Not exactly the cheesemaker but cheese expert, Valerie Henbest is the founder of the Smelly Cheese Shop. Born in France, Valerie migrated to Australia in the early 1990’s. She has always been interested in cheese, having grown up in Normandie – the home of Camembert.

Valerie’s knowledge, appreciation and enormous passion for cheese has taken her around the world. Settled in Adelaide, Valerie has developed The Smelly Cheese Shop’s successful series of Cheese Master Classes. These are now presented nationally.

Valerie Henbest dedicates much of her time establishing and nourishing relationships with cheese producers worldwide. It is these experiences that have lead Valerie to passionately share the stories and the cultures behind the wonderful cheeses that she brings back home.

We caught up with Valerie to find out more about her love for cheese…

Where does your passion for cheese stem from?

Apart from the fact that I was born in Normandy and was probably fed Camembert before any other solid food, I also remember vividly going to French markets and spending time with my grand-parents choosing (and tasting) cheese for family lunch or dinner. A meal without cheese was not even remotely contemplated.

How did you get into the cheese business?

When I first arrived in Australia over 20 years ago, the cheese counters were not as exciting as they are now and cheese was probably the ‘thing’ I was missing the most. Towards the end of the 90s, I was craving some Roquefort and found some rare specimen at The Smelly Cheese Shop and by the same token met my partner Peter, who owns the shop. The rest is history…

What is your favourite way to eat cheese?

Being a mother of 4 and working full-time, I look at cheese as my saviour when it comes to entertaining family and friends. Very often, I would put together a few beautiful cheeses on a board with some fresh baguettes, open a few good bottles of wine and call that a (great) day. No one ever complained!

Do you have a favourite cheese variety?

Do I have a favourite child? I know it’s cliché but the truth is, there is a time and a place for all of them. If you push me a little harder, I will admit that I often look for complexity. Therefore, washed-rind and blues will get my taste buds and nose excited.

If you could only eat one variety of cheese for the rest of your life, what would it be? Why?

Well, that’s a tricky question… but if it were the (sad) case, I would definitely choose the semi-hard category. Simply because it probably is the most balanced and consistent family of cheese, with more often than not, a very satisfying texture, nutty flavours and extraordinary lingering sweet and salty finishing notes. It is also a cheese that often improves with time. Talk about ageing gracefully!

How important is the temperature of the cheese?

Cheese is like wine. It is alive. So when it lives in a, 3 or 4 degrees Celsius environment, it is holding its breath and everything else in. Room temperature is essential in order for the cheese to deliver its full flavour and aroma.  So an hour out of the fridge before you eat it is a good idea. Be wary though of our 40C Australian summer days and limit the exposure accordingly.

Where do you source the majority of your cheese?

We do get cheese from all over the world, including Australia of course. Being French, I started my exciting cheese adventure in a country I knew well but quickly expanded to Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Ireland and the U.K. In the past 5 years, we added the USA to our portfolio and found some fabulous products there with equally passionate cheese makers.

What’s your favourite part of the cheese-making process? Why?

Cheese-making is a fascinating process but what I like the most is the Affinage period, which is a French name for Refining. An Affineur is therefore someone who starts taking care of the cheese in its early stage. Affineurs usually work in places such as underground cellars or tunnels, where the humidity level and the temperature are constant. They control air-flow and in my dreams, they kiss and play music to their baby cheeses in order to maximize flavour profile.

Are there any up and coming trends to look out for in cheese this year?

No doubt the Australian palate is changing and evolving. Not that we don’t enjoy a good cheddar anymore (on the contrary) but in general, we do look for a little bit more complexity and even strength sometimes. We encourage local cheesemakers to wash their cheeses with local wines for example. It reinforces the terroir idea. The sense of place that is so important in Europe.

What qualities does a cheese need to have for you to decide to bring it under The Smelly Cheese Club umbrella?

We are looking at overall qualities and points of difference. We do also have to look at availability even if it means that sometimes, a cheese is only available at certain times of the year. Seasonality is very important to us. We aim at offering the best cheeses of the world at their peak condition. And sometimes that means we need to wait. Something we are not always good at  these days…?!

What do you like most about the Good Food & Wine Show?

The Good Food & Wine Show is like a giant and exciting smorgensbroad platter. It offers such great opportunities for everyone to stay updated with novelties; to see, touch, hear, smell and taste whatever you can find in Australia these days; to meet and greet the food lovers of that part of the world, being celebrities or simple punters. I love that mismatch and the excitement that it creates.

If you couldn’t eat cheese, what food would be your passion?

God forbid!! Does wine count? I turned into a home-made sourdough bread maker lately and I believe I could get totally passionate about that. Pity there is not enough hours in a day!

Other than wine, what do you love drinking with your cheese?

Beer is also amazing with cheese. It is a funny thing for me since I didn’t use to like beer when I was still living in France. There are so many interesting artisanal breweries in Australia. The choice is endless and some pairings are simply divine. Cider is also interesting.

What is your weirdest cheese combination?

I believe we can be a bit narrow-minded when it comes to cheese pairing. I quite like venturing on the less beaten track. Cheese and chocolate for example works beautifully. Have you ever tried a small goat’s log dipped in a Spanish spiced dark chocolate fondue? Have you ever considered 36 month Comte with Lapsang Souchong tea? Your imagination is your limit!

Where is the best place for people to start with cheese?

If you are a bit of a rouky when it comes to cheese, I believe starting with semi-hard cheese is the right thing to do. It will never be too confronting and more often than not, will provide you with this sense of feeling at home that will help you progressively leaving your comfort zone. It is also a cheese that melts beautifully, so ideal to add into toasties for you kids.

Is there any cheese that you don’t like?

The only time I said ‘no’ to a cheese was in Corsica, a little island south of France. Someone offered me a cheese telling me to wait for it – “the cheese will walk to you” – they said. Indeed, the cheese was covered with maggots and had a life on its own! I still think I need to go again and be more courageous this time 😉