We talk cheese with Leo Guarneri

Brothers Leo and Alex Guarneri bring French cheese, cuisine and an organic sensibility to their operation in Spitalfields market. Supplying artisanal cheeses to the restaurant market and running a small restaurant of their own, they’ve been honing their product in London for eight years, as Leo recounts…

How did you end up as a French cheesemonger in an English market?

My brother Alex is a master cheesemonger, working in the cheese industry since he was 17. I was working for five years in the kitchen in Le Cinq, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. And when Alex came to London he was amazed by how good the British cheese was, so it’s really British cheese that brought us here. We realised that the concept that French people produce all the best cheese was not really true and although we still have a really wide range of French cheese, there was so much else to discover. Alex was the head maturer for Paxton & Whitfield and after a year he decided he wanted to set up a little stall in Spitalfields selling cheese with Androuet [historic French cheesemonger since 1909].

Tell me about Androuet…

The founder, Mr Androuet, was one of the first people to do maturing. Before, in France, production was very localised and cheese was eaten locally, so there was no need for ageing. But Mr Androuet understood the concept of centralising a lot of small cheeses from all over France, ageing them in Paris and selling them when they are ready.

What’s the key to maturing cheese well?

It’s an art. There are no rules. You can work with a cheese for one year, and then because we are very seasonal in our selection, when you come back to the same cheese you wouldn’t treat it exactly the same or mature it for the same time.

So a bit like natural wine, it’s unpredictable because it’s a living product…

Exactly. There’s a fermentation process, if the farmer respects the land and gives good food to his cows, then the cheese benefits. So there’s a whole process that’s shared. That’s what I love about natural winemakers - they understand that you have to respect the land and that if you don’t, you’ll never be able to achieve something interesting, according to our values.

Who gave you your introduction to the world of natural wine?

Our education in natural wine really came with Les Caves and [then employee] Florian Perate, who’s back in France now, but he introduced us to Alsace wine like Pierre Frick. Natural wine is not very well understood even in the artisanal cheese world. A lot of people in the cheese business go for conventional wines. At the start it was easy to get lost in it all, but now for us it has to be natural or biodynamic - we wouldn’t go for more conventional wines at all. We try to be in the same mindset as winemakers.

What’s it like working with your brother?

We’ve had very separate roles since day one, so I look after the operation of the restaurant and Alex looks after the maturation of the cheese and the wholesale business, supplying the restaurant trade. After a while we found our balance - anyone starting a new business knows it’s hard and you struggle and you’re not sure if it’s the right decision, so you’ll always have some arguments about it. But now it’s perfect. To have a family business with my brother, it’s a dream. We trust each other to look after things when the other is not around and that’s so important.

"A lot of people in the cheese business go for conventional wines. At the start it was easy to get lost in it all, but now for us it has to be natural or biodynamic - we wouldn’t go for more conventional wines at all. We try to be in the same mindset as winemakers."

Do you have any plans to expand?

In the first two years we were here, we were so busy and really thought it was a business that could expand. Eight years later we’re still in the same place. But there’s a good reason! First, we wanted to get the concept exactly the way we wanted it. So we’ve never stopped developing that way. Every year, we think we get better and create something new. Also after a few years - as everyone knows who works in this business, it’s non-stop - we decided to step back a little bit and travel. So during the winter, one of us is here, and the other is travelling, sourcing different foods from different countries. We really want to get that balance, instead of opening a load of outlets and being permanently stuck in London and too busy to move. Also, since day one, we knew we didn’t want to be part of a trend, opening outlets and getting media attention, all that. We wanted to grow organically - we didn’t pay for any advertising or PR - we just believed in working with chefs, keeping our clients, to build something solid. We represent an established place in France and wanted to bring that same feeling - we have a great team and wanted to keep it feeling like a family.

So we’ll keep building our wholesale operation and try to get more people appreciating our cheese, but we won’t have any more outlets.

You’ve published a book on ‘seasonality’ in cheese. Tell us about that…

Last year, we released a cookbook, which was a great chance for us to show what we do.

Back in the 1920s, Mr Androuet wrote a lot about seasonality and the concept was lost in the 1970s, when people were making cheese all year round. But basically, when animals are grazing outside they have the best grass and this happens from spring to October. So that’s when you have the best summer milk, and some of the cheeses are good after three weeks, some of them are good after six months. But we don’t work with the same cheeses all year round. So in winter we don’t do goat’s cheese and in summer we don’t do a lot of the hard cheeses - ones that are aged for six months or more. That’s our concept of seasonality - bringing cheeses to market, and producing dishes with them, when they are at their best maturity.

Interested in any of the wines served at Androuet from Les Caves de Pyrene? Contact us directly…

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Retail: [email protected] | 01483 554750

Trade: [email protected] | 01483 538820