It was lunchtime, in a private room at the Xianheng Tavern, the most famous restaurant in the ancient Chinese city of Shaoxing.
I opened the plastic boxes that I'd carried, sealed, all the way from London, and the stench of farmhouse cheeses began to waft across the room. The Chinese chefs and waiting staff seated around the table eyed them warily. Only two of the younger chefs had any cheese-related experience. None of the others, including the manager and executive chef of the Xianheng, Mao Tianyao, had tasted it in any form.
Cheese is not a favourite food in China, to put it mildly. Traditionally, dairy products were associated with the nomadic people who lived on the fringes of China and who were regarded as fearful barbarians. The Han Chinese, with a few notable exceptions, avoided eating dairy foods altogether: many were, and still are, lactose-intolerant. In recent years, influenced by western lifestyles, Chinese parents have begun to feed milk to their children, and their purchasing power has contributed to soaring worldwide milk prices. Cheese, however, is still generally regarded as beyond the pale. A few sophisticated Shanghainese might eat Stilton just as sophisticated Londoners eat tripe and chitterlings, but many people, especially in the provinces, have never tasted it.
But if the Chinese disdain the cheeses enjoyed by Europeans, they themselves adore some stinky foods that would appal many foreigners. Shaoxing, an hour's drive from the Zhejiang provincial capital Hangzhou, is best known for its rice wines, but it is also the Chinese headquarters of "stinking and fermented" (chou mei) delicacies. Although I first went to Shaoxing to taste the wine, over several visits I became fascinated by its odorous foods, including the relatively well-known stinking beancurd, and also "fermented thousand layers" (made from beancurd skin), and various semi-rotted vegetables. All were shocking at first taste, with their earthy, old underwear aromas, but strangely addictive. "Fermented thousand layers" reminded me of the part of a high old Stilton that is closest to the rind, that yellow, sandy bit that gets right up your nose, dirty and delicious.
Over several visits to Shaoxing, I wondered what the locals, such ardent lovers of rotted soymilk and vegetable stalks, would make of rotted cow's milk, otherwise known as cheese. Finally, I returned to Shaoxing with a boxful of artisanal cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy in London, including the smelliest I could find in the shop. I had selected one mild hard cheese, Isle of Mull, to serve as a kind of toe-in-the-water; Stichelton, which is an unpasteurised version of Stilton; pale, veined Harbourne Blue; Ardrahan, a fairly whiffy washed-rind cheese that I adore; Milleens, another washed-rind variety with a punchy, farmyardy aroma that acquires a hint of ammonia as it ripens; and a wildly smelly Brie de Meaux. By the time I reached Shaoxing after a week on the road, the cheeses had all ripened nicely, and some were beginning to ooze.
At the Xianheng, a waitress cut the cheeses into pieces, and the assembled tasters began to pick them up with their chopsticks, sniffing and tasting. And where I had been impressed by what cheese and stinky soya products had in common, these culinary professionals were immediately struck by their differences. "Although in some ways you could say the flavours of cheese and fermented beancurd are similar," said Mao, "vegetable stinky foods are very clean and clear in the mouth (qing kou), and they disperse quickly, while milky foods are greasy in the mouth (ni kou), they coat your tongue and palate, and they have a long, lingering aftertaste."
Two other chefs said the cheeses had a heavy shan wei (muttony odour), an ancient term used by southern Chinese to describe the slightly unsavoury tastes associated with the northern nomads. Another said that the selection "smells like Russians". "The difference," he added, "is that the stinky things Chinese people eat give them smelly breath, while stinky dairy things affect the sweat that comes out of your skin."
Chinese fermented beancurd, an intense-tasting relish, had always reminded me of a ripe blue cheese, but the Shaoxing tasters, faced with a Stichelton, disagreed. "It does have a rich umami taste," said chef Chen Judi, "but there's also a bitter aftertaste that people in this region wouldn't like at all." Several of the tasters were repelled by the sourness and astringent aftertaste of the Isle of Mull, which I'd thought was the most innocuous. "Our rotted thousand layers just doesn't have that sour taste," said Mao.
The cheeses they found most palatable were the Harbourne Blue ("this is quite close to Shaoxing tastes," said Mao, "neither bitter nor sour, and quite clean in the mouth") and, surprisingly, the very strong Milleens, with its ammoniac whiff. "I think people here would be able to tolerate this," he added. The only cheese that provoked real consternation was the Brie. "It has this animal stench that assaults your nose," said Dai Jianjun. "Definitely the stinkiest," said Mao, "I really can't bear it." Most of the others agreed. Only one chef, Sun Guoliang, actually liked it. "It has such a complex flavour, like stinking beancurd, rotted thousand sheets and fermented beancurd, all mixed together."
After our first course of cheeses, we tasted some stinky local dishes for comparative purposes. And I had to agree with the assembled company that, despite the formidable aromas of the steamed stinking beancurd and the rotted amaranth stalks, their flavours were clean, dispersing quickly in the mouth, without the creamy clinginess of cheese. The cubes of fermented beancurd, too, had a magnificent creaminess, but it didn't hang around: quickly vanishing to leave room for appreciation of the delicate soups and stews that came afterwards.