British accountant is big cheese in France

Halfway up a mountain in the south of France with the sun beating down and only a herd of goats for company, Briton Matt Feroze's real life as a government accountant in London felt light years away.

A Francophile who had already spent time in the south learning French, little did he know that his month-long working holiday would set him on the path to a whole new potential career and the honour of being the first foreigner to be crowned France's top cheesemonger.

"I was just wandering around the mountain with the goats in the sun, completely lost in the wilderness," Feroze, 30, told AFP in the wake of his unexpected triumph in France's National Cheesemonger Trials in Lyons.

"I realised just how interesting it was, how much went into not just the making of cheese but also how you got from a goat or a cow to your finished cheese being sold in the shop," he said.

After a month working for board and lodging with a farmer and small-scale rural cheese producer, Feroze returned to London in April 2010 and threw himself into studying for his accountancy exams.

But he nurtured a determination to return and somehow work in the cheese industry.

"I felt I was in my late 20s without kids and without a mortgage and this was the time to go and get some experience, some stories to tell the children and grandchildren," he said.

While in London, Feroze made contact with the British branch of French cheesemongers Fromagerie Mons and set about persuading the company to give him a coveted opportunity to work in their shop in Lyons.

"There was quite a lot of silence with occasional half rejections. I've heard since that it boiled down to a point where Herve (Mons) who runs the company said, 'There's this guy who won't leave me alone, let's find a way of getting him into the shop and he'll probably see enough of it not to come back'."

His future boss, however, had not reckoned on the strength of the young accountant's new found passion for everything to do with cheese.

In September 2011, Feroze took the plunge and took a two-year unpaid sabbatical to do work experience in the company's cheese cellars with the promise of a shot at the shop if he could become knowledgeable and fluent enough.

Determined to succeed, he burned the midnight oil studying and immersed himself in every stage of the cheese-refining process.

Once in the shop, he was taken aback when his boss suggested he might be ready to enter the prestigious bi-annual competition.

The Concours National des Fromagers requires participants to demonstrate their skills by completing five tasks including blind tasting, cutting exact quantities by sight and the presentation of a platter of 25 cheeses.

With little over a year in the industry, Feroze was even more astonished when he scooped first prize on January 27 out of a shortlist of 15.

"I kind of zoned out. I thought there was an outside chance I might have come third and when I didn't I thought 'right, okay I just hope I haven't come last'.

"I'd been up since five in the morning, I'd hardly slept the night before and been working long hours in the shop, so my French was wearing out and when they said 'Matthew' I thought 'God it's me'."

With seven months left of his sabbatical, Feroze is happy to bask in the warm glow of his unexpected victory before making any big decisions.

"After that it's a question of working out where I want to sit in the industry and whether that's a fulltime thing or an in-my-free-time thing," he said.

"Winning a competition like this, there's an expectation that you might stay in the industry. What interests me is the small farmers struggling to do something with a great tradition and to keep the history alive, but unfortunately there isn't a huge amount of money in that."

Many cheese producers find it difficult to make ends meet and often have no one to pass the business on to.

"People grow older and their kids -- growing up with Internet and social media -- maybe don't want to do stuff out in the middle of nowhere on a farm working a huge number of hours for quite a small amount of money and to have no holidays," he said.

Shops like Mons help support small cheese producers but Feroze says it is a tragedy when cheeses disappear.

"Some of these amazing cheeses are very hard to make, they are heavy and you have to move them quickly, you need strength and it's tiring work.

"It's a hard life but the cheese has character and you can taste the effort and that makes it magical for me," he said.

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