months old to taste like it’s 18 months aged, you need to break it down, and you do that by processing the breakdown of fatty acids as quickly as possible.” You do that by adding enzymes, or dying the texture of the rind or deacidifying traditional recipes. You do it by “rushing stuff”—and once you’re in “the process of processing” it is, if not a race to the bottom, then serious mission creep.
Mould of the mountain
“When people say to me, ‘I don’t like blue’, I will sample them a piece of Bleu de Termignon”—a blue colonised not by mould which has been added, as most blues are these days, but by the moulds of the Haute Maurienne mountain valley where it is made from a herd of 18 native breed cows—“and they will spin on their axis and say, ‘I don’t like blue, but I like that’. I tell them that’s because industrially made blue is high in mould build up on the inside, and the only thing to remedy clumsily made, grainy and bitter blues is industrial levels of salt.”
There are other examples where ‘unnecessary traditions’ have been whittled away, to the point of eradication in some cases. “Port Salut has become the swear word of washed rind cheeses,” says Jon, “because there isn’t one example of farmhouse production in existence any more.” It fails Jon’s bounce test: “If you throw it against the wall and it bounces back in your hands, it’s not traditional,” says Jon, only half joking.
They don’t make a habit of chucking cheeses around, but they do make sure every single cheesemaker they source from is working to a recipe “that we think is exceptional”. To that end, Jon and Herve spend months on the road visiting producers, learning about their production methods and sampling cheese.
A synapse explosion
“We need to equip ourselves to look after those cheeses across the whole spectrum: from understanding the grass the animals graze on, to the condition of the cheeses when they get to the table of the customer,” says Jon. A big part of their job is to tread that fine line between selling cheese of consistent quality, but taking enough risks to raise the bar. “Do the customers get a synapse explosion when they taste it? Or do they go off and watch TV without comment?”
Some cheeses Mon’s receives are mature enough to sell immediately; others they ripen. This cannot be rushed—nor can it really be controlled, beyond creating the right conditions and following time-honoured practices. “If you are too controlled, what you attempt will be limited,” he says. They strive for complexity, taking the cheeses further and making them more flavoursome than an industrial producer could, because they are not subject to the same rigours of supply and demand: “If you push a cheese to a lengthy maturation when you’re working on a large scale, you risk huge waste.”
Buying and selecting cheese in four to six-month batches means they can mature the cheeses to taste, thinking not just about the type of cheese, but the flavour profile, producer, and time of year. “A 12-month comté can be a great thing—if it’s from a good producer. Otherwise, it will just taste like mild cheddar.”
The heart of Slow Food
Reviewing their source of cheese on a regular basis keeps the producers striving for betterment; not in efficiency, but in quality. “People like to know what they’re buying—to talk about it,” he says. “It’s championing that one really small patch of land which produces the milk for that particular wheel of cheese”—which is, surely, at the heart of what it means to be Slow Food.