Julien Hazard, President of the Association of Cheesemongers of Belgium, in an exclusive interview.
He discusses the main objectives of the association, highlighting the importance of specialized cheese shops and local markets in promoting cheese diversity in Belgium. He also sheds light on current cheese consumption trends in the country.

How would you define the role of the Association of Cheesemongers of Belgium at the national level?

First and foremost, our role is to advocate for the interests of our members with public authorities, economic bodies, and health agencies. We are also part of the economic committee in Belgium, representing various sectors. Secondly, we aim to promote our profession and craftsmanship, explaining to the general public why it's important to support retail cheesemongers. We are here to clarify the differences we bring and our added value. Our role is truly to highlight the beautiful craft of cheesemongers and that of our producers. After all, it's the producers who create the products we sell. We also facilitate interactions among our members, ensuring they have a forum for discussions and don't feel isolated when they have questions, allowing them to share experiences with other cheesemongers. To achieve this, we organize activities, cheese factory visits, meetings with authorities, and roundtable discussions. We also provide information support, whether it's economic information or information about health and social regulations. We also offer ongoing training.
Portrait of Julien Hazard, cheesemonger.

How does Belgian cheese production distinguish itself from others?

Belgium has a rich history of abbey cheese, but we don't have a true regional cheese. We have only one AOP cheese in Belgium, which is Herve AOP, located in the southeastern region of Belgium in Nièvre. It's the only cheese where different producers make the same cheese and have a proper production line. Additionally, we've seen a significant increase in artisanal producers in recent years. They've independently ventured into cheese production, whether it's small-scale goat milk, cow milk, or sheep milk production. Belgian producers often draw inspiration from existing recipes in France and other countries, creating new types of cheeses but with a classical French production base. We have washed-rind cheeses, bloomy-rind cheeses, and small goat cheeses. These are often existing styles but produced on a small artisanal scale, which is very important to us. We're a beer country, so many cheeses are either well-paired with beer or washed with it. In Belgium, we also have many farms producing Gouda-style cheeses, made in an artisanal way with natural rinds, without plastic or wax. We also have excellent producers of blue cheese, blue-veined cheese, and goat cheese.

What role do specialized cheese shops and local markets play in cheese sales in Belgium?

We have a wide range of cheese offerings. You'll often find over 150 to 170 different cheese varieties in shops, sourced from all over Europe. While French cheeses form the base, there are also many Italian, Belgian, Spanish, English, and Dutch cheeses. Our location has made us open to various cheese styles. When it comes to Belgian cheeses in cheesemongers' shops, they aim to highlight small local productions from their region and showcase local producers. In my shop, we consistently stock 190 varieties, with 20% being Belgian cheeses from small, raw milk producers.

What are the current trends in cheese consumption in Belgium?

In Belgium, there's a strong trend of cheese and wine or cheese and beer evenings among friends, with elaborate cheese platters. This is a current trend, but I believe it's also prevalent in France. The rise in raclette cheese consumption is another significant trend. I think we were pioneers in Belgium for this. We receive requests for raclette cheese until the end of March. In Belgium, we have a tradition of thinly sliced cheese. Our raclettes are typically sold in small slices, to be used in individual pans. Besides plain cheeses, every cheesemonger also offers a wide variety of flavored cheeses. It's not uncommon to find over 12 to 14 types of raclette cheeses in Belgian cheesemonger shops, including those flavored with wild garlic or pepper. I've even seen raclette cheeses infused with port wine. We also see cheesemongers opening cheese bars and offering tasting boxes. It's a different form of consumption, but it's all about cheese and sharing.

What criteria are used in the First Cheesemonger of Belgium competition?

The competition lasts a day and consists of eight tasks. It is an accredited and official competition, and almost anyone who wants to participate can join. Otherwise, we wouldn't have enough candidates, to be honest. Why? It's essential to motivate people and explain what it can create for them and their business. In this competition, we have tasks like cheese cutting, where we provide them with large cheese blocks. They have to cut the cheese according to our requests, such as pieces of 250 grams or 800 grams. These tasks assess their abilities as cheesemongers. The competition always concludes with the main task, which is the masterpiece. They have to create a cheese platter following a theme, with a predetermined number of AOP cheeses and Belgian cheeses. It's up to them to showcase the cheeses and their craftsmanship by making specific cuts and being creative.

Tell us about your shop and your customers' consumption habits...

I have a clientele that includes French, Belgian, and international customers. We strongly advocate for raw milk cheeses. Nearly 85% of our assortment consists of raw milk cheeses. Our customers come for these cheeses, which come from small producers with specific aging processes. We have four aging cellars, and all the cheeses we sell are aged on-site, which sets us apart. We are a significant supplier to the restaurant industry, including wine bars and Michelin-starred restaurants, offering unique cheese selections. This allows us to have both a retail space in our shop and aging workshops at the back, where everything is done on-site.

For you, how important is the Cheese and Dairy Products Fair? Why is it an essential event for professionals in the sector?

The Cheese and Dairy Products Fair is the reference event for the dairy products and cheese sector, in particular. It's a moment for networking, a chance to meet different sector players. It's also an opportunity to discover what's new. Finally, it's a time to strengthen bonds with our French and international colleagues.

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