By Adam Cailler
PATRICIA Michelson had never intended making a career out of cheese. But the 69-year-old owner of London cheese shop La Fromagerie can count actors Keira Knightley and Meg Ryan as regular customers, as well as guitarist Eric Clapton.
Food writer and chef Nigel Slater was one of the first patrons of her small Highbury shop in 1992, while chef Jamie Oliver and food critic Giles Coren both see her as their second mother.
Or in Giles’ exact words to me: “My Jewish mamma manque.”
But how did this all happen for Westcliff-on-Sea-born Patricia?
Bear in mind that until the age of 43, she had worked at a variety of accountancy and PR firms involved in administration, which, she says, never meant that much to her.
She explained: “It was 1990 and I was skiing in Meribel, France, in very, very bad weather.
“I wasn’t the best skier. I took a tumble and lost the party I was skiing with in the process.
“I had to find my own way down and went off-piste in the process — it took all day and it was around 5.30pm when I got back down.
“I was absolutely starving and, while walking back to the chalet, I saw a little cheese shop called La Fromagerie, so I went in and bought a little piece of the local cheese, Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage.”
This piece of cheese had a profound effect on the mother-of-two.
“I was nibbling at this cheese all the way back and it was so delicious,” she recalled.
“My husband Danny, to appease me, took me down to the local market in the main village, Moutiers, and I met the local cheesemaker.
“I said to him, in my terrible French, ‘I’d like to take a piece of cheese home’.
“He replied saying that he would bring it to my chalet later.
“To my surprise, I hadn’t asked for a piece of cheese . . . I’d asked for an entire wheel of cheese!”
Feeling sorry for the man who had made the effort to bring this enormous dairy product to them, they could not turn him away.
So they decided to “shove it into the car and drive it 16 hours home” after cobbling the money together to pay for it.
“When we got home I had no idea what to do with it — there was nowhere big or cold enough for it in the house, so it went into the garden shed,” she said.
“I gave loads away to friends and neighbours, and then took some pieces to a few local restaurants, who loved it and asked ‘can you get more?’.
“I said ‘well, of course,’ and my little business was born.”
Growing up in a traditionally Jewish household by the seaside, the daughter of Helen and Harry Kaye said, was like a classic Enid Blyton upbringing.
She recalled: “The summers were endless and we would spend so much time at the beach. It was a free and easy lifestyle.
“Along with my two brothers, Tony and Douglas, we were not super-religious, but did keep all the festivals.
“Most of our family lived in London so they would come and visit us just to get away from there!
“There was always something going on during the summer and we were super-family-orientated — which is a very Jewish thing.”
Patricia’s business grew from selling cheese in her garden shed to a pop-up cheese shop in Highbury. It was a cooled room with wall-to-wall cheese.
The shop was so popular that, six months later, she moved across the road to larger premises.
She now has two shops, both with cheese maturing cellars and walk-in cheeserooms, and a wholesale department off-site.
But, what did her family think when she decided to set up a cheese business?
“My father, if he was alive, would have thought I was mad,” Patricia said.
“My mother was horrified and adamant that at my age it was not something I should be doing.
“My older brother thought I was crazy, while the younger one thought it was amazing.
“Danny joined me in the business. He is the man who crunches numbers and keeps the business on an even keel — he puts the normality into it.”
What of Patricia’s two daughters, Katy and Rose?
“They have fantastic taste-buds and both help and advise me with things, but I really don’t want to drive them into it,” she said.
Speaking of taste, what does make a good cheese?
She explained: “It all starts with the French word ‘terroir’, which means land — everything starts from the land.
“The soil provides the grass, which feeds the animals.
“You’ve got to love your animals — cows that live in sheds where there is 24-hour milking is just outrageous.
“Bringing up the animal properly, accompanied by utilising the milk and transferring it as simply as possible, without too much intervention — and slow ripening — are things I am fascinated with.
“Cheese really is a simple product, but from that product you get so many different things coming from it.”
Patricia looks unkindly on mass-produced, supermarket own brand cheese — usually loaded with potato starch and salt.
She said: “I had a poster made years ago about the diluting of food and what food is.
“You can start off with all these different cheeses from different parts of the world, but then you get down to the base, which is just this square piece of cheese that isn’t actually cheese.
“I’m not against supermarkets, but I am concerned about how they force farmers and those who make the product into cutting corners to make and sell it cheaper.
“They also don’t give the farmers what they are worth.
“The product is loaded with so much stuff — a lump of cheddar can have so much water and salt in it.
“You very rarely put salt in cheese because the milk has natural salt anyway!”
Issues such as this make Patricia’s job even more vital.
She joked: “I am absolutely vital to everybody’s life!
“I could have gone down several different roads and made a fortune, but I wanted to show how wonderful food could be.
“I wanted to enjoy what I do and think ‘I’m going to have a good day, there will be obstacles and people will p**s me off,’ but at the end of the day I can say I’ve done something good. That makes it all worthwhile.”
Looking back on her career, Patricia was in a rather philosophical mood.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to expect the unexpected,” she told me.
“I didn’t expect that taking a tumble on a mountain would give me my reason for life.
“Don’t do something because you think others might like it — only do something because you want to.
“Fashion doesn’t mean anything to me, it’s all about style — I might not be beautiful and thin but I think I’ve got style.
“The next 10 years will be the most exciting ones and I’m not stopping. I don’t want to stop. I want to move forward and open up more places.
“The food world has changed so much and too much food is thrown away or of the moment. But cheese has been here for ever.”