For the past few years, finicky cheese eaters could find their favourite Tomme de Savoie or appropriately-aged Comte on the temperature-controlled shelves of The Cheese Ark in Pasarbella at Turf City. It was where owner Syu Ai Ming kept her precious stash of rare cheeses painstakingly sourced from small villages in France, Italy, Holland, the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland.
In July, she relocated from the hipster Pasarbella to an HDB space at 49 Stirling Road, which she says has “perfect synchronicity with the artisanal cheese story” she has been advocating for the last five years. She explains: “Ancient artisanal cheeses are getting harder to come by because many of these homestead dairy farms are forced to shut as they are unable to compete with cheaper, widely available industrial cheeses.” This is happening across Europe, including cheese-obsessed France.
By the same token, her shop is located in one of the first HDB blocks in Singapore, and “everyone knows the uncertain fate of these flats, which could be demolished soon”. She feels it helps to make a connection with customers, so they can better appreciate the transience of the cheeses they buy from her.
The former advertising executive learnt cheesemaking in Europe more than 10 years ago. She established The Cheese Ark in 2013 because she wanted to gather as many as possible of ‘forgotten’ cheeses for people to try before they become extinct. In the beginning, she stocked about 80 types of cheeses, and has since added another 60 varieties to her inventory.
One of the rarest cheeses that The Cheese Ark carries is Boeren Goudse Oplegkaas (Aged Farmstead Gouda), made by hand using ancient techniques. Years ago, Ms Syu had her first taste of an eight-year wheel. She reminisces: “It was remarkably different from the commercial version, and amazing in complexity and taste.” When The Cheese Ark was launched, the remaining cheesemakers, Magdalena and Nico Captein, had decided not to continue making the gouda as there wasn’t enough demand to justify their time and effort.
Ms Syu, who ages the cheese herself in a special affinage room, continues: “I bought the remaining wheels, and kept telling them that people still remember the gouda they once aged and that they should continue to produce it. Thankfully, the Capteins decided to revive the cheese just for us. We have been working on this for the last few years and waiting for the cheese to come of age.” Meanwhile, customers can enjoy a host of time-honoured cheeses paired with wines and charcuterie at The Cheese Ark’s new store.
Eastern European may not be on the average Singaporean’s culinary radar, but for the 7,000 expats from former Soviet countries who live here, Nosalj Vadim is their link to home. The director of Bublik Singapore hails from Vladivostock and started his online food retail business five years to cater to his compatriots. “It’s a community with Russian roots – they speak and understand the same native language”, he says.
Today, Mr Vadim flies in products from Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, stocking about 200 exclusive items in an ever growing inventory. He says: “We have many high quality dairy products like sour cream, cheese and chocolate, and seafood like caviar, sturgeon, salmon, and salted herring. We also sell seasonal fruits like melons and grapes from Uzbekistan and Georgia, which taste incredible. Our Pink Paradise tomatoes are some of the best in the world, which I hope more people here can enjoy.” Bublik brings in beer, sparkling wine, and pickles from Russia, rye bread, vodka and potatoes from Belarus, as well as premium ice-cream from Lithuania. The affordably priced goods procured from big and small producers are conveniently couriered to homes around Singapore.
French expat Claire Chabrieres, who moved to Singapore in 2011, founded ShiokFarm in 2015 “as a social enterprise because it was very difficult to find affordable locally grown organic fruits and vegetables to feed my family,” says the mother of three.
Ms Chabrieres explains: “We do ‘contract farming’: a group of families signs a deal with a farm. We agree on what will be grown and buy 100 per cent of the farm’s harvest. This allows the farmer to lower his risk on stocks and allows better prices. In return, the community commits to support the farm for the long term. Our members agree to stay with the programme for six months. Members subscribe to bags of 3kg ($148/month), 5kg ($248/month), or 7kg ($308/month), delivered weekly. When our members are on holiday, they can either resell their bags or donate them to Cheshire Home.”
Ms Chabrieres is a fan of old varieties of fruits and vegetables. “Even if their sizes and shapes might look a bit strange, their tastes and smells are amazing. For instance, when in season, we have old varieties of lemons with incredible aroma. We have small pineapples from Northern Chiangmai that taste amazing. We also bring in from Thailand, sweet, tiny bananas that actually have seeds.”
Fresh organic ingredients aside, Shiok Farm intends to sell more artisanal products. “We distributed roselle jams for Christmas. The roselle is grown in Singapore by Onesimus Garden, a farm that crafts programmes to help heal people through the use of simple farming principles. In September, we will distribute Kampot pepper, grown by Fair Farm, a social farm in Cambodia. By the year’s end, we will have coffee honey from Vietnam,” she shares.
Delivery-wise, ShiokFarm has 20 collection points across Singapore. “All our collection points are hosted by our members on a voluntary basis. Our members who live in the neighbourhood have two hours to pick up their bags at fixed times and days, once a week. This allows us to keep our distribution costs very low,” says Ms Chabrieres. ShiokFarm will soon explore the possibility of offering bags for people with special dietary requirements.
Australia may have already been plundered for all its choice produce by serious Singapore food lovers, but Artisans Selections feels they’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of exclusive products. Aiming to correct this deficiency, the company was launched in November 2017 by five gourmet friends including Adrian Mah, its chief marketing officer. He says: “We chose to focus on South Australia first, as two of our founders reside there and have long-standing relationships with the artisan communities. South Australia also has an increasing number of artisans creating the finest food, wine and spirits.”
From the latter category, “We’ll be promoting spirits such as Lobo apple brandy and a quince-based gin – both are limited, small batch releases. We’ll also be carrying more craft beer and cider labels that are unavailable in Singapore,” says Mr Mah.
Among the many products from this specialty e-store is gin from the remote Kangaroo Island off South Australia’s coast. In 2006, Jon Lark, managing director of Kangaroo Island Distillery, and his wife Sara, opened their gin distillery, the first and only one on the island.
About 20 years ago, the couple who had worked with Western Australia’s indigenous Spinifex folk saw how they used native plants for nutrition and medicinal purposes. “This changed the way we thought about Australian plants and their potential for distilling,” says Mr Lark.
After four years, his flagship product, KIS Wild Gin, was launched, “a dry contemporary expression fashioned in the style of a London dry”.
Mr Lark points out: “Apart from the indispensable juniper that gives gin its distinctive flavour and aroma, we experiment with over 48 kinds of botanicals that are handpicked in the wild, or grown on our property – such as coastal daisy, lemon and aniseed myrtles, native thyme and sea parsley.”
In the near future, the Larks plan to release more Kangaroo Island exclusive gins as well as a special South Australian single malt whisky.