"Cheese has always been good to me."
Jim Friteuse

Monday, August 20, 2012


As man and wife, Jim and Claire lived an idyllic life in the countryside just outside Nikkinakkinori. Jim worked behind the cheese counter at Gimli’s Grocery Stores and Claire was carrying on her studies in New Zealand history at the nearby university. 

They would spend their spare time organising the once traditional, but now largely forgotten, National Annual Dung Scraping Contest. This involved a number of teams from every corner of the country whose sole purpose was to be the first to scrape the dung from the tails of ten sheep.

At that time in New Zealand, whole towns (sometimes up to fifteen people) would take part in this activity. It was the government’s way of bringing different communities together and was done for two reasons. First and foremost was a fun day out for everyone but, more importantly, it was seen as an ideal opportunity to enforce the government’s own policy of reducing the interbreeding of family members. Each team member would be given a plastic comb, a scouring pad and a bucket of soapy water and at the end of the event the sheep’s tails would be inspected by the adjudicator (or Dung-Meister, as he liked to be called) for cleanliness and overall neatness. Where all-male teams were involved, the sheep’s anuses would also be inspected for any signs of tampering.

After twenty years of seeing the same faces, Jim was beginning to show signs of restlessness and it was around this period that fate played a hand in his life. 

Owing to a general lack of interest in reading, the local library was forced to close its doors to the public and the books it had amassed over its one hundred year history were to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Jim could not believe his luck when his bid of 2NZD won him the library’s entire contents. Jim’s car was in the garage for repairs and he had been forced to ride into town on his bicycle, but once again luck was with him, and he was able to get all six books into the wicker basket attached to the front of his bicycle.

He was in jubilant spirits when he headed off home to tell Claire to ditch the correspondence course she was taking in Cordon Bleu Cookery and to start building bookshelves instead. In later years, it was a decision he was to bitterly regret, although the correspondence course she took on Opening Packets And Arranging The Contents Tastefully On A Plate did sometimes come in handy at dinner parties.

Jim’s new library included How To Avoid Really Big Ships by Peter Bland, Dutch Rural Postmen And Their Cancellation Numbers by Phillip Gordon, A Field Identification Guide to the Stray Shopping Baskets of North West Asia, by Michael Lawrence, Tattooed Women And Spoon Boxes Of Dhurkadhurkastan by Marshall Napier and How Green Were The Nazis? by Franz-Josef Bruggemeier. 

It was, however, the sixth and final book in his new collection that would have a profound influence on him and which would set him on course for his future career. It was a first edition copy of Jan Vandergraaf's now classic Cheese Growing For Beginners.

In this seminal work, Jan Vandergraaf states that, contrary to popular belief, cheese actually grows on trees and does not, as most people think, come from cows. He goes on to say that:

The cheese tree is a very large tree that grows cheese on it. Cheese Farmers pick the cheeses from the trees and sell them. The Latin name for these trees, Darium Chassius, simply means Dairy Cheese (Chassi was the ancient roman term for cheese). The trees grow to their prime at a phenomenal rate – from the first shoots breaking the surface to the first pieces of cheese being grown takes just four months.
The trees however are very expensive, costing up to 7 million New Zealand Dollars (£12.50 in English money) which is why most people haven’t heard of them.

Jim spent hours poring over the detailed descriptions and illustrations of different cheese trees and the financial benefits of cheese crop rotation. It did not take him long to realise that Jan Vandergraaf was a genius and that anyone who was fortunate enough to be part of the process of cheese growing would make a fortune.

It was later that year that fate played another part in Jim’s life when he noticed the following advertisement in the employment section of the Kiwi Gazette

The advertisement that caught Jim's eye

After discussing his intentions with Claire, who was, at the time, constructing a German Schrank for the lounge, Jim telephoned the number on the advertisement and spoke to Jan Vandergraaf himself, who invited him for an immediate interview.

Jan Vandergraaf was raised by a devout agnostic single mother in the Netherlands, and attended an international agnostic school in Eindhoven. During his time at the school he rejected the dairy industry’s interpretation of how cheese was made, and developed his own theory and an interest in horticulture along the way. 

At the age of 19, he was given a four-month suspended sentence for the theft of several cheese boards. He withdrew from school, and became apprenticed to a Swiss hotelier, during which time he wrote Cheese Growing For Beginners, working on the manuscript late at night after the hotel's guests had retired. It was accepted by a publisher in early 1967, and printed in March 1968, but in November 1968 he was arrested for fraud, after falsifying hotel records and credit references in order to take out loans for $130,000, which he used to set up a Cheese Orchard in Rotorua on the North Island of New Zealand. 

An artist's impression of one of the cheese boards that may have been stolen by Vandergraaf

Sentenced to three and a half years imprisonment, he served only one year of this sentence before being released. His first book, Cheese Growing For Beginners had been published by the time of his trial, and its sales allowed him to repay his debts and leave the hotel business. When Jim met him for his interview Vandergraaf had already begun work on his second book, Cheeses From Outer Space.

On first impression Vandergraaf seemed fairly normal. He was extremely handsome and Jim could not help noticing his pronounced resemblance to the late Errol Flynn. He was in his late forties and was dressed in an expensive, grey, Saville Row suit with a light blue tie that complimented the crisp white shirt behind it. He welcomed Jim with a warm smile and a friendly handshake, before explaining what his company Trees of Cheese was all about. He spoke at length about the different seasons when cheese trees had to be planted – Edam in the spring, Cheddar at the end of the summer, Stilton at he start of winter, and so on. 

Jan Vandergraaf

Jim listened with interest and nodded at appropriate intervals. 

When he had finished speaking Vandergraaf asked Jim why he wanted to work for the company. Jim’s answer was short, simple and to the point. “I like cheese,” he said. Vandergraaf’s face glowed when Jim uttered those now famous words. “Welcome to the company,” he said, reaching over his large ornate desk to take hold of Jim’s hand and shake it vigorously. “I’ll start you off as the Orchard Manager on 30,000 dollars a year. How does that sound to you?” 

Jim was flabbergasted – he had never been in possession of 300 dollars in his life, let alone 30,000. His instincts, he thought at the time, had been proved right – he was going to make a fortune!

Like all things that seem too good to be true, this was too good to be true. There was, it transpired, no Cheese Orchard and cheese did not grow on trees. 

The policeman that arrested Vandergraaf as Jim was having his hand vigorously shaken explained that Vandergraaf had been under investigation by the fraud squad for several months. All his so-called research into Cheese Trees had been a complete fabrication and the ancient documents that had supported the claims in his book Cheese Growing For Beginners had been elaborate forgeries.

The police had begun to suspect that Vandergraaf’s work was fraudulent when they hired an expert on medieval pamphlets from the University of Durham in England. One pamphlet in particular was to be Vandergraaf’s undoing. It showed a woodcut of medieval peasants harvesting cheese for the lord of the manor. The original ‘experts’ who had examined the pamphlets and declared them genuine works of the Middle Ages were all primary school history teachers born and bred in New Zealand. 

As the country was not discovered until 1642 and therefore anything before that date was regarded as pre-history, history itself did not begin in New Zealand until that date. This then made the Middle Ages for New Zealanders somewhere between 1805 and 1895. 

The expert from the University of Durham concluded that if the peasants in the woodcut had indeed hailed from medieval New Zealand they would most certainly not have been dressed in English medieval clothing from the 14th Century, but would in fact have been dressed in the attire of either a fop or a dandy.

The pamphlet in question featured in Cheese Growing For Beginners was in fact the work of Emil Sidebottom, an unemployed glazier, cat lover and part-time transvestite. He was arrested shortly after Vandergraaf and was sentenced to six months community service in Australia. It was a sentence from which he would never fully recover.

Emil Sidebottom's Medieval forgery
Vandergraaf himself was charged with fraud, grand theft auto, demanding money with menaces, kidnapping, wearing women’s clothes, jaywalking and watching Young Doctors when he didn’t have to. He vigorously denied this last charge, claiming that the only thing worse than Australian television was New Zealand television. 

He was sentenced to 1000 years imprisonment in Brisbane. It was rumoured that while he was incarcerated he went insane, but not before he wrote his third and final book, In Search of Ancient Cheese Trees: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible.

Jim was released to make his sorrowful way home after the police had finished conducting their interviews and dusting for prints. “What now?” he thought. “Have my dreams of becoming La Grande Fromage been shattered beyond all hope?” But luck, it seemed, was Jim’s partner on that Yellow Brick Road of cheese. His first faltering steps on that journey had ended in failure, but waiting just around the bend was something that would set him firmly on the road to fabulous wealth and riches – at least until the children came along.

That something was called Frontiere.

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