Q&A with Patricia Michelson, founder of La Fromagerie

Q&A with Patricia Michelson, founder of La Fromagerie

Patricia Michelson is the founder of La Fromagerie, an independent cheese retailer with three award-winning shops in Highbury, Marylebebone and Bloomsbury - and one of Sacred's earliest customers. By a rather lovely coincidence, the original Sacred distillery was based in the same north London Street - Talbot Road in Highgate - where Patricia launched her business several years earlier. 

So we are extremely pleased to announce that we have teamed up with La Fromagerie for a special tasting on 30 April featuring Sacred’s award-winning spirits and vermouths paired with six cheeses especially selected by Patricia herself and senior cheesemonger Max Melvin. There will also be a menu devised by their head chef Alessandro Grano to complement the pairings. 

Prior to the event we had a quick catch up with Patricia.

Can you remember the first time you came across Sacred? I think there must be something of a foodie leyline in Talbot Road as it's seen the beginnings of a cheese business, a distillery and has been home to a couple of food and drink writers!

It was at a launch party outside Ole-Martin Hansen’s salmon smokery in Stoke Newington where you and Ian were serving martinis. We got chatting and you mentioned that the distillery was based in Talbot Road and voila - a connection was made! I remember thinking that was such a coincidence as I had formed my ideas for La Fromagerie at my home down the road from yours. I also remember very well our first meeting at your house, and how we chatted animatedly about our chosen fields of expertise and I am sure I outstayed my welcome!

Absolutely not! What was the catalyst for your cheese business?

That’s a loaded question but basically I was skiing in Meribel on a very bad weather day and had a tumble. I then got up and realised my husband was not around and I had to find my way down on my own with the weather becoming difficult.  It took me a long time and during the twists and turns and missteps my thoughts turned to not just surviving but also what I was going to do with my life.  Something just clicked in my brain and I said to myself that I had to make changes.

When I finally made it down to the village I walked home to the chalet and on my way I passed the cheese shop called La Fromagerie.  I went in and asked for a piece of cheese for 10 Francs as that is all I had in my pocket.  I was given a taste of Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage and it was so delicious I bought a small piece because that’s all my money would buy!  As I munched it on my way back, I couldn’t help thinking how good I felt and restored.  It was like a magic piece of food. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about the way it made me feel and the next day I went to the market in Moutiers, met the local cheesemaker and in my terrible French asked for some cheese to take home to London.  The cheesemaker, M. Roux Daigue said he would bring it up to the chalet on the Saturday and I thought that was a lovely gesture.  When he arrived we went to get the cheese and in the back of his van he presented me with a whole wheel of Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage – I couldn’t believe it – I thought I had asked for a piece but saying "piece de fromage" it means a whole wheel and "tranche" means a slice.  So I had to buy it; shove it into the back of my car and bring it back to London.  My husband said to me – “what the hell are we going to do with 38kg of cheese” – and I said, “we have 19 hours to talk about it and make a plan”.

Delicious cheese selection in La Fromagerie


What was it like, running a business from Talbot Road? How did it work - did you advertise and people made an appointment to pick up some cheese? Did the neighbours complain - or were they quite amused?

In 1991 there was no social media, no computers as such, mobiles were in their infancy and basically I had to run the business on a shoestring and still find ways to get people interested. It was also the start of a recession and people were really cutting back on their spending. I decided it would be a great idea to create a cheeseboard for the weekend and advertised in the Ham & High newspaper with a picture of a tray of cheese with the wording ‘get a beautiful tray of cheese for the weekend for the family or your dinner parties’. I’d send a list of the cheeses with great tasting notes and people could send me their orders on a Tuesday and I’d deliver the trays on the Friday - you know, I still have customers from those days coming into the shops for cheese and some of them even have the original cheese tasting notes too.

Having the cheese in the garden shed which I converted into a cheese cellar was a challenge. I bought an old cellar cooler from a pub next door to my husband’s shop in Walthamstow. It rattled when it clicked in which I had to ingeniously muffle by boxing in with padded louvre panels to help with the noise issue but also allow air to circulate. Every time the door of the shed was opened the cheese whiff would waft over the fence. It didn’t matter so much in the winter but in the summer you did get a more defined ‘aroma’.  My lovely neighbours were very tolerant and I’d pop round with gifts and they would tell me when they were dining outside so I would keep the door closed. Their daughter Alice Lascelles also babysat for my younger daughter Rose, and you may recognise her name as she is an award winning drinks journalist now.

