Japanese Cheese Specialist Malory Lane is one of the lucky few who could
forge a unique career path by following her passions. Malory fell in love with
goats and cheese during a stint working on a goat farm in the Negev Desert in
2013. Moving to Tokyo in 2016 to pursue her other passion, the Japanese
culture and language, inspired her to embark on a project “The Geography of
Cheese” to map out the regional cheesemakers in Japan and to subsequently
work as a cheesemonger at Fromagerie Alpage in Tokyo. Malory became one
of the rare ‘foreigner’ members of the Japan Chapter of the Guilde
Internationale des Fromagers. I met Malory first time last year, not in Japan,
but on a London cheese tour organised by Academie MONS. As Malory is
about to launch her company Japan Cheese Co. and the inaugural Japan
Cheese Tour, I speak to this vivacious US native about her ambition for her
company and how she plans to champion "Made in Japan" artisanal cheese.
CWHK: How did you get hooked on cheese? Which cheese was it?
ML: When I was a kid my family moved from Charleston, SC to Geneva, Switzerland. During my first summer living in Europe, I had my first raclette while traveling in Annecy, France. I remember loving the combination of melted cheese with cornichons, charcuterie, and potatoes.
So many things changed about my life moving to Switzerland – one was how my family ate together. Like a good Swiss family, we ate fondue dinners on Sundays during the winter. Even though Switzerland normalized good cheese for me, it would still be years before I really felt passionate about it as more than food.
CWHK: Why did you choose to live in Japan? What do you miss most about Japan now that you’ve adopted the Netherlands as your home?
ML: A.J. (the husband) and I were both Asian Studies majors in university, so it was natural for us to move abroad after graduation. A.J. applied for the JET Program to teach English and took a placement in rural Kashiwazaki in Niigata Prefecture. I found a position in Niigata city and moved without having ever been to Japan, but having studied in China twice.
We spent 2 years in Niigata teaching English and dreamed of someday living in Tokyo. After leaving Japan, we backpacked and lived in other countries. In 2016, we finally moved back to Japan and made Tokyo our home.
Moving back, neither of us could’ve ever predicted the deep connection that I would create within the Japanese cheese world. I’ll go back to Japan at least 6 times in 2020 to maintain those connections and visit more cheesemakers. I like to look at my work now as an ambassador to Japanese cheese. Since ambassadors rarely live in the country that they represent, I feel a little more reassured that we now live in the Netherlands.
Of course, there are many things I miss about Japan – quiet subway rides, small izakayas, watching sumo while sitting on the floor in our traditional apartment, good rice, regularly eating Japanese food – but I mostly miss my Japanese cheese community.
CWHK: How did you transition from being a teacher in Japan to becoming a cheesemonger? Did you have to go through any training? Was it a difficult transition?
ML: We taught English in Japan for 2 years and in Korea for 1 year. Even though is not my calling as a career, I love sharing information with others. It’s definitely the best things we can do – sharing and then listening to those around us.
In that sense, it was a natural transition from teacher to cheesemonger because so much of the job involves educating customers and listening to their needs.
Before my start as a cheesemonger, I attended Mons Formation’s Essential Foundations for Cheese Professionals (now a different name). During the program, I was able to make connections that led to a position as a cheesemonger at Fromagerie Alpage in Tokyo.
The hardest transition to being a cheesemonger was the language! It’s hard enough learning about the 100 cheeses in the case – describing them to customers in Japanese required a whole new set of vocabulary not used in everyday Japanese. My fellow cheesemongers were endlessly patient, helpful, and encouraging as I dove in deep to the world of cheese in Japan. Without them, I don’t think I’d be as confident today!
While working at Fromagerie Alpage, I dove deep into cheese study by preparing for Japan’s Cheese Professional Certification Exam run by the Cheese Professional Association. I attended a Japanese language school full time, worked part-time at the cheese shop, and studied cheese in Japanese every other waking moment for months on end.
One of the best parts of my studying was taking a course at The Cheese School in Tokyo. Once again, I was surrounded by cheese teacher who never discouraged my ambitions.
The Cheese Professional Certification Exam is a 2 hour written test with fill-in-the-blank and essay questions in Japanese. I’m not shocked that I didn’t pass, but through trying I was able to improve my Japanese and cheese knowledge in a crazy way.
Want to know what “low temperature thermization” or “lactic acid bacteria” is in Japanese? I got you covered!
CWHK: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a ‘gaijin’* in the cheese world of Japan?
ML: Ahhhh, a question I think about often!
Advantage : Cheese is not a traditional Japanese product. In that, Japan continues to look abroad for inspiration and know-how to better understand their path. Being a foreigner, especially one that lived in Switzerland, gives me undeserved credit simply because I’ve grown up with cheese.
