Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 12:54 UK

Let them eat cheese


By Mukul Devichand

Western food producers looking to break into new markets have received a warm welcome in China where European produce has great cachet. But are the Chinese more interested in showing face than enjoying taste?

There's nothing more alien to the Chinese palate than blue Stilton cheese. So can it and other European foods find a place in the culinary landscape of a changing China?

"This is our new product," Cinderella shouted to me over the tinny techno music. "It is called Stilton blue cheese. It is from England and its net weight is 200g."

Selling Cheese to the Chinese will be broadcast at 1100 BST, on Friday, 14 August, on BBC Radio 4
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It was a strange setting in which to see Stilton, aged using mould spores and ordinarily associated with pastoral English countryside. But here it was on a food stand in Shanghai, promoted by girls in pink nurses uniforms dancing around it and sales assistant Cinderella offering it to curious Chinese families on a day out.

The SIAL food show took place in a complex of steel and glass halls, with food stands from all over the world. Britain and other European countries had a strong showing with cheese, French wine, Scotch whisky and Belgian chocolates all now fighting a serious battle for the Chinese stomach.

The food marketers are here because they hope the Chinese middle class still has some disposable income to spend, while the rest of the world tightens its belt

But will newly wealthy Chinese people actually spend on these foreign foods? Cinderella wrinkled her nose at the odour from the mould spores that turn the Stilton cheese a fungal shade of blue.

"I cannot accept the smell," the 20-year old says in sheepish broken English.

"I think maybe Asian people don't like it because it has a big smell."

Stinky tofu

Stilton is an extreme example, but in fact many European products are very alien to Chinese tastes.

Stinky tofu
Hold your noses - stinky tofu, not so dissimilar from stilton

After more than 3,000 years of its own high dining, China has seen everything from cockroach to eel on the menu. But it's only in recent decades that milk or dairy products have been consumed in significant numbers, and many in the population remain lactose intolerant.

On top of that, European fine foods have plenty of local competition. China may have no indigenous whisky, cappuccino or blue cheese, but it has a plethora of white spirits, a rich legacy of traditional tea and its own soya-based "stinky" tofu - which resembles Stilton with its blue veins and effervescent odour.

These products are much more familiar and much less costly than their European equivalents. Stinky tofu, for example, comes relatively cheap in market stalls around Shanghai but 200g of Stilton costs 100 RMB, or £9.

The European strategy to overcome this is to emphasise the history and tradition behind products like Stilton cheese, Scotch whisky or French wine.

Wine education

Aline Conus is one of an influx of young Europeans in Shanghai. Many of them run restaurants and food and wine firms, trying to capitalise on Europe's food traditions by selling them to the Chinese.

She grew up in rural France near the border with Switzerland but has lived in Shanghai's elegant French concession for five years. Europeans once sold opium from this opulent neighbourhood, but today Aline runs, which allows Chinese customers to foster good business relations by sending European wines, spirits and hampers as gifts.

Aline Conus
Aline Conus, capitalising in the Chinese desire to network

I watch her lecture eager Chinese customers about wine history at her offices. Curious young people pay around 200 yuan, or £18, for a weekly wine seminar in which they learn how to smell, swill and taste wines.

But Aline tells me it's not always about the taste or the history. A lot of her customers spend money on expensive wines as gifts, to maintain guanxi, or "connections."

"Actually Chinese consumers need whisky and Bordeaux red wine to do business in China," she says.

She tells me about a private company in Tianjin that had placed a large order for whisky and cognac, after completing a deal.

"They needed to offer gifts to all the different officials who helped them," Aline explains, "each of a different value according to their rank. Europe still has this image of elegance and bringing high quality," she says. "So gifts from Europe are always very heavily valued."

Draining your glass

The reason European food products are valued often seems to have less to do with their taste or history, and more to do with the desire to show "status" in the fast moving Chinese economy.

Charles Soong
You have to toast when you drink. If you don't you'll be seen as a very arrogant guy
Charles Soong

Scotch whisky in particular has evolved a reputation as a status product. I saw for myself how this worked in a karaoke bar, in the company of Charles Soong, a whisky marketing executive.

I was met by a line of young women wearing yellow Butlins-style jackets, who bowed as I entered. I was then led to a karaoke suite where middle-aged businessmen sang and played dice.

In the centre of the room was an array of single malts, with water or green tea as mixers. Next to each man was a paid "hostess" - a young woman who kept the glass topped up.

Business meetings here revolve around hospitality and maintaining "face" by paying for expensive drinks. When I tried to sip my Scotch, I was surprised as all those around me stood and drained their glasses.

"You have to drain your glass each time," Says Mr Soong. "To show 100% respect to your companions. You have to toast when you drink. If you don't you'll be seen as a very arrogant guy."

Making a statement

So are the Chinese more interested in face than taste?

Drinking Scotch this way is more than just a recipe for a hangover, says Professor Tianshu Pan, an anthropologist at Fudan University.

Having studied the rise of American fast food in China, he says today's European fine foods are not just about amazement at the food itself, but a subconscious reaction to its long history of food rationing past.

"Today, it's about increasing individualisation," he said. "People want to show they are capable of learning, and making a decision. It's about making a statement as to which food I truly like."

Cheese, wine, whisky and other pricey European foods are finding a new market in China's rush for status and identity - not because Chinese people necessarily appreciate the taste.

But until the day they adapt to the Chinese palate, or Chinese people fall in love with alien flavours, the potential for growth may ultimately be limited.

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