A skiing holiday in France changed Patricia Michelson’s life. It wasn’t the snow or the exercise. No, she was inspired by a fine piece of Beaufort cheese, from the mountains of Savoie.
“I brought a wheel of it home, stored it in my garden shed and sold it. A friend with a chalet business in Meribel was travelling backwards and forwards and brought me more cheese. It just went from there.”
At the time, aged 43, she was working as a PA to theatre director, Michael Rudman. “I love the theatre — if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have been an actress,” she says, but slowly cheese took over. She founded her shop, specialist cheesemonger and delicatessen, La Fromagerie in 1991. Ten years later a second branch opened in Marylebone. Only now, 26 years on, has she opened her third store, in Bloomsbury, a shop-cum-cafe.“We wanted to do something slightly different.”
She had always loved retail — “When I was a little girl my favourite game was playing shops. I’d lay out all my mother’s beautiful scarves and jewellery and ask my family to come in and buy.”
Food was also a passion, but she didn’t learn to cook as a child. “When I got married I could just about boil an egg. What my mother did was just so basic. She’d say: ‘Don’t worry about that, call Harrods’. So I phoned up Harrods and got an order, and it arrived in this beautiful box with all dry ice on the frozen stuff. My husband said, ‘What on earth is this?’ I said it’s how we got all our food. And he said: ‘Have you never heard of Sainsbury’s?’
“I learned a lot from my husband’s mother. She was a marvellous cook and was very helpful. She had the most beautiful pastry recipes from aunts and cousins from eastern Europe — there was an apple pie with the most buttery pastry.”
Her mother-in-law approved of her new career: “She loved what I was doing. She championed the fact that I was a shopkeeper, unlike my mother.”
The first store was born when she and husband Danny moved house, leaving the shed behind. She rented a shop near their home in Highbury. “I was paying £85 per week for a six-month let. Within a few weeks, I could see it taking off like a rocket. Food writer, Nigel Slater, came in very early on and wrote about me. I also supplied the River Café, where a young Jamie Oliver worked as a junior chef.”
Nine months later she moved to their current larger premises, also in Highbury. “We’re very much part of the community. People come for miles to buy from us.” Danny left his job in menswear to join her in the business.
Michelson has always been about sourcing the best products from independent suppliers. Nothing at La Fromagerie can be found at supermarket chains.
“It must be something we want that isn’t on all the shelves. Little gems.”
This means though that there are no kosher cheeses in her shops. “There are some farmhouse cheeses I have seen in the UK, but they are all packaged and not for cutting, for obvious reasons. For us it is therefore very limiting. Maybe there’s a niche market for someone to open a totally kosher cheese shop.”
Any such shop could feature Israeli cheeses. “There are some ewe’s milk and goat milk cheeses from Israel that I have tasted and are made very well. Israeli cheeses in the style of feta and halloumi are very good, as is the soft, fresh, light labneh.”
Twice a year she heads off on seasonal cheese-buying trips. “Cheeses vary seasonally. In spring the grass is fresher and in autumn it is drier and gives the cheese a stronger taste. I personally prefer July cheese as the animals will have been grazing up high producing fresh, sweet beautiful milk.
“The fun part is to meet the producers in situ. We prefer to work with smaller producers as the food will be more original and the quality, greater.” The shops also stock other items which work well with cheese — breads, fruit, relishes and yoghurt, and they too reflect the changing seasons. She worked with Brogdale, home to the UK’s national fruit collection, in Kent to source English apples and other fruits, which are still available in the shops. “We work with suppliers in Lancashire for vegetables and Cornwall for salad leaves. We’re trying to find more English suppliers but it’s expensive to transport food to London.” Brexit may also push up prices for imported goods, she fears.
She belongs to South Hampstead synagogue, “but I am not involved communally, just spiritually,” she says. She celebrates the Jewish holidays with daughters, Kate 44 and Rose 34 and their families. These are, “always big family events — we all bring something to the table.”
At 69, she has loyal customers, a thriving online business and her wholesale customers include Gordon Ramsay, Angela Hartnett and a list of top London restaurants. She’s also written two best-selling books, includingThe Cheese Room (Penguin), which was translated into seven languages.
She is proud of having traded now for 26 years and having customers who have been regulars for just as long. “It’s rare these days in this ever-changing world, and I feel privileged to still be around and moving forwards.”
What cheese is in her fridge? “ I have cream cheese — spalmabile — which I love on matzah with a little salt. I also have parmesan and Beaufort. I don’t cook very much any more.”