Brothers Alex and Leo Guarneri and head chef Alessandro Grano talk to Eating East about their cheese shop Androuet in Spitalfields Market, its adjoining restaurant, and when to buy cheese for Christmas.
The fromagerie Androuet was founded by Henri Androuët in 1909 in France and has eight branches in Paris today. Frenchman Alexandre Guarneri opened Androuet’s first British branch in Old Spitalfields market in April 2010. Together with his brother Leo and head chef Alessandro Grano, the young and dynamic team hope to take East London by storm.
Alex and Leo grew up in a foodie household in the North Parisian suburb of Chantilly. Their father being a food importer and their mother being a chef meant that they were exposed to the culinary industry at an early age. In April 2005, Alex landed a student job at Androuet in Paris, where he worked at the till on the weekends. It didn’t take him long to discover a passion for cheese, which did not go unnoticed by the team at Androuet. Alex developed a close relationship with the head of Androuet, Stéphane Blohorn, who suggested that he should undertake some formal training as well as rotations around seven of the Androuet shops in Paris. Alex took up the challenge.
“Each cheesemonger at Androuet has a different approach to selecting and maturing cheeses, so I gained a lot of valuable experience during the rotation period.”
After finishing his studies, he went back to work at Androuet in Paris for nine months before embarking on a voyage through the Americas. After his travels he decided that his future lied outside of France and he made the decision to move to London. Determined to find a job doing what he loved most, his first port of call was the revered British cheesemonger’s Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street.
“In August 2008 I came to London and knocked on the door of Paxton & Whitfield asking for some work. They offered me a post as a cheese maturer and I was given some freedom to experiment. There are a conventional set of times for which various cheeses are expected to mature, and I carried out my own tests against them. Berkswell, for instance, is normally aged for nine months but I discovered that at six months it was more flavoursome.”
Paxton & Whitfield are well known for showcasing British cheeses made by small, independent artisanal producers. In 2009, while Alex was working with Paxton & Whitfield, his former employer Androuet went into partnership with them, allowing Paxton & Whitfield to stock Androuet’s French cheeses, while Androuet’s fromageries stocked their partner’s British cheeses. During the same year, Androuet decided it would open its first shop in London, and as Alex had experience with both Androuet and Paxton & Whitfield, he was quickly snapped up to run its British flagship. In January 2010 the Guarneri brothers set up a stall in Spitalfields, and on the back of its success, they relocated into their current shop in Spitalfields in April 2010.
While Alex is responsible for buying and maturing the cheeses at Androuet Spitalfields, his younger brother Leo runs the restaurant side of the business. While softly spoken, Leo clearly displays some fiery ambition. Before joining Androuet, Leo completed a diploma in culinary arts (Baccalauréat Professionnel Restauration) at a school sponsored by the iconic Parisian hotel, The Four Seasons George V. Between classes, he spent six months working in the hotel’s three michelin star kitchen. A further year at the George V gave Leo experience in management, room service, restaurant service, and customer relations.
Heading the kitchen is Italian born Alessandro Grano, who was formerly at the Four Seasons in Canary Wharf, as well as The Ritz and The Dorchester. I asked him what attracted him to the position at Androuet.
“I was very interested in working at Androuet because Alex and Leo believe in only working with the best cheeses which have not been processed, and arrive fresh from artisanal producers. My approach to cooking is that the product should not be tampered with too much, it should not be overly complicated, and the cheese should be the focal point.”
As Alessandro walked me through the menu, which included fondue, a goat’s cheese salad as well as a carne salata carpaccio with comté and pickled girolle mushrooms, Leo felt the need to interject.
“Just to make it clear, these might sound like simple dishes, but they are by no means ordinary. Coming from a three star michelin kitchen, I make sure that we only use the best suppliers. These suppliers don’t normally work with small outfits like us but only heavyweight michelin star restaurants. Our meat comes from Gastronomica, who normally only work with the best. In our goat’s cheese salad we use 5 different leaves, home-made caramelized walnuts with honey, and some fine Crottin de chavignol. Our dishes use relatively few ingredients, but those ingredients are only the finest quality.”
Head chef Alessandro explained that they were always on the look out for new and unique products. At the end of October, Alessandro and Alex visited the Italian slow food event Salone del Gusto, which is used as a platform for a selection of small producers from around the world.
