When my mind turns to Paris, I can think of nothing more enjoyable that unwrapping an oozing slice of perfectly-ripe cheese, slathering it on a fresh baguette, baked bien cuit with a crackling crust, and pouring a glass of red wine. For cheese enthusiasts like me, it represents pure joie de vivre.
Fromageriesare sprinkled in every quarter of the city and stopping to buy a cheese or two for dinner is a part of everyday life. Step inside and you’ll find a mind-boggling array of seasonal delights from tiny logs of soft, creamy chèvre to giant wheels of farmhouse Saint-Nectaire. Often, you’ll bump into big bowls of thick, unpasteurised farmhouse cream, ready to dollop on your tart, along with baskets of fresh brown eggs and huge, sunny blocks of homemade butter, sliced before your eyes with a wire.
On weekends, stores are full of sniffing, poking customers waiting for a slice of Cantal or double cream Brie de Meaux, and at Christmastime there is a particularly festive air. Our local fromagerie offered rustic straw mats topped with a harmonious seasonal selection that was beautifully arranged and wrapped in a rush of cellophane, taking the headache out of deciding what to buy and put together.
While selecting, arranging and eating French cheese can bring immense pleasure, it can also prove overwhelming to those with no clue! Steeped in tradition and with a long, delicious history, the subject of French cheese is as complex as French culture and as never-ending as the hundreds of types of cheese available.
Below, I offer just a few small slices of advice for your next trip to France, in no particular order:
- Look for stores with the sign fromager-affineur above the door. These master merchants are a cut above your basic neighbourhood fromagerie and stock an original selection personally sourced from some of the best dairies and farmhouses in the country. The young, unpasteurised cheeses are then aged with care in cellars below their shops, and brought up when they are perfectly ripe and exploding with flavour.
- Many of the superior cheeses are protected by an AOP: appellation d’origine protégé (protected appellation of origin). When purchasing a cheese with this mark you are guaranteed that it has been produced traditionally according to certain strict conditions, and is of high quality and authentic.
- Cheeses are seasonal and therefore selections vary depending on the time of year. Your cheesemonger is full of knowledge about which varieties are at their peak, so pipe up and ask for advice. Most speak some English. Also let the vendor know ‘when’ you are going to eat your cheese and a perfectly ripe specimen will be chosen accordingly. If you want to devour your cheese immediately, to take on a picnic for example, ask for cheese ‘pour manger tout de suite’.
- In many good cheese shops, travelling cheese aficionados can ask for their selections to be vacuum-packed, to enjoy at a later date.
- The older the cheese, the stronger the smell and taste so if you are new to French cheese, perhaps don’t go straight for a Livarot, but choose a fresh, soft cheese such as Saint Marcellin, Roblochon or a mild-flavoured Neufchâtel, often produced in a heart-shape.
- Cheese etiquette can be daunting. When dining at a restaurant with a large chariot de fromages (cheese cart), it is considered polite to choose four, maybe five cheeses at the very most. For small selections on a plate, the general rule is to never choose them all! Mix things up to make it interesting…vary textures, flavours, colours, regions and varieties. Sample cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses and include soft or semi-soft varieties through to blue and hard (pressed) cheeses. These selection tips also hold true when you are arranging a cheese plate at home or in your Paris pied-à-terre.
- To truly savour your selection, eat the mildest cheese first, and move around the plate to finish with the most biting and pungent.
- Always serve and eat cheese at room temperature.
- When cutting cheese, attempt to keep the shape. Cut small wheels, such as Camembert de Normandie, just as you would a slice of cake. If you are navigating a large, triangular slice, don’t hack across the ‘nose’ of the cheese, the pointy bit at the end! It’s the best bit and bad manners to take it all, plus it is really does spoil the aesthetics. Cut a long, thin ribbon down the length of the slice, about the width of a pencil.
- Cheese is served after main course and before dessert.
- It’s up to you whether you eat the rind or not.
- At formal restaurants, cut and eat your cheese with a knife and fork, followed by a bite of baguette.
- Most of all, enjoy. Bon Appétit!