Japanese master cheese maker

Michihisa Yamaguchi © T.Joly
Originally from Tokyo, Michihisa Yamaguchi came to France to work in agriculture. By dint of perseverance, he became master cheese maker and now works and lives in a lovely Alpine village.

A typical Savoyard village with traditional chalets and a renowned ski resort, Les Gets possesses boasts one of France’s smallest cheese factories. Founded in the early 20th century, the Fruitière des Perrières indeed processes only 140 to 500 litres of milk per day and the whole production is sold in a small shop and a cheese-centric restaurant housed in the factory’s former premises, a beautiful wood and stone building. So, it’s one of the last places you would expect to see a foreign master cheese maker, moreover Japanese.

Abondance cheeses © T.Joly
 Since 2009 in Les Gets
Nicknamed Miti by his French friends, 36 years old Michihisa Yamaguchi works there since two years and put new life into the factory by creating two cheeses, the Bleu des Gets and the Saveur des Gets, similar to Gruyere. Thanks to his know-how, he also improved the quality of the varieties that were already produced before his arrival : Abondance, Tomme des Gets and Raclette cheese. And recently one of his cheeses was presented at the Concours General Agricole of the Salon de l’Agriculture. Yet nothing predestined him to become one of the figures of this little French village and to do this job as he studied medieval Japanese literature. But, he cycles and watches the Tour de France on TV since the age of 15 and he found his first job in a Japanese dairy company. “I was only in charge of the workforce management but it gave me the mind to turn to agriculture because I liked countryside and cows since secondary school” he explains.

Michihisa Yamaguchi © T.Joly
 In search of a dairy farm
So, giving up his job, he left to Hokkaïdo, Japan Northern Island, and found a course in a 160 cows dairy farm. “ But it was too industrial, too big for me. I was searching something more authentic, like the villages and farms I had seen on TV along the route of the Tour de France”. That’s how he turned up in Poitiers in 2002 and he began by learning French. At the same time, he registered in a cycling club and rode hundreds of kilometres in the surrounding countryside. But, to his great disappointment, he didn’t see any cow, only goats and wheat fields. So, after one year, in summer 2003, he chose to move to Chambéry and once again went cycling to look for a dairy farm where he could work. “I saw many cows but no farm” he remembers. “People were intrigued to see a Japanese travelling on his own, on a bicycle and as I spoke French badly they didn’t understand what I was looking for”.

© T.Joly
 Two years in Chambéry
Nevertheless, Miti stayed for two years in Chambéry to study French and, near the town, he found a livestock farm where he spent a lot of time and learned a lot. But he still had no job.
For this reason, in 2005 he decided to go back to Japan to save money and spent a year working for Honda, on car and bike assembly lines.
Back in France in 2006, he entered ENIL, a school situated at La Roche Forond, near Annecy, where he attended a dairy processing course. Once graduated, he finally found a job in a cooperative producing cheeses located in Maurienne where he stayed for one and half year. “But the plant processed nearly 15 000 litres of milk per day, it was still too industrial for me”. That’s why in March 2009 he answered a job offer from La Fruitière des Perrières.

Michihisa Yamaguchi © T.Joly
 The job he was looking for
Only applicant to have presented cheeses he had made, he got the position that matches exactly what he had been looking for so long. Indeed, in this little traditional cheese factory, Miti enjoys a large degree of autonomy and does everything. He takes delivery of the milk brought by the two farmers supplying the fruitière. He makes the cheese and monitors their aging that lasts between 3 and 7 months. He even welcomes and guides school groups coming to discover how Savoyard cheeses are made. “The owners trust me and let me work as I wish”. In spite he works 6 days a week, Miti keeps on going cycling in the mountains and last October he treated himself to a second-hand professional rider’s bicycle, John Gadret from the AG2R team. “To celebrate my 20 years of cycling ”.

Michihisa Yamaguchi © T.Joly
 His favourite cheeses: Beaufort and Abondance
Time to time, he also travels around France to discover regions he hasn’t visited yet. “I like the country because French people retain their traditional culture. In Japan, the pace of modernisation and Americanization of our society has been too fast”. Having said that, he doesn’t imagine living in France anywhere else but in Savoy. “I enjoy living here and I don’t feel I am a stranger. I like the people, their hospitality, the mountainous scenery, the numerous breeds of cow that can be found here and my two favourite cheeses, Beaufort and Abondance, are produced in this region”. And if one day, he has to go back to Japan – where all his relatives live – he will keep on making cheeses, maybe in his own farm if his dream comes true.

Mars 09, 2011
Thierry Joly 

[ Information ]

Fruitière des Perrières
137 Les Perrières
74260 Les Gets
Shop : 0450797004
Restaurant : 0450798922