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According to Izaak Edge, manager of The Cheeseworks Cheltenham, “It’s honestly easier than you think to go about hosting cheese tasting evenings. People absolutely love cheese, and it’s not hard to get them interested.”
In fact, as Patricia Michelson, owner of La Fromagerie, explains, “We started in-house events after opening our second branch in Marylebone in 2002 and they were an instant success as customers wanted to learn more about cheese but also about pairing, seasonality, and regionality.”
But there is a lot of work that goes into a successful cheese evening – it’s not just a case of offering up a plate of cheese and a glass of red wine. There are several things that are important to get right, and they might just make or break your cheese event.
Of course, the biggest decision is the cheese itself and accompanying pairings. As Fraser MacLellan, owner of Froth & Rind, explains, “You want customers to enjoy the cheese so much that they want to take some home and come back for more. If they tell friends and family about it that’s even better.”
In order to do this, you need some serious cheese knowledge, which indies are known for. “We have cheese teams who are literally nuts about cheese”, Patricia explains. “They talk about it all day at work, even in their breaks, and we have a senior cheesemonger dedicated to education and learning who is creating systems, team talks and is a tutor and advisor with the Academy of Cheese.
“While we want to make our events as collectively enjoyable and delicious as possible, we want to give the attendees a real insight to help them build their choices and creativity when choosing cheese for cooking, cheese boards and gatherings with family and friends. We want to push forward to help create a wider knowledge as well as a curiosity in the world of cheese.”
By using this knowledge, independent cheese shops can provide a truly unique experience for their customers and cheese-curious attendees. Fraser has learnt, “Anything different, unusual or really strong gets people talking and involved in the evening. If there’s a really pungent cheese, for example, many people may not fancy this, but if you can pair it well and bring out the best in the cheese and whatever you’ve paired it with then this will please everyone and a scary cheese suddenly isn’t so scary after all.
“Sometimes we’ll throw in a pairing that doesn’t work, just so everyone can see that it really is a skill to find the really great pairings”, he added.
Hosting a successful cheese evening is a bit more complicated than just handing out pairings of cheese. For Fraser, “It’s a case of taking our knowledge and sharing it with our customers in an engaging way. This will include background knowledge on the cheese, how it’s made, and any interesting stories or history.
“In serving the cheese there’s an opportunity to talk about all these things, plus other little things like why it’s been portioned in a certain way or the pairings that you’re going to serve it with. If there’s time and space it can also be fun for the customers to see you portioning the cheese, again giving you the option of talking about why you’re doing it that way.”
Patricia mirrors these thoughts, “Having had nearly 20 years of experience in cheese events we have seen the progression of what people want from a tasting tutorial. It is as much to do with where the cheese comes from and its relationship with history, politics, land and its pasture and breeds of animals.”
Izaak adds, “People who want to be there are interested in the thing that you’re talking about, so the more info that you have on the cheeses you’re doing for the tasting, the better.
“It also helps to have a second person hosting with you I find, just so you can have someone to bounce off whilst you’re doing the tasting. A danger of them is that it gets a bit too heavy, boring and technical, which isn’t necessarily what people want. If you keep it a bit lighter, people will be more engaged and tend to enjoy it more as well!”
Timings and space
An important issue to consider is when to host your cheese evenings. Fraser explains, “We find that weekends aren’t great as a lot of people already have other plans. The start of the week is also a tough sell as everyone is back at work. We’d go for a Thursday normally, as people are getting into that weekend feeling and a cheese evening is a good intro to the weekend.”
How many people to host is also worth thinking about, as trying to cram in as many people as possible can backfire. Fraser adds, “Of course, you need to make a profit so you’ll need a minimum number of people, but cheese evenings work best when they are quite intimate and the guests can get more involved with us or the other guests. It’s important that everyone there feels part of the evening and can properly hear everything that’s being said.”
Izaak concludes, “Limited indoor space is something that we struggle with, as we only have a tiny shop. I’ve done plenty of tastings outside though, and as long as the weather is okay, they work fine, it’s an easy fix! Plus, most people enjoy sitting outside when it’s warm and having a nice cool drink and some delicious cheese!”