“It was amazing and inspired us to come up with new concepts for the food menu here at Androuet, as well as building relationships with some new suppliers. We met a chap who produces five different types of buffalo milk cheese which have never been exported to France or England, so we are thinking about working with them.”
Around the shop are some magnificent looking hard and soft cheeses of varying sizes, shapes and colours. On the top edge of shelf was a blackboard with a question written in chalk: Do you know that cheese is seasonal? I was not exactly sure why, so I asked Alex to explain.
“Goat’s cheese for example is available all year around except in December and January because this is the time when the goats give birth and they use their milk to feed their litter. Right now we have 20 goat’s cheeses, but in December we will only have one. All the hard cheeses come from the mountains and are produced with summer milk. In the summer, there is obviously grass so the cows will eat grass but if it is winter, there’s no grass, so the cows will eat something different and therefore the cheese will taste different.”Towards the end of the interview, Alex presented me with a cheese platter garnished with caramelized walnuts, grapes and sultanas. Interestingly, with the exception of the stilton, all the cheeses were unpasteurised, because they believe generally, that pasteurising the milk renders the cheese bland. The cheeses were incredibly flavoursome. Here is a summary of the Androuet cheeses I tasted:
- Rocamadour is a creamy soft cheese with sweet nutty undertones made from goat’s milk. It is produced in Lot, a region in the South West of France, 130km North of Toulouse.
- 1909 was developed by Androuet in Aveyron to celebrate its centenary last year. It is a wonderfully creamy fondant-like soft cheese made from ewe’s milk, and has slightly nutty and mossy tones.
- Brie de Meaux is a rather complex fruity and earthy soft cheese made using cow’s milk. It comes from Ile de France near Paris and is produced by Mme Domge, who for the last 5 years has won the accolade of best producer of Brie in France.
- Morbier is a mild and aromatic medium hard cheese with a slightly bitter aftertaste, made from cow’s milk which has a distinct vein of vegetable ash running through the middle of the cheese. Produced in the Jura mountain area which is famous comté territory, comté producers traditionally used to cover their leftover curd, which was not enough to make up a whole wheel of cheese, with a layer of ash to prevent the cheese becoming contaminated with insects. The next morning, new curd was laid upon the thin layer of ash to complete the wheel. Today, the ash line is more of a decorative feature.
Coming close to the end of the interview, I asked the three of them what they thought about East London.
“Leo: I have lived in lots of different areas in Paris, and for me, coming from a big district in Paris where the people are the same as well as the streets, East London is so refreshing. I live in Whitechapel and every morning I walk past Brick Lane, Princelet Street, Puma Court, Spitalfields, and Liverpool St, and it is so diverse in terms of the architecture and the people.”
“Alessandro: Well I spent some time working in the West End and then 4 years in Canary Wharf at the Four Seasons. Spitalfields is somewhere in the middle. You have business people, a few tourists, and definitely lots of locals visiting the shop.”
“Alex: The West End is full of cheese mongers and the surrounding areas of Spitalfields including Brick Lane and Shoreditch are becoming very up-market and fashionable. We felt that Androuet would complement the area and that the locals would be interested in our high quality products. The area also boasts a younger client base compared to the West End, and we want to show that cheese is not only for older people but also younger people to enjoy.”
With the Christmas period coming up, they are expected to be busy. But don’t attempt to buy your Christmas cheeses too early, otherwise you will face the wrath of the Guarneri brothers and will be turned away! Alex explained:
“If you come into my store and tell me you want to buy some cheese which you will be eating in 10 days, I will not sell it to you. I will refuse. Last year, people came here in the first week of December to buy cheese for Christmas, but I refused to sell it to them. People thought we were crazy Frenchmen, but the thing is, I want my customers to enjoy the cheese at its peak.”
From the way they store their cheese down to the art in which they are cut and wrapped, there is no doubt that the team at Androuet take their cheese very seriously. With a combined age of only seventy-eight, the young and ambitious trio undoubtedly have a bright future ahead of them and Eating East looks forward to enjoying the benefits of their expertise.
Androuet, Old Spitalfields Market, 107b Commercial Street, London E1 6BG. 0207 375 3168