Also, there aren’t many foreigners who work in the cheese industry in Japan. This allowed me to distinguish myself by studying, researching, and working hard alongside Japanese people. My outside perspective and understanding of different cultures has helped immensely as I work to open the door to Japanese cheese world. In that way, being a gaijin has been the perfect thing for my role as an ambassador for the Japanese cheese world.
Disadvantage : The Japanese are known for their craftsmanship and unwavering dedication to their pursuit. It has taken years of consistently being there – attending events, helping make connections, working hard – to really feel like I am on the inside. I am lucky to have wonderful people who believe in my work and have never turned down my ideas.
CWHK: How does cheese fit into the Japanese food culture? Who are the cheese eaters, expats or locals? How are cheesemongers in Japan different from those in the US or France? How would you describe the cheese ‘palate’ of Japanese people? How do you see the Japanese cheese industry evolve?
ML: Cheese is most often an “otsumami” in Japan, which means “a food to go with alcohol.” Most cheese is bought to enjoy alongside wine, beer, sake, etc. The average Japanese person is going to go to a grocery store for their cheese and pick out a very mild, often processed cheese.
Even though Japanese cuisine has their own fermented stinkers like natto, the average Japanese person isn’t used to powerful blue cheeses, “goaty” goat cheeses, and pungent washed rinds – yet!
A growing number of people are turning to specialty cheese stores and getting a taste for stronger, more complex cheeses. As Western cuisine becomes more and more popular amongst the Japanese, I think the consumption of cheese will continue to increase.
Cheesemongers in Japan, like most service industry professionals, are incredibly polite, patient, and certainly don’t push product on a customer. It’s much more about selection, packaging, delivery, and being able to make recommendations to customers that encourage trust.
The major hurdle in Japan for high-quality cheese is the price. Besides the fact that it’s far away from most major cheesemaking countries, the customs tax is 28.9%, and liquid milk is fairly expensive for domestic production. This makes Japanese cheese quite expensive as well.
Expats are a funny lot. Most Westerners come to Japan and complain about how there’s no cheese and it’s a “cheese desert!” The problem is not that there’s no cheese, it’s that they don’t know where to find it and only consider the way cheese is enjoyed in the West.
On my Japan Cheese Tour, this is exactly what I want to show people – there’s lots of cheese in Japan hiding in plain sight, you just have to know where to look for it. [For details on Japan Cheese Tour, please visit: https://tour.japancheese.co/about)
CWHK: How was the decision taken to enter a number of Japanese cheeses into the World Cheese Awards 2019? Was there a pre-selection at the Japan Cheese Awards? What was an overall comment from the judges about the cheeses that won awards?
ML: The World Cheese Awards was a huge step forward for Japanese cheese. Half the cheeses entered won awards and Mori no Cheese from Nasu no Mori in Tochigi Prefecture placed 10th in the world!
Japan had always wanted to enter cheeses in international competitions. The problem continues to be regulations. In August 2019, the E.U. changed their policies to include Japan on the list of safe dairy countries. Once this was announced, the Cheese Professional Association of Japan (CPA) worked to select and submit cheeses to the contest.
Cheesemakers whose cheeses won high awards at the 2018 Japan Cheese Award were able to enter the contest with support from CPA (and Japan Cheese Co!). A support team including myself attended the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo and manned a booth at the B2Cheese trade show.
The overall reception was incredibly positive and we are working to enter more and more competitions internationally.
[CWHK: CWHK is collaborating with Japan Cheese Co. to bring to HK a Japanese cheese tasting event in September. If you would like to try some of these award-winning cheeses and discover the craftsmanship and diversity of Japanese cheese, stay tuned at: https://cheeseandwinehk.com for more details!]
CWHK: How does ‘Made in Japan’ cheese compete with imported cheese in Japan? Are the locals and expats equally interested in trying locally made cheese? Do you see things changing here?
ML: When I tell people that I work with Japanese cheese, I get 1 of 3 reactions. They laugh, or they’re perplexed, or they get it. The people who get it don’t necessarily know that Japanese cheese exists, but they’re not surprised to hear that the Japanese have mastered another craft and made it their own.
Japanese products are regarded with a sense of trust. From rice to whisky, jeans to ceramics, there’s an inherent understanding that Japanese products are made with a level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that few other countries have mastered. The same goes for cheese.
I don’t worry about people who get it. It’s the people who don’t – through a laugh or visible confusion. Those are the people I want to work with. They are the ones who (in my opinion) need education on artisanal cheeses. “The confused” could be Japanese, expats, or people from anywhere in the world. I want to make them curious, to peak their interest, to educate and inform them on the beauty of Japanese cheese.
CWHK: How would you describe the evolution of the cheesemaking industry during the past 2 decades? Any particular driving force behind this development? Is there a Japanese cheesemaking style? Particular aspects that distinguish it from other cheesemaking regions, say France, Italy or US? Can you see this becoming a career of choice for young Japanese?
