Last Updated: July 16, 2021
“Well, the first [part] only lasted three months”, Ai Ming Syu tells us as she shaves off the rind from a hefty quarter of Comte cheese, “before they kicked me out of the country”, she finishes wryly.
We laugh, as Ming recounts her stint in Europe fully immersed in the ancient art of cheese-making, “And then after that, anytime I had, I just ran away and did exactly the same thing”. Much better than the circus, methinks.
We were housed in the cosy and chilly wheelhouse of The Cheese Ark along the quiet streets of Stirling Road. A rather odd location for an artisanal cheese shop who used to be at the trendy Pasar Bella in Suntec City.
To give you a better idea, The Cheese Ark is tucked inconspicuously under a block of flats and flanked by your run-of-the-mill provision stores selling everyday knick-knacks.
It was an unconventional location for sure but that just makes The Cheese Ark all the more charming, to which Ming explained her penchant for old and ‘imperfectly beautiful’ things. Since Queenstown is one of the oldest HDB estates in Singapore, it seemed fitting to have a cheese shop representing one of the oldest traditions set amongst the first few HDB buildings of Singapore.
A thoughtful sentiment indeed. So, when you get there don’t be fooled by the somewhat austere exterior, as there are treasures and goodies behind that glass door.
The first thing that hits you as you enter this cheese enclave has to be the glorious smells of the cheeses mingling with each other. For an ardent cheese lover like myself, the stinkier, the more pungent, the better.
I took a deep inhale as I surveyed the walls adorned with the cheese paraphernalia. From the seemingly endless rows of crackers to the wide assortment of nuts, the cheese plate of my dreams was just at my fingertips.
Ming, like many of her cheeses, is complex and full of character. With deep-set dimples, a tasteful short bob and clad in her official Cheese Ark lab coat, she’s exactly what you expect your cheesemonger to be.
Now, a cheesemonger does a little more than your average cheese seller.
A cheesemonger is in charge of curating a selection of good cheeses as well as ripening and refining them. A cheesemonger’s expertise like Ming’s plays an important role, some argue just as important as a cheesemaker, in introducing the public to artisanal cheeses.
Which, if you can tell, I’m all for.
If you notice there are two storage rooms at the corner of The Cheese Ark. They are ageing cellars you can find in cheese farms but scaled down for the store.
When Ming gets her cheese delivered, she will finish ageing them in these cellars to continue developing the flavour of each cheese.
As Ming cuts me a sliver of Comte cheese (my favourite!), which I gleefully accepted, I ask her how she landed the role of Singapore’s only cheesemonger.
Ming tells me that not too long ago, she was in the advertising industry and for a good 10 years in fact. Her job required her long hours sitting at her desk and using her brain, which Ming enjoyed, immensely. But after her tenth year, she decided she wanted to do something that was the complete opposite.
She remarks, “I wanted to be outside, I wanted to work with my hands. One thing led to another, and then I was working on a cheese farm”, a satisfied look on her face.
Given that Ming only had three months in Italy, she picked a Pecorino cheese farm. This way, she could see the process from start to finish in that short amount of time.
A Pecorino is a type of salty cheese made from sheep’s milk and something you have to include in a good carbonara.
Ming was involved in every part of the process, from walking the animals, milking them, shaping the cheese and finally ageing the cheese. Not to mention, the best part of making anything has to be savouring the fruits of her labour and Ming got to do just that.
“Was it satisfying?”, I ask her.
Ming pauses for a moment and answers, “I think, more than it being satisfying, it was a revelation because I got to see how a real cheese was made”. Ming asserts that after going through this process, from tasting just how sweet and fresh the milk was to what it could become in the cheese, there was just no turning back.
At the time I was at The Cheese Ark, I was in the midst of truffle season and with that brings about the much sought after truffle cheeses. I was introduced to a trio of truffle cheeses which Ming reminds me are exceptionally seasonal so they are only available at certain times of the year. Given that truffles are highly perishable, they best pair with fresh cheeses to bring out the best in the truffle.
The first one was the gorgeous Tartufato del Pietmontese (Prices vary), or sometimes known as truffle log cake. From the region of Piedmont in Italy, only days old, this log cake comprises of goat’s cheese with truffles mixed in and laid on top.
If you know me, I do think truffles are highly over-rated and overused. However, given that The Cheese Ark promises an artisanal selection, I was willing to forgo my truffle prejudices.
The Tartufato del Pietmontese surprised me. Considering that this was a fresh goat’s cheese, I was expecting the cheese to have an extremely sharp and tangy flavour but instead, the cheese was mellow and creamy.
Plus, the truffles were not rude and pungent divas they usually are, but instead, they happily played their part in this ensemble cast; a yummy little nugget to start my introduction into the truffle cheeses.
Next, Ming introduced us to the Bricat al Tartufo (Prices vary) also from Piedmont, Italy. Similar to the first, this cheese was also goat’s milk-based but aged a little longer and done in a completely different style.
Ming explained that the cheese was ripening from the outside in which explained the difference in colour along the edges of the cheese.
Slightly gooey at the edges and with those scrumptious truffle bits mixed in, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a piece.
The Bricat was much more intense and pungent than the previous cheese—the ageing allowed the cheese to acquire a slightly earthier flavour profile which in turn complemented the truffles beautifully.
The last of the truffle trinity was the Truffle Gorgonzola (S$40/ 200g) which was an exquisite, gooey mess with truffles mixed in.
To give us a better idea of what gorgonzola is, Ming lugs out a giant wheel of gorgonzola so we could fully envision its stature, to which this fangirl almost keeled over at the sight of this beauty.
Thick and gooey, this melty cheese was just like a spread (the best kind of spread). Ming spooned a liberal amount on to my cracker and beckoned for us to taste it.
This was salty, buttery, and downright satisfying. Similarly to the other cheeses, the truffles were a delicate addition which I appreciated. This had to be one of my favourite cheese out of the three, I would have this cheese on absolutely everything if my waistline allowed.
It’s clear why truffle season is so popular every time it swings by.
If you are a cheese novice and all that was pretty intimidating, you can get a cheese plate from The Cheese Ark’s weekly specials priced around S$20.
With a good variety of cheeses ranging from hard to soft, washed rind to blue, it serves as a good way to explore what you like as well as what cheese suits your palate.
There lies a reverence and respect for the craft of cheese-making that permeates every aspect of The Cheese Ark. I can’t help but feel inspired by Ming’s outlook on life and her joie de virve.
As we were wrapping up, I asked Ming whether she was glad at the events that have brought her to this moment so far.
She answers, “People are happy when they get their cheese, it’s quite an incredible thing. Like the folks that you saw. There are very few jobs out there where you can make people that happy that instantly. So yes, for that reason, I’m quite glad that the shop exists”.
Expected Damage: S$18 – S$30 per pax
Price: $ $
Our Rating: 5 / 5
The Cheese Ark
49 Stirling Road, #01-489, Singapore 141049
49 Stirling Road, #01-489, Singapore 141049