I also did ‘at home’ tastings occasionally, on a Sunday morning, and they were really well attended – I didn’t charge but I did push people to buy something before they left! My profile slowly grew - I would do tutored tastings at people’s homes as well as working with wine enthusiasts who did tastings. One morning I had a phone call from someone enquiring about the business and asking all sorts of questions. He wanted to know if the shed was in my back garden and could he come and visit? I said yes, it was where I ran the business and when did he want to come round? He replied that he was up the road calling from a phone box and five minutes later there was a knock on the door and in he came. We went out to the garden and I showed him inside the shed, and then we sat in the garden and had a plate of cheese and a glass of wine and chatted.  He said he’d read the piece in the Ham & High and was very curious as he was a writer for the Financial Times – he wrote the restaurant column and also food focussed pieces. It was Nicholas Lander! I was gobsmacked! I read the Saturday FT as it was so full of interesting and inspiring articles. I didn’t know what to expect but he put a little paragraph about me in his food focus section and that kick-started a lot of other media interest.  Nick was such a supportive person and is now a friend.

I was basically open to anything. I did a Food Fair at the Bibendum wine merchants and sold out so I thought that a stall might be an idea. I walked down to Camden Lock Market and met the manager of the market and after a chat he offered me a stall as he thought I was so original. That was hard graft I can tell you!  But it taught me a lot about how to present the business, what people liked and to harden myself up a bit.

How did you initially source your cheese and build up your contacts with producers? I'm sure that now producers are constantly knocking on your door but it must have been difficult at first.

I met the cheesemaker of Beaufort at the Moutiers Market and following on from that I got a friend who had a ski business in Meribel to help. I would send him a shopping list and he would get the cheeses (Savoie local ones) and put them in the people carrier/camper van he used for ferrying chalet girls back and forth to the UK so I would get my cheeses every 3-6 weeks, depending on when he was coming back to London. I was also making inroads into buying from a Maitre Fromager in Lille for a variety of cheese and I also started going to France to search out cheesemakers and find out how we could work together.

It was a slow process. When I first became interested in Italian cheeses I was introduced to a British agent based in Milan who worked with Bibendum on their Italian wine range. He was looking to buy more products so he and I worked together and searched out cheesemakers. It is a long story and one that I should really write down as there were many bumps in the road in every sense, but great finds and good contacts were formulated.

Patricia Michelson and colleague in one of their cheese rooms


What is your main criteria for stocking a cheese?

It has always been about Terroir – it all starts with the land, where it is, and how the seasons define the taste and its availability. It is about who is making the cheese, and where the milk is coming from. We try and work with cheesemakers using milk from their own herd, and are pasture fed for as much of the year as possible.  Our cheeses define who we are, and being respectful and truthful to our ethos is the basis of the business.

Did you ever have a plan for the business or did La Fromagerie grow organically? All your sites have cheeserooms but they also each have a slightly different focus - Moxon Street has a bar/eating, for example, and Lamb Conduit Street has a bar/restaurant. Were you specifically looking for sites that could accommodate these additions to the business or did the footprint of the building - or the area - suggest that it might be possible to open a restaurant or wine bar?

When I opened Marylebone I had a space at the back of the shop for a long communal table and coffee bar. I wanted people to sit together and enjoy our wonderful Florentine coffee and a short menu gleaned from the produce on sale as well cheeseboards with a glass of wine. It was very simple with just 12 places. I never realised it would take off like a rocket and the ‘small plates’ idea would filter into the mainstream - if I say so myself, it was La Fromagerie that championed small plates and not the fancy chefs. I remember a very famous chef came in to see the shop in 2002 after it had been featured in the Evening Standard. He sat down at the communal table, had a cheeseboard and charcuterie board and shortly afterwards he opened a ‘concept’ restaurant and was hailed as revolutionary!

It was a brave step for us to take but one I wanted to pursue because our produce in the shop had grown to include fruit and vegetables, larder and bakery, charcuterie and wine; here was a way of introducing customers to what we were selling and to give them ideas on how to serve at home.

Before Marylebone, our little Highbury shop was often used for cheese and wine tastings – all standing but great fun - and we also turned the shop into a bistro occasionally to serve an alpine fondue supper.

It was lovely seeing that little shop candle lit with a few tables and chairs dotted wherever there was space and people enjoying themselves so when we took on Lamb’s Conduit Street we decided to take it a bit further and designed a lovely bar area with more comfortable seating and a dining space downstairs. Of course, our ideas went beyond our original thoughts and it turned into more of a restaurant with the front area as the shop with a small Cheese Room. Nevertheless it has shown, again, that we can be innovative and still retain all the ethos of the business, and the menu reflects all of that and more. I am very proud of the Lamb’s Conduit site – I call it the rather glamorous part of the business. If we open another branch I’m excited to see where we can take it!

I remember when you came back to Talbot Road to visit the distillery, you told me that it was a great idea to start a business in your forties - which is what you did and the age Ian and I were when we started Sacred. I think I know exactly what you mean but would you like to expand on this theme?

Well, by your 40’s you’ve done quite a lot!  Also being female, I found my ‘voice’ at that time.  Even though I started on a shoestring I had the will and strength to push forward that I probably wouldn’t have had in my 20’s or 30’s.  40 is a dangerous age isn’t it!?  It’s the time you look at yourself and say what have I achieved, where do I want to go, who am I?  Taking that step, that leap is exciting but also very scary.  However, I believed in what I wanted to do, and you have to truly believe in it to make it happen. Don’t think about the endgame (most men do I’m afraid!) but think about the journey and the hurdles you will undoubtedly have along the way, and your strength and power to get through them. I think that’s why I’m still very much part of the business, I’m still journeying down that road!

La Fromagerie Marylebone shop front


As Sacred is best-known for its gin but also produces several different categories of spirit, you are renowned for your wonderful cheese but also sell fresh produce, dairy, charcuterie, wine - and spirits of course! When and why did you decide to diversify?

It was a natural process. I’d go to see a cheesemaker and he’d tell me about a friend who had a vineyard, or a charcuterie producer who he supplied whey for their pigs and I’d go and visit and buy from them. It was very easy in those days before Brexit!  I wanted to showcase great produce from the areas I was buying cheese, and things that hadn’t been available in London before. I still work with many producers from the early days, and try to source more local produce now – asparagus from Essex, fruit and vegetables from Suffolk and Kent apples from the heritage orchards of Brogdale and of course great British cheeses.

There are stories to everything we sell and they all have a reason to be in the shops.  You can build your breakfast, lunch, supper, dinner or snack from produce in the shop, whether its cheese, olives, bread, or ingredients for dishes, or just simply having great butter for your breakfast toast, together with home made marmalade and jams.  It is in fact all my own personal desires for shopping - I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t want to buy myself!

You brought with you on that visit a member of your team who had come into your business via a science background, and I've always been impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the people you surround yourself with. Could you tell me a little more about your team?

Probably because I am more or less self taught, I attract people who are wanting to diversify or learn something new. I work very closely with Sarah who is also a director of the business and her parents had a small hotel and her mother ran the kitchen.  She loved the homemade food approach and honesty of ingredients.  We work well together - I say she is the ying to my yang as we have our own ideas but they somehow gel – it is quite magical.  She has a strong mindset, and we have taken the business forward together.  We have all sorts of people working with us from backgrounds that were not food or cheese related, and they bring a great dynamic to the business.  There is a constant thread though as they all love food, and want to dive into finding out more about the way it is grown and made and how to partner, match and cook. You will often see the team chatting together about an item or tasting it together – which is encouraged as then they will be able to talk to the customers about the products. I’m always interested to see when anyone leaves what they are going to do next.  We have had several who have opened their own businesses and become successful in their own right.  That makes me very proud indeed.

Patricia with Ian & Hilary chatting at the Sacred Shop and Distillery


What's your favourite Sacred spirit and how do you enjoy drinking it?

Negroni!  I love your Negroni and especially when I can slice a gorgeous Sicilian blood orange in the glass.  It’s strong and with the right mix of savoury/sweetness – always hits the spot and makes a great start to a meal.  Aperitifs have to make your mouth water don’t they?!

Desert island cheese?

It will always be Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, the cheese I ate after that horrible day on the ski slopes in Meribel. That first thrill of the taste sensation gave me the kick start to the business.  I still go with the team twice a year to choose the cheeses – I want them to taste along with me to understand the ‘sweet spot’ of the cheese and how it will develop as the cheese ages.  You can’t learn from books that sensation – you have to live it and then pass it on to others!


SACRED X LA FROMAGERIE, 7-9:30pm 30 April 2024  at La Fromagerie, Marylebone £75pp. Link for tickets

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