It's dark, horribly early, and Alex Guarneri and Luis de la Vega Yrisarry are debating with some passion the politics of using raw milk in cheese. An English woman squeezed in a van between a Frenchman and a Spaniard sounds like the prelude to some kind of joke. But when it comes to cheese, these two are about as serious as you can get.
Guarneri is one of the brothers behind Androuet in London, an artisanal cheese shop affiliated with the respected chain of fromageries of the same name in Paris, and Yrisarry oversees the shop's cheese cave. The three of us have levered ourselves into the front of a van at 4 AM to visit the Traditional Cheese Dairy in East Sussex, one of the producers whose cheese Guarneri stocks. Our aim is to be there in time for the arrival of the milk.
He's keen to see the whole process from start to finish.
"We always have a hundred cheeses in the shop, and at Christmas closer to 250," Guarneri explains. "They change all the time, that's the beauty. We have different cheeses every week and we have to learn them."
Milk has seasons, cheese has terroir, and Guarneri is a true connoisseur—though he got into cheese almost accidentally.
"I was studying economics and I had a teacher who was so annoying that one day I stood up and said, 'I'm never coming back again' and walked out of class," he remembers. "I was 19. I wanted to spend a year travelling round the world, so I got a job as a cashier at Androuet and they saw I was passionate. After four months, they gave me a shop to run, then six shops. Then the chairman said, 'Whatever you want to do Alex, I will support you.'"
So Guarneri travelled the world, as he'd planned. He settled in London, working at cheesemongers to the Queen Paxton and Whitfield, before persuading his brother Leo—then a chef in a Michelin-starred Paris restaurant—to quit and join him to open a branch of Androuet in London. Five years on, he, his brother, and Androuet's head chef Alessandro Grano have written A Year in Cheese, a book documenting the seasonality of different cheeses alongside recipes.
"The biggest thing we found when we came to this country to sell cheese was that people don't like to wait," explains Guarneri. "But we like to take the time to explain the way our cheeses taste. So I tell them, 'If you just want to take some cheese and go, go to the supermarket.'"
He gives a Gallic shrug but he's not being deliberately difficult.
"It's a luxury to be able to buy this cheese," Guarneri continues. "It's like Yves St Laurent or Chanel. You have to keep the standard, otherwise it's disrespectful."
It's for this reason that the shop maintains good relationships with the cheesemakers who supply them. At the dairy, after being greeted by father-daughter team Cliff and Becky Dyball, Guarneri and Yrisarry are quick to get involved, helping to drain the whey, cut the curds, and clean up. The conversation throughout the morning covers how the Dyballs source their milk, how they make their cheese, where they store it, and their recipes.
At midday, we break for a lunch of cheese (of course) and bread. The first thing Guarneri does is feel the different cheeses in his hands and give them a smell.
"This one is 16 months old," he says, more than asks.
"Something around that," Becky replies. She checks and he's exactly right.
How did he do that?
"I can tell by the way it feels in my hand," Guarneri explains. "But for years I would mess it up. It's taken a long time for me to know like I do now."
It's not all he knows. He can taste in the cheese when the animals aren't being looked after properly, and he'll stop working with that producer. He knows if a batch has been made after a period of heavy rain. He notices the changes of the seasons in the flavour.
"In spring, the cheese is floral," he explains. "Up to June, the cheeses are always really fresh and have the taste of just-grown grass. In summer, the texture is slightly drier. In autumn, you get beautiful, really rich, much more mushroomy cheeses. In winter, we don't buy any hard cheeses or alpine cheeses because they have no flavour. When it comes to Christmas we'll have all the blues which are aged around three months, so they'll have been produced in October. You get something mushroomy with a really long beautiful creaminess."
Imagine all that said in a Parisian accent. I could listen to Guarneri talk about cheese all day. Why would you want to leave, when there is so much to know about the cheese you're going to eat?
"I don't take a sommelier's approach to cheese because to me it's—how can I say it?—it's like wanking," he says. "To tell someone what flavours they might taste, like, 'This cheese tastes of banana'—you freak people out. People want you to take them to the place in their minds/ You know, 'This cheese is produced around 600 metres above sea level on a natural reserve, by this person.'"
Such is Guarneri's commitment to sourcing the best cheeses and to selling them at their best, that when he and his brother first opened Androuet, they deliberately did themselves out of trade.
"We opened on December 4, 2009, 20 days from Christmas," he explains. "People came in for their Christmas cheese and I said, 'No.' They were like, 'Are you dumb?' I said this for 15 days but I thought, on Christmas Day, when they eat the cheese, what do I want them to say? 'Androuet told us not to buy cheese,' or 'Androuet's cheese is horrible?' I knew I wouldn't make a pound that day but in the end, I'd have two for every one I'd lost."
Our cheesemaking day in Sussex is done just as the light begins to fade back into winter darkness. Squashed again in the van driving to London, we spend a few moments in an almost holy silence, punctuated by words of praise for the Dyballs' cheese and their skill.
As makers they're everything that Guarneri loves: particular about how the animals are kept and about the quality of the milk, artisanal in their process, and passionate about their final product.
"Spectacular," he says. And who are we to disagree?
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2015.