Say Cheese, please.
When entertaining, a cheese platter is sure-fire hit that will delight guests whether served after a main course or before the meal during the apéro. A gourmet platter composed of different tastes and textures is meant to be shared and always inspires conversation. Is it any wonder that during the pandemic when gatherings were forbidden, apéro clandestin became the watchword to connect with others?
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, Asli Lahsini arrived in Paris from Turkey to join her fiancé. The lockdown allowed her time to mull over her future. A dedicated foodie, discovering France through its vast variety of cheeses became her raision-d’être.
In 2021, she put her skills and tastes to work and founded Apéro Clandestin, creating attractive, appetizing gourmet cheese platters. Featuring French charcuterie and decorated with nuts and fruit, her cheese platters dress any table, stimulate the palate and serve as an original gift idea.
INSPIRELLE met Asli Lahsini after placing an order and learned more about how she came to be a connoisseur of French cheeses, and how the wonderful diversity of cheese crosses all social and cultural borders.
Why cheeses, Asli? How did your palate lead you to create your business in France around a quintessential French product?
I know it sounds very unlikely for a Turkish girl to end up with a business centred on French cheese but when I put things into context, I promise, it will all make sense. The dominant culinary culture of my family comes from Turkish people who once settled in Bulgaria. Unlike most traditional Turkish families, mine always preferred to enjoy their apéro before dinner and they never skipped a glass of wine or raki (a Turkish pastis drink).
So, our eating habits were shaped around a table that transforms from apéro to dinner. The French call it apéro dinatoire. Some call it “heavy apps” and in the Turkish-Balkan way, it means a good cheese is always an important part of the table alongside cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and some mezzes to nibble on.
Growing up around this culture, I instantly felt at home around an apéro table in France.
How did you learn about French cheese and all its varieties?
My well-travelled épicurien grandmother and mother were admirers of French cheese and introduced me to it at a young age. I often accompanied them shopping at gourmet stores where high-quality local and foreign products were served. In my early twenties, I had a job that took me all around Turkey and a relationship that took me to France regularly. On each trip, I came back loaded with local cheese from every corner of the country to share with the matriarchs of my family.
When I decided to start my business, I pushed my research a little deeper and at one point there were 30 different types of cheese in my fridge. It was insane but it meant lots of apéros and gatherings. I’m a hands-on learner, so I read and research, and then go to the market.
In 2022, I took things a step further and traveled to Switzerland and different parts of France to try and learn about the local cheese that we don’t easily come across in Paris. I wanted to understand how cheese is alive; the learning process is never-ending. I love attending Salon du Fromage and similar events, meeting with producers and cheese mongers, listening to what they have to say and learning from them as much as possible.
How did you flash on your company’s name, Apéro Clandestin?
Lockdown in Paris was difficult, especially around December 2020 because a lot of people didn’t get to fully enjoy the festive period and they had to resort to “Apéro Clandestins” – meeting discreetly in small groups. At the time, I was one of the essential workers in France. We hadn’t seen our families since 2019, so hopes and dreams were what kept us going.
For some reason, I kept thinking about my youth, when everything seemed possible. I decided to create my company and the name Apéro Clandestin seemed like the obvious choice to commemorate the moment of hope and holding onto your dreams. I officially launched the company in April 2021 and became a full-time businesswoman in September 2021.
What makes your cheese platters different?
I think the main difference of my platters is the fact that I do not fill them in with bread or crackers, they are always served on the side. And this stems from the culture I grew up in, which puts a big emphasis on generosity and honesty in business practices. That is why I don’t think letting bread and crackers occupy space on the platter instead of all the yummy cheese, charcuterie and accompaniments is fair.
The second difference is that my platters are inclusive towards every dietary requirement without compromising on quality. In today’s society, especially in a big metropolis like Paris, inclusivity is a priority that matters to me. That’s why I pick high-end charcuterie products that are made of beef and duck rather than pork. I personally would rather pick quality over novelty and I believe most of my competitors would agree with me.
What are your favorite cheeses and how do you mix them?
I love Époisses, Brillat Savarin and Ossau Iraty. A very important aspect of a good cheese board is variety. This means having representatives from different cheese families, and, if it’s a bigger platter, having a selection of different types of milk. Brillat Savarin is from the bloomy rind cheese family while Époisses is from the washed rind cheese family. This is a good start.
In my opinion, a ripe Époisses at room temperature needs nothing else but a good piece of baguette. We could say the same for buttery triple cream Brillat Savarin but I find that it pairs amazingly with hot honey. As for Ossau Iraty, I love pairing it with some beef chorizo.
Since Turkish cheese also deserves a mention, I will add Ezine cheese which is nearly impossible to find outside Turkey. It is a creamy and decadent type of feta that is local to the Dardanell region. I love seasoning it with some extra virgin olive oil, lemon, oregano from the mountains, and aleppo pepper. I wish I could make everyone try the amazing Ezine cheese someday but for now, it doesn’t seem to be possible.
What do you make of Charles de Gaulle’s famous quote: How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?
Democracies thrive on diversity and I think it fits the image of France beautifully. When we look at the big picture, French cheese isn’t very difficult to approach and comprehend. As I mentioned earlier, categorizing the cheese into different families helps a lot as there are eight families of cheese. Once we understand how they are grouped based on their production process, we can begin to demystify them. I think the value of fraternity is instilled in French people. In times of need, they unite as one in solidarity while keeping all that makes them different from each other.
Food is the common denominator for many people and a staple of the French lifestyle? How has entering the food arena in France helped you to adapt to your new life here?
Food is an amazing social lubricant. Imagine showing up to a gathering with a plate of something delicious and how many questions and compliments you would get. During my earlier years in France, I definitely used my culinary skills to advance my social life when I didn’t know a lot of people. “How did you make this?”, “What did you put in it?”, “My grandmother prepares something similar!” All amazing ways to strike up a conversation. Getting into the food arena helped me observe the decision-making process of French and international foodies. I’ve definitely gained some friends along the way.
What are your future aspirations?
I am lucky enough to have been surrounded by friends who are entrepreneurs, lawyers and investment directors. Running a business has its own set of challenges but I believe that’s part of the process.
This summer, I’m looking forward to an amazing collaboration with Tamara Budrow from Discover Every Flavor to supply her beautiful picnics with Apéro Clandestin cheese boards. I am currently applying for a training course that will allow me to showcase every aspect of my talents and passion in the kitchen and share more of my culture. I’m still playing around with the idea of being a private chef, expanding into the meal prep realm and participating in a project that supports new moms with their nutritional needs during the first weeks and months of motherhood. Eventually, I would really love to have my own storefront someday.
I definitely encourage everyone to be curious, keep asking questions and take a leap of faith with their ideas.