ML: Japan’s cheesemaking industry is an evolving story of perseverance. The first dairy product was made in Japan over 1500 years ago, and yet, due to religious edicts, cows were never used for meat or dairy. Even after the first cheese factory was started in Hokkaido in the late 1800’s, it still took 100 years before truly artisanal cheese production flourished.
At the beginning of the artisan cheese movement in Japan, there were many replications of European recipes. Now, we can see an evolution to more uniquely Japanese styles – using raw milk, local ingredients, and native microorganisms.
Japan already has a great appreciation for regionality and terroir with their own Geographic Indication (GI) system. In 2016, a group of 6 cheesemakers making Tokachi Raclette applied for a GI mark for their raclette style cheese that is washed in local hot spring water. A GI mark for Japanese cheese would be a huge step in domestic recognition for their young tradition.
When it comes to tradition, I believe that Japanese cheesemakers have one main advantage – their lack of traditions. While some could see this as a loss, I see it as potential. Cheesemakers in Japan are not restrained by their regionality and have the ability to create new cheeses.
This space for creativity has made cheesemaking an appealing career path for young cheesemakers. We are starting to see more and more young Japanese people wanting to start their own businesses.
CWHK: Which is your favourite pairing with Japanese cheese, whether beverage, preserves or anything? Please choose your favourite type of cheese and what you would pair it with?
ML: I have to admit that I rarely pair cheese with anything, even a cracker or bread. I can be the worst host or guest if I make a cheeseboard because I forget to add anything to the board but the cheese.
And yet, every time I eat or drink, I am thinking of what cheese would go with this wine, that sake, etc. There’s so much to learn with pairings and I’m only just starting to learn about it.
CWHK: Why did you set up Japan Cheese Co.? How long was the planning? What are your aspirations for Japan Cheese Co? Is it difficult to export cheese from Japan? Any particular control requirements that have proven more challenging than expected?
ML: I had always been searching for a way to support small, artisanal cheesemakers. If it weren’t for small farms, I would never have fallen in love with cheese. If I’m not going to be a goat farmer and cheesemaker, I want to be a warrior – someone whose job it is to fight for the people doing the real work making good cheese.
While working as a cheesemonger in Japan and documenting my discoveries on my blog, The Geography of Cheese, I found myself in a unique position – I spoke Japanese, was passionate about cheese, and had experience in the Japanese cheese industry.
As I began to share Japanese cheeses in other countries, people always asked where they could buy them. The answer was “nowhere” because they weren’t being exported yet.
It wasn’t as much a lightbulb as a deep-seated feeling that I’d found the way I’ll help. I started calling governments, researching, asking questions about the road for exports in the fall of 2018 and haven’t done much else since.
Every day I learn something new about exports and working with cheese.
It may be a long while before we can export to every country in the world because of the documentation required of Japanese cheesemakers. In Japan, HACCP becomes mandatory in mid-2021 after a law was passed in 2018. Why is it so much later? Because Japanese producers already follow a standard of safety and quality-assurance without government enforcement.
It’s just hard to show that on a piece of paper to the FDA.
Every day I have a new idea about what Japan Cheese Co. could be for artisan cheesemakers.
What started as opening new markets to Japanese cheesemakers has evolved to something much greater. I decided that it couldn’t be as easy as partnering with established trading firms who would sell Japanese cheeses as products on a diversified list, who may drop the cheeses or cheesemakers for lack of profits. So I started my own Japanese company and called it Japan Cheese Co.
I want to create a system that combines education and access – to Japanese cheese, to Japanese cheesemakers, for Japanese cheesemakers to the world.
CWHK: Who is your hero in life? Who has inspired you the most?
ML: I was lucky to have parents that were brave enough to move my brother and me to Switzerland when we were kids. They had a dream that their children would be “world citizens.” I took that to heart in the deepest way and try to make their dream come true.
I work with hands down some of the most amazing, strong, supportive, and hard-working women – all with a shared passion for cheese. They are my rocks and confidants as I blaze a trail for Japanese cheese and couldn’t do it without their inspiration.
CWHK: If you were a cheese, which one would it be? Why?
ML: An ashed, lactic, goat cheese that’s a little mottled on the outside, but with a smooth paste. I’d come from goats that graze in the mountains and like to climb trees.
I fell in love with cheese on a goat farm in the Israeli desert. When I smell goat cheese, I still think about the farm and the goats there. There was Schwarzy Brown, the social goat mom who lost her first baby; and the over-friendly billy, Melek, who rubbed his head up and down my body every time I entered the paddock for chores. Goat cheeses are filled with nostalgia and remind me of my favorite animal. I could only be a goat cheese.
*Note from ML: gaijin = the slang, sometimes derogative, word used for “foreigner” or gaikokujin in Japan that has been adopted fully by the Western foreigners living in Japan to refer to themselves.