Cheese aged to perfection: Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht

31 August 2021

For a country sandwiched between of the famous cheese-producing nations in the world—France and the Netherlands—Belgium’s dairy heritage has historically had a relatively low profile.

But that image is changing, and one of the engines of that change is Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht, a family-run cheese shop and aging cave in Antwerp.

There’s been no shortage of recognition for what the team have accomplished so far, from being voted the Best Cheese Shop in Europe by the Wall Street Journal, to the astronauts of the International Space Station, who have taken cheeses aged by Van Tricht beyond the Earth’s atmosphere not once but twice. And of course, they’re regular guests at Cheese; this year we have a Taste Workshop dedicated to their products.

We spoke to Frederic Van Tricht, the third generation of the dynasty, about the past, present and future of their business.

“The company was founded by my grandparents, Pieter and Juliette, in 1970. My grandfather was a baker, a pâtissier, but my grandmother wanted to expand into other types of food they so started a delicatessen in the suburbs of Antwerp selling charcuterie, wine, beer, fruit and vegetables, and a small selection of cheese. As time went on they became more and more focused on cheese; they began to work with some French affineurs and visiting artisanal cheese producers in France. They were inspired by these trips, and began stocking more of these products from the French affineurs. At the time, in the 1980s, there was not a lot going on in the way of artisanal Belgian cheese. But there was a growing demand for artisanal cheese in Belgium, particularly from restaurants.”

A view of the shop. Photo: Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht

Three generations

“When my father Michel took over the business in 1978 he bought a van and started going around to supply restaurants. He also built our first aging cave and started experimenting with aging cheese towards the end of the 1980s. The business kept growing until we were too big for the old store, and so we moved to a larger premises in the same street, and put our glass-walled aging cave in the middle for all our customers to see. This was a different approach compared to a lot of the other cheese shops we knew that were mostly built out of wood: we went for a modern vibe, with marble, glass and stainless steel.”

“Our selection has expanded over time too, but we only work with artisanal cheeses. The majority of it is raw milk, and there a lot of farmstead productions. Our dedication has been recognized much further afield than Belgium, too: in 2010 we were selected as the Best Cheese Shop in Europe by the Wall Street Journal. In 2012 we moved our aging and wholesale operations to a former beer bottling plant very close to the old shop. The shop is still there too, but we needed more space to age all our different cheeses in the best way. Now, in our new facility we have eight different aging caves at eight different temperatures and humidity levels. This means we can provide the best possible conditions for different cheese types and develop their full potential.”

Frederic and Michel Van Tricht in their new aging cave at the old De Koninck brewery. Photo: Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht

Cheese and beer

“Belgium is not really known as a cheese country, despite its position between the Netherlands and France. We have influences from both, and nowadays there’s a wide variety of artisanal Belgian cheeses, from soft to hard, goat, sheep and cow. So when we visit shows like Cheese in Italy or Salone de Fromage in France we are there as ambassadors trying to improve the visibility of Belgian cheese. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last ten years.”

“Of course, Belgium is known as a beer-producing country, and we’ve done a lot of work on pairing of cheese and beer. My father, Michel, wrote to beer sommelier Ben Vinken some years ago, and they brought their knowledge together in the 2012 book Beer & Cheese. 50 delicious combinations. He got to know a lot of people in the brewing industry through this experience, and in fact that’s how we ended up having our new aging cave in a hall of the old De Koninck brewery. They had a hall there they used to use for bottling, but they were also expanding to a new premises, and this space was free, so we took it.”

Beyond the Earth

Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht are among the very few food producers around the world whose reach has actually extended beyond our planet and into outer space. NASA astronaut Shannon Walker has taken cheeses aged by Van Tricht to the International Space Station.

“We’ve never met Shannon Walker personally, but for some time now we have exporting our cheeses to the United States. It came as a surprise when, one evening checking my social media, I saw a message from a cheese shop from Houston, who were sending two of our cheeses to the ISS: OG Crystal and Old Farmdale, which are both from ‘t Groendal farm in Roeselare, Belgium, and aged here in our cave before being sent around the world, and beyond the world! All the NASA astronauts are allowed to take some guilty pleasure foods into orbit apparently, and Shannon Walker is a clearly a big fan of our cheese.”

Taste Workshop

So what will be tasting in our Taste Workshop dedicated to the products of Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht, on September 19?

“We’ll taste five different cheeses—and perhaps some beers too!—all of which are special for us, though there are two in particular that we’re especially proud of. The first is Landloperke, which is made at a farm quite close to Antwerp with a single herd of Jersey cows. It also has the peculiarity of being made with a plant-based rennet. The producers are friends of ours, and I’d call them cheese technologists as well as farmers.

The Juliette cheese. Photo: Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht

“The second is called Juliette, which is a cheese we created together with a farm in Limburg who generally make very accessible and delicious goat cheeses. We wanted to do something special together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the business last year, so we developed this annatto rind goat cheese in homage to my grandmother, Juliette, who would also have celebrated her 100th birthday last year. It’s a cheese to be eaten with a spoon, and given the small number of goats in the herd the production is necessarily limited. Demand is already outstripping supply, so our guests at Cheese will be lucky to get a chance to taste this cheese! Customers who come into our shop in Antwerp are not guaranteed to find any!”

Keeping it cheesy

So what does the future hold? “After our experience with developing Juliette we’d like to create some new cheeses of our own. Working in close collaboration with the farmers is something we really love. If we have an idea we like to talk to the producer about it and try and develop something new together. This is a field where we want to expand in future. And of course, our goal since the beginning is still the same. To help the world discover all these amazing artisanal Belgian cheeses which have sometimes flown under the radar. So to that end we’re also focused on building our export market, too. Indeed, Cheese in Bra is a very special kind of export.”

And what does Cheese mean for Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht? “For us, Cheese is a celebration of real, honest cheese, the event that brings together the whole world of artisanal cheese in one place, so it’s more than just an exhibition or a trade fair. It’s an opportunity for all these people from around the world who are passionate about cheese to get together and celebrate our hard work, our passion. It’s not just a way for us to find new clients, though that is also true, but a chance to show our team who work with us what a wonderful world they are part of: they can see and feel it for themselves when we bring them to Bra.”

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it