The Quest for French Cheese
The first couple of times I was in Paris, I was blown-away by how wonderful French cheese is. I discovered that the reason French cheese is so flavorful is that it is unpasteurized and, therefore, the cheese culture remains alive, continuing to develop more flavor as it ages.
Being a cheese lover was all the motivation that I needed to do some research about French cheeses so that on my next trip to Paris, I would have some informed choices (www.fromages.com). What I learned made me crave cheese even more.
Briefly, there are 3 types of cheese: cow’s milk; sheep or ewe’s milk; and goat’s milk cheese. There are also 3 textures of cheese: soft; semi-hard; and hard cheeses. My research had produced a list of 21 cheeses (over 1000 different cheeses are produced in France), but when I finally got to Paris, my short list for the trip was 9, 7 of which I enjoyed with great pleasure, as 2 provencal cheeses were not in season. My 2 favorites were an aged Salers and an aged Ossau Iraty. Both of these cheeses were full flavored, sweet and savory, with a satisfying aftertaste that entices one to eat more.
My cheese board for the trip was especially satisfying because it was the culmination of much study, planning and a rather long period of contemplation and anticipation until I was able to be in Paris again. Imagine how excited you will be when you finally approach the first of many of the fromageries that you read about. Through the window you see an array of cheeses that gets your heart rate up, and when you enter the shop, the melding of the aromas of cheeses from all over France will bombard your senses like a symphony of tastes just waiting to be discovered.
When you discuss the type of cheese you are seeking with the fromagier, be sure to tell him if you want it to be fresh (mild – doux), or aged (strong – piquant, or in Italy, picante), as there is a big difference between the two. Once the fromagier understands what you are looking for, he or she will also suggest interesting alternatives that will lead you to other taste revelations. My fromagier was very concerned as to just when I would be eating a couple of the soft cheeses that I was buying because he wanted to give me cheeses that would be perfectly ripe at the time that I planned to eat them. Ah yes, merci monsieur!
Of course, when we plan our cheese quest, we must include the accoutrements of a good bread and wine, if you are so inclined. There are several very entertaining and appetite provoking books on the great foods of Paris and where to find them. My favorite is The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, by Patricia Wells. The 2014 fifth edition has just been published. Wells’ book is a delicious read and in Paris it led my inner wanderer to many unique discoveries of artisanal breads, cheeses, pastries, and so forth. On my last visit I enjoyed Lionel Poilane’s earthy sourdough round (8 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris 6) and Raymond Seguy’s crunchy sourdough baguette (25 Avenue de Clichy, Paris 17) with my cheese.
If your French is lacking, do not worry. Show the fromagier your cheese list, and I assure you that you will not walk out of the fromagerie empty-handed. When you are well provisioned, be careful getting back to your hotel, as the aromas of that bread and cheese over-coming your senses will make you giddy. Be advised that the quest for French cheese can result in feelings of euphoria, accompanied by a big smile.