Words Kirk Truman
Photography Si Melber
“I wanted people to walk in and feel excited to find out more about the produce, and especially to walk into the Cheese Room…”
Lamb’s Conduit Street is steeped in history; diverse, charming and engaging, it is considered by many to be one of the best in all of Bloomsbury and indeed London. Then, almost a year ago, it got even better. Sarah Bilney, a director at La Fromagerie, together with founder Patricia Michelson, had longed for another outlet and set their hearts on Lamb’s Conduit Street for the third iteration of their cheese, wine and produce shop, one that would be as enticing as the street itself. La Fromagerie first opened in Highbury Park 26 years ago, having evolved from a market stall in Camden Lock. Today, the three sites are thriving as their Bloomsbury showcase nears its first birthday.
There’s a charming back story to the venture, and it goes a little like this. Founder Patricia Michelson discovered her love for cheese while skiing atop a mountain in Meribel, in the heart of Savoie, France. Having tasted Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, she brought a wheel of it home – winching the 38kg monster into the back of her car. Today, this is the raison d’etre of La Fromagerie; the yearly trips to Savoie now are to select cheeses by tasting the forms made with the summer milk from cattle grazing on the high mountain pastures. The May, June and July cheeses are quite different in flavour, so Patricia chooses some to sell at one year old and ask for others to be kept for a further year, giving the tasting style a real burst of herbaceous flavours. Going back to the origins of La Fromagerie, Patricia placed her first cheese in her garden shed and started the business from there before upgrading to a stall in Camden Lock market around a year later.
This became the motivation for the eventual opening of the first La Fromagerie outlet in Highbury Park in 1992, which also encompassed a wholesaling business onsite in the basement of the shop. After 10 years in business, Patricia and her husband/business partner were ready to open their second site in 2002 and chose Moxon Street – a side street off Marylebone High Street – mainly because Patricia loved the building, particularly its huge double ‘garage’ doors. The site has since become world famous, as has Patricia’s knowledge, since the publication of her two award-winning books, The Cheese Room (2001) and CHEESE (2010). “There are several key elements that have been instrumental in the success of La Fromagerie,” she says, “one being Sarah Bilney, who is now a director, and came on board a few months before the opening of the Marylebone shop. We had already known each other for over five years and my recollection of our deciding to work together was that it happened after rather a lot of cocktails and the wish to do something new and exciting with La Fromagerie. Sarah has the same view as me when it comes to produce, producers, seasons and also visual impact. I have always trodden a path of authenticity and being respectful to the people and place as well as what is being made or grown, and Sarah embraces this too. I have never liked serve-over counters and I didn’t want to be a ‘deli’ as such. I wanted people to walk in and feel excited to find out more about the produce, and especially to walk into the Cheese Room, read the descriptive labels of the cheese, taste and then buy. It is labour intensive, but everyone who works with us has to be greedy for knowledge as well as wanting to talk about the produce. I tell our team that they are the PR for the business as their engagement is the link between the product and the customer.”
The success of La Fromagerie’s Bloomsbury opening is due to two main components; the setting and the location. The site is different from the two others, with a focal point provided by the marble bar where you can sit and enjoy wine, cheese and charcuterie. There’s a small but perfectly curated Cheese Room, with chilled cases outside the room for tender cheeses to sit alongside other key products and a wall of shelves with larder essentials too. The wine list reflects its identity with the cheese to make perfect pairings, and the few tables on the ground floor are just sufficient to allow those who wish to linger a little longer to feel part of the surroundings too. Freshly baked items sit on ledges and counters ready for breakfast, lunch, dinner or brunch. This new opening is tailored to a more social setting as well as shopping. Another vital element to the interiors of their stores is the décor, which Patricia and Sarah source from their travels visiting Brocantes and Markets and work with independent carpenters and joiners to realise.
Below ground, an extensive renovation and re-modelling has taken place; installing a glass roof and restoring the 18th century beams has produced a wonderful space for private events, tastings and workshops, as well as providing an area where the homewares and vintage items can be viewed. The signature La Fromagerie green paint is Shop Front Green from the famous Papers & Paints shop in Fulham, specialists in historical colour palettes. Patricia and Sarah have made Lamb’s Conduit Street their home from home and the traders and local community have responded to their arrival warmly and made them feel part of the community. The La Fromagerie story feels destined to continue, with much, much more to come both in Bloomsbury and beyond. While Patricia has already honed her wealth of food-centric knowledge to perfection, it’s certain that the shared vision she and Sarah have of La Fromagerie will surely take it even further – who knows what will happen next? So, when you’re next in Bloomsbury, take a walk down Lamb’s Conduit Street to see their new opening; and then you’ll find yourself wanting to visit Marylebone too, or take a trip to Highbury to see where it all began… all three are havens for lovers of good food.