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Scotland's Larder: The Cheese Lady, Svetlana Kukharchuk Haddington

Cat Thomson talks to The Cheese lady, Svetlana Kukharchuk, about following her dreams and opening an award winning cheese shop in Haddington, East Lothian.

Published: June 1, 2022
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Svetlana Kukharchuk comes from a large industrial city, Kemerovo, in Siberia, but, as a teenager, moved to Pennsylvania on an exchange to study international relations at Lock Haven University.

She had initially planned to go for one semester but extended her stay before returning to enrol as a fulltime student, all whilst completing her languages degree in French and English back home.

Exchange

Looking back at this period in her life, she said: "It was intense and so stressful." Moving to the States was a culture shock, mainly because Americans seemed so different.

The Cheese Lady Svetlana Haddington
La-Tur

"I remember going to class and seeing American students coming into the class in pyjamas because we would be dressed up in high heels."

Despite appearances, everything was not perfect in her life. She suffered from an eating disorder in her teens.

Eat well

"In Russia, it is very important to young people to be stylish. Russian girls internationally have this reputation for being beautiful, and you want to live up to that expectation. You have all these people in the media like actresses and models, and they all look beautiful and flawless, and there is hardly a gram of fat on them and you think, 'I need to look like that.'

The Cheese Lady Svetlana Haddington

"I saw everyone else around me on a diet to look beautiful and that is what I thought you had to do. So, that is what planted a seed in me about not being happy with the way I looked. I wasn't aware it was a problem to begin with, but I went to the doctor back home, and they said if you go on this way, you won't live very long."

That was a turning point for her; she began learning about nutrition and looking at food in a healthier way. After finishing her language degree, she decided to go back to Lock Haven to study again, this time for a Masters in Liberal Arts.

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Second home

"Lock Haven became like my second home. Even though it was a small town, it was beautiful and the weather was fantastic in the summer. It was perfect, and we weren't so far from big cities."

After completing her studies, she moved to New York where she “fell in love with cheese". She found a temporary job at a Saks Fifth Avenue's Chocolate Cafe Bar, and was fascinated to learn how chocolate was made.

Empire State Building as seen from Rooftop of Rockefeller Building. Photo: Shooter_Sam/Getty

Her manager sent her to a food trade show, but, instead of looking at chocolate, she became captivated by cheese. "I went from stall to stall and discovered an amazing array of cheeses, like Parmigiano cut open so that you could take a little crumble of it. It was visually beautiful and you could sample a lot."

Milking it

She was intrigued. "How do you make all this variety from something as simple as milk? I just needed to understand how milk all looks the same, but all the cheese looked so different."

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With her new love of cheese, she began volunteering at cheese and wine events run by artisan cheesemonger, Murray's.

The cheesemonger stocks over 300 varieties of artisan cheese and proved to be an inspirational workplace.

One of Murray's Cheese stores on Bleecker Street, in New York City. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

“It was just an incredible place to be.” She learned about the combinations of drink that work with each cheese and became obsessed about learning more about cheesemaking and the maturing process, which is "a crucial part of the magic of making great cheese".

Cheese dream

After her time in New York came to an end, she wanted to open her own cheese shop in St Petersburg. But, instead, love intervened and she moved to St Andrews in Scotland.

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She continued to learn about the art of cheesemaking, though, by working at The St Andrews Cheese Company. To complete her cheese education she headed to France to learn about the cheese-ageing art from Hervé Mons, a distinguished affineur (someone who manages the ageing process for cheese) whom she describes as a magician.

The Cheese Lady Svetlana Haddington
Tomme-de-Savoie cheese

She then decided the time was right to follow her dreams and open her first shop, called The Guid Cheese Shop, in St Andrews. ‘The Cheese Lady’ became a nickname that stuck.

Blind date

She said: "My forte and my passion is cheese retail; I love chatting to customers to see what they like and don't like and find out what wine they will have and offer them a very bespoke option. I kind of imagine it as a dating agency, I get to introduce the right cheeses to the right people."

After the break-up of her marriage, she decided a change was in order, and opened another shop with her co-owner and new partner Pauline.

Co owner Pauline and Sveltana taking delivery of a Parmesan wheel

They believed the market town of Haddington was a sensible location to test to see if there was a demand for fine cheese in East Lothian, and, to their relief, there was.

Initially, they concentrated on retailing cheese rather than running tasting events like she had done in the St Andrews shop.

Zoom

However, during the pandemic, she went full force on zoom, running online tastings from her home.

What happens at these virtual events?

Curated cheese selections are sent to guests, and, at the tasting, Svetlana discusses them. "I like to make the events educational and enlightening, so I talk a little bit about the producer and how the cheese is matured to help guests appreciate them a bit better."

When lockdown hit, initially Svetlana was worried, as she thought that no one would be entertaining friends anymore, and people would not place orders. "Boy, was I wrong," she said.

The Cheese Lady Svetlana Haddington
The Cheese Lady shop in Haddington

The online part of the business grew massively. It went off the scales. I was relieved to learn from my customers that cheese is not just for entertaining but also a treat for themselves."

Svetlana even made deliveries of fine cheeses to her local customers. "Even from a distance, it was great to know we were bringing them some joy to that terrible situation that everyone was in. That was amazing."

Cheese club

She also offers monthly subscriptions via her cheese club, sending four different cheeses to members every month. As demand for fine cheeses has been so great, they have even expanded into a new larger shop on Court Street which has its own chilled maturation room.

They have also had to relaunch their website and now offer chilled cheeses across the UK mainland with nextday delivery in insulated packaging.

Farmhouse and artisan cheese selection.

Her shop was recently awarded Scotland Regional Winner at the Farm Shop & Deli Show in Birmingham for 2022 in a UK-wide competition.

She wasn't confident she would win as the shop had been shortlisted in the competition three times before, but she said: "I still cannot believe it, my brain is blown to a million pieces. "The judges saw something in us and I'm so happy."

Even as austerity hits, she is optimistic about the future. “Fine cheese doesn't cost the earth. It is so good for you and intense and complex, and I am confident we can bring joy to people through cheese which we need more than ever as we are all going through hard times."

The Cheese Lady Svetlana Haddington
Svetlana proudly showing her most recent award

Home sweet home

Svetlana is astonished she has ended up living in Scotland, with her own award-winning cheese shop and writing books on the subject.

Never in her wildest dreams would she have been able to imagine how her life would turn out as a direct result of her passion for cheese.

The Cheese Lady Svetlana Haddington
One of Svetlana Kukharchuk's books on cheese

What would she tell a teenager who was in the same position as she was?

"The most important thing is to feel comfortable in your own body, and for me it helped to learn about nutrition. I learned that you need fat and protein in the diet and that all fats were not bad and you need them in moderation. You have the choice."

Svetlana believes it is also about mastering balance. "I'm against extremism, so, when people say I'm not going to have something, they will crave that thing even more. If you allow yourself to have a little treat every so often, that is a more balanced approach. Don't delay that joy until Christmas, otherwise you might over do it." 

The Cheese Lady
3 Court Street
Haddington
East Lothian,
EH41 3JD

Tel: 01620 823 729

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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