I have a growing passion for cheese as much as I have a growing passion for France. This year I moved to France permanently and as many Brits I arrived via Euro Star into the Gare Du Nord, Paris. I had a couple of days before my next train, to my future home in Limousine, brown beef cow country, and top of my list wasn’t the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum. It was cheese.
An abbreviated version of this article appears in The Good Life France site.
Apparently Napoleon first tasted Camembert in Normandy and kissed the waitress who served him. The French kiss a lot, something my puritan Englishness is acclimatising to and given how much I adore this soft, creamy cheese, I think Napoleon set the standard. Great cheese makes you very happy. President Obama and Hollande were offered the best of French cheeses at the Climate Change Forum in 2015 from a Parisian fromagerie – Alleosse. This great honour shows how much the French, with their AOP authenticity protection system for cheese, take pride in their home-grown produce.
Every year on the outskirt of Paris – Porte De Versailles, the great agricultural exhibition takes place – Concours General Agricole. Showcasing food from the field, honey, oils and wine; every two years cheese takes pride of place. Thousands of cheesemongers, buyers and amateur turophiles taste, grade and award prizes. If you adore cheese, it’s a good place to start.
With map in hand I wanted to visit four or five and begin to comprehend the number of cheeses made in France. There are 45 AOP cheeses that hold the prize of being authentic, deep-rooted in origin. These are grouped into four types – Farm, Artisanal, Co-operative and Industrial – from small farmers using their own herd’s milk through to the big producers drawing on milk from many sources. The AOP however pulls the two extremes together and cleanliness and methods of production are tightly controlled. The small farm must invest in equipment and methodology, the industrialist must produce a niche cheese amongst his supermarket plastic wrapped.
Estimated at almost a thousand different cheeses, you are spoilt for choice. The French climate contributes a diverse range of flavours from mild to pungent. The minerals of the land find their way into the grass and thus into the milk. Salers cows of the Auvergne graze on volcanic minerals. Lush Alpine plains feed goats and in the hotter climates of the stony Pyrenees, sheep herds provide the milk for my favourite cheeses.
My first fromagerie was supposed to be the famous Androuet. Pierre Androuet IS the cheese master of French cheese history. In London our Paxton and Whitfield in Jermyn Street partners Androuet to bring French cheeses to the English. It is however with a niggling impatience, the fine English cheeses do not find their way across the channel to the French. My two fingers are firmly in my pockets, time to find cheese.
Alleosse – 13 Rue Poncelet. This cheese shop was pristine like a spaceship with its light wood and sparkling glass fronted counters. The choice was mouth-watering. But below this shop is an extraordinary surprise. Cheeses need maturing – Affinage – tender care to avoid drying and cracking. Humidity encourages moulds and flavour. Subterranean Paris is famous and below this cheese shop are the only cheese caves of the city – 300 square meters worth. A huge investment by Phillipe Alleosse – he understood the importance of controlling the aging process and the four huge cellars are temperature controlled to suit the various types of cheese within.
Fromagerie Quatrehomme – 62 Rue de Sevres. The shop is rather old-fashioned and a little walk down from La Bon Marche the first department store in Paris – also worth a detour. The shop has a great family pedigree of generations culminating with the present owner’s mother – Marie Quarterhomme, receiving the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 2014 for her contribution to cheese. For an informative discussion about dinner-party cheese or creating a cheeseboard, this shop is hard to beat. Knowledge of suppliers is extensive.
Laurent Dubois – 47 Boulevard Saint-Germain. I almost walked past this tiny shop. On the edge of a cobbled market area off the main street, the shop is a delight. Through a plastic curtain you enter a tiny cheese heaven. Quaint timber racking displays a wide variety of cheeses all neatly labelled. The staff are young and pleasant. The cheeses here are aged a little longer than is customary and that gives a little more flavour and texture to some of the cheeses. Explaining I am en-route, my cheese was vacuum packed to ensure the cheese was protected from dents, but also because of the smell. I wouldn’t want my luggage to smell of cheese would I? Of course not and the cheese arrived in perfect condition. I bought a mix of goats and smaller tome cheeses to taste.
Chez Virginie – 54 Rue Damremont. Cheeses are presented with fresh herbs and pretty blue and white name cards in this vintage style shop. The owner Virginie is third generation and passionate about offering clients a wide variety of exclusively raw milk cheeses from smaller farms and artisan producers. Some cheeses are quite rare. I didn’t buy any cheeses here as my case was already struggling with the nine I had already. Plus I had bought a few from Neals Yard in London too.
My time in Paris was over, but here are a selection of other cheesemongers you might like to seek out:
La Fromagerie de Paris
Le Grande Epicerie
La Fromagerie d’Auteuil
Cheese I bought
I bought a Mimolette to compare with the industrial rubber ones from the supermarket. Flavour is only a little stronger, but the cheese was dryer and crumblier which I prefer. But nothing to shout about. Maybe I need to search out locally made ones or ones where there were more cheese mites attacking it. [Characteristic of this cheese]
Trappe Echourgnac cheese. Loved this. Made by Cistercian nuns in the Monastere de Notre Dame de Bonne Esperance in Perigord. The cheese is washed in a walnut liquor, walnuts being a mainstay crop in this region. This accounted for the lovely nutty aroma and you could taste this within the cheese itself. It’s a soft rubbery, creamy texture, leaving a slightly burnt nut aftertaste. Serve with cider. It looks a nice cheese too for a cheeseboard with its earthy brown rind and easy to slice..
Frotte a la Biere Brune – Darley cheese. A rare cheese apparently. Not surprised. Dislike the strong smell mainly. In fact we had to open the kitchen door and even after washing my hands the smell lingered, plus to be honest I felt a little sick after eating as the smell overpowered the taste buds. In fact the taste was not brilliant either – a mouldy, dank nut taste. It was very creamy and the mould a little sloppy on top. Obviously a cheese for a few connoisseurs.
Cheddar with Guinness – because I liked the marbled effect. Another cheeseboard addition for looks mainly. You could not really identify the Guinness specifically, although compared to plain cheddar, yes there was that slight burnt hint from the roasted barley they use. The cheese was very firm and thin slices could be cut, making this cheese useful for decorative finishes maybe to dishes.
And finally – Cheese etiquette to impress whilst in Paris.
Cheese is eaten before dessert so you can finish the wine before changing to the dessert wine, plus if the cheese if Forte [smelly in other words], your breath wont smell after dinner.
Eat bread with cheese, not crackers. French bread has a blandish taste and doesn’t compromise the flavour of cheese. But I still love my cream crackers with brie.
Serve cheese at room temperature. Learn to cut your cheeses correctly. Rind plays its part and the aging process. Some cheeses have multi layers of flavour and therefore your slice of cheese should embrace this. The tip of a brie has more flavour than the centre, therefore do not hack the end off and serve as a portion.
Serve a mixed cheese board. Hard and soft cheeses. Cow, sheep and goats milk varieties. Maybe a mix of raw and pasteurized to open a heated debate on the subject of microbes and modern farming.
A knife for each cheese. Do not contaminate your hard cheeses with a smear of soft. Work from mild cheeses to the more robustly and often smellier ones, to acclimatize the palette.
And finally as the proverb goes – “A meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine”.