Alex Guarneri, Cheesemonger
Alex Guarneri is the big cheese in Spitalfields. The man with the nose for fromage. And a very handsome Gallic proboscis it is, long and elegantly sculpted and extremely sensitive. Wisely, Alex has always followed his nose and it has led him in the direction of all things cheesy – with the result that today le fromage is his existence, his religion and his life. Both a connoisseur and an evangelist of cheese, Alex has lessons to impart. Alex loves to talk cheese. Alex wants to tell you that it is all about timing. Cheeses for all seasons. Alex ensures he gets the cheese direct from the maker when it is at its best and then he matures it in his cave until it is just right, not too ripe. Alex prefers you to be frugal. Be like the church mouse and buy a little piece of cheese. Alex does not want you to keep it until it goes stale. Alex wants you to eat it now.
As a proud Frenchman, Alex sees cheese as an egalitarian birthright. He has no truck with the snobby British notion of posh cheeses as luxury food. In fact, Alex refuses the sell large pieces of cheese or to supply cheeses early for Christmas. Alex suggests you bring him whatever you might afford to spend on cheese at the supermarket – however modest – and he will find you something much better for your money.
Descended from a venerable line of French grocers, Alex and his brother Leo grew up outside Paris where their mother ran a cookery school.“We never had sweets, we had bread, cheese and preserves after school,” he recalled wistfully, sipping his Coca Cola. Working at first as a cashier at Androuet – the pre-eminent chain of cheese shops in France – as a holiday job while he was a student in Paris, Alex graduated to become an affineur, the head of the cave. From there he came to London to the equivalent job at Paxton & Whitfield. “On my first day, they told me I had to deliver the cheese to Buckingham Palace and I thought they were kidding.” he confided to me with the absurd grin of a born republican, before adding,“It was fantastic working there, I met a lot of chefs while I was doing the deliveries to restaurants and in time I went out to meet all the producers too.”
Demonstrating a nose for business as well as for cheese, Alex capitalised upon his privileged knowledge of both British and French cheeses, brokering a deal between Androuet and Paxton & Whitfield that gave him the franchise to open the first Androuet shop in London.“We created a partnership, supplying French cheeses to Paxton & Whitfield and they supply us with English cheeses that we export and sell in France.” he revealed proudly. Starting from a single stall in 2009, Alex and his brother Leo have graduated to a cheese palace – their shop Androuet in the Spitalfields Market with an ever-changing stock of French and English cheese, and a small restaurant with a cheese-inflected menu created by chef Alessandro Granot.
One of a tiny handful in London who know the secrets of ageing cheese, Alex pays scrupulous attention to his precious charges. “The temperature of the room and the humidity are crucial,” he informed me, lifting his eyebrows for emphasis and raising a finger of instruction, before unfurling his hand to illustrate – “The way I touch them and clean off the flower.” (Alex never talks about mould.) “Every week, I remove the flower, so that the cheese creates a new rind, and this makes such a difference to the flavour.” he continued, affectionately cradling a wrinkly specimen and delicately brushing the bloom with his fingers, “I learnt all this in Paris. I was down in my cellar, it was big. You don’t have any people left that you can ask, so instead I tasted everything and that is how I developed my technique, through testing.”
“We only deal with seasonal cheeses in the shop. Every Friday, I ring my cheese producers in France and they tell me what is good now. They send the cheese to Paris and it is delivered here – every Wednesday, I get the cheese from France. We keep cheese for a minimum of a week and for as long as five or six months. You lose weight by keeping cheese and it is sold by weight, that’s why people don’t usually like to do it.”
Indulging in a little spéléologie, we descended deep below the Spitalfields Market to Alex’s magic cave where his cheeses sat ripening, awaiting their destiny in the gloom – acquiring character and personality over time, just as we all do in life. Some were cheeky, others were reserved, yet Alex was encouraging them all towards perfection.
Alex Guarneri is the cheesemonger of the moment.
Alex Guarneri – the man with the nose for fromage.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven