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The Interview

The Big Cheese: Mr Jean-Claude Biver

The LVMH head of watchmaking discusses his great passion for making the world’s best gruyère

Mr Jean-Claude Biver is without doubt the watch world’s most colourful character, a charismatic speaker with an infectiously bombastic delivery. He’s been called “the saviour of the Swiss watch industry” – and with good reason. In fact, he’s a man with something of a Midas touch. In the early 1980s, when the production of mechanical movements had almost stopped due to the impact of quartz watches, Mr Biver brought Blancpain back from the brink, buying it for just 22,000 Swiss francs (around £20,000 adjusted for inflation) and, after rebuilding it, selling it to the Swatch Group a decade later for 60m Swiss francs (£25m). He later repeated the trick with Hublot. Within just four years, he turned a brand with an annual turnover of £11.3m into one for which LVMH paid £250m in 2008.

At the age of 68, he’s been around the clock more than a few times at more than a few brands. He put Omega back on the map, and on the wrist of James Bond. He sponsored a mission to Mars with TAG Heuer. He’s a marketing guru and remains the most energetic and forward-thinking executive in the often painfully traditional world of haute horlogerie.

What’s more, while most people of his vintage and means would be enjoying retirement, Mr Biver is working harder than ever as the head of LVMH’s watch division, comprising Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith. But, in his spare time, he also happens to make extraordinarily good gruyère on his farm in the Swiss alps. So naturally, over coffee in Geneva earlier this year, that’s pretty much all we talked about.

Firstly, why cheese?

“It’s a hobby. My passion for cheese comes from my passion for watches. Cheese and watches – they belong together. [In the 17th century] the early Swiss watchmakers were called paysan-horloger, which means ‘farmer-watchmaker’. In the summertime they were heavily occupied with the cows and making cheese. But in the wintertime they would polish wheels for watches. They had the [requisite] characteristics of watchmakers: very accurate, patient, slow. Gradually, some of these farmers began to focus on watches [year-round] because maybe their brothers could run the farm and they could earn more making watches. I got to visit this valley and saw the farmhouses where these guys were living in the 17th century. I found it very interesting, and I tested also the cheese. I said to my wife, ‘One day I need to have a farm because then I’m back at the 12 o’clock of my passion’. So that’s why. I had the opportunity to buy a farm close to Montreux in 2002, so it’s been 15 years.”

How does someone as busy as you find the time to make cheese?

“It makes me a better man! It makes a better husband, it makes a better father, it makes me a better human being. Because [on the farm] you always go back to authenticity, to humility. The biggest problem of a successful CEO is he sometimes forgets where he has come from. [Making cheese] keeps my two feet on earth… I come back as many times as I can to home. Here I get the strength to do my job.”

Have you always been a cheese expert?

“I had no connection at all with cheese [before I bought the farm]. I even didn’t like so much cheese. I mean, I was eating cheese from time to time, but it was not something I loved or I really enjoyed so much. Now, unfortunately, I eat too much! I went to the other side.”

Your gruyère is very highly regarded – what’s the secret?

“The quality of the milk depends [primarily] on the quality of the grass. This is why we can distinguish so many different cheeses in Switzerland, because we have so many grasses. Grass always looks green, but it’s never the same. In the 16th century, the farmers brought the cows to this Alp because they found out that the grass is of a very high quality. They discovered that if cows eat grass that is rich in flowers, the milk would taste of flowers. That’s why we only make our cheese from the milk in the summertime in the mountain, when the meadows are in flower.”

How do you make the cheese?

“Firstly, we heat the milk only at 56ºC degrees. We don’t go above, and when you don’t go above you keep certain flavours that will disappear after 56ºC. Also, we don’t use gas or electricity. To have it under a fire that you have lit with hand-cut pine wood – that gives a special flavour indirectly.

“Secondly, some people use some salt because salt helps to preserve against diseases, and so on. But salt covers the taste. Here, again, we are very, very cautious and we use very little, as little salt as possible. All this makes an incredible, creamy, great taste of cheese.

“Thirdly, we keep all the cream in the cheese. Cream is the enemy because it can quickly turn sour. That is a big headache, because the cheese we do, we need six months. It’s like wine; it gets better with age. Now, if you keep all the cream, you must be much more careful than if you take 40 per cent of the cream out – which is what everyone else does, and then they sell the cream separately. We don’t do that. We leave the milk 100 per cent as it is, with all the cream the milk has in it, which means we take a huge risk [of spoilage]. But I can take a risk because I don’t sell my cheese. If something goes wrong, who cares? I have the same cost every year. It costs me the same if the cheese is good or the cheese is bad.”

You don’t sell your cheese?

“Five tons a year, I don’t sell it. I give it all away as a present, I give it to charity. Some top chefs ask for it. There’s only one exception – we are in a very famous ski restaurant in St Moritz called El Paradiso. The chef convinced me to sell him 330kg because he wants to offer Biver fondue. It’s probably the best cheese for fondue.”

What’s your tried-and-tested cheese fondue recipe?

“My fondue recipe. OK, 200g of my cheese for one person, so if you have four, you need 800g. Then, 800g will need three little glasses of white wine, preferably chasselas, a very dry white wine, not sweet. Two cloves of garlic, which you cut in little, little slices, and then one spoon of kirsch alcohol. All this is in the pot, and then you heat it very slowly and you stir. You must try it, OK?”

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