The last time Peggy Smith, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery, came to Paris, we did some cheese tasting and shopping. We’d worked together at Chez Panisse for many years and she’s one of my favorite people—ever, and I wish she’d come visit more often. As we roamed a salon de dégustation of cheese, looking around at all the astounding cheeses from France (as well as a couple of beauties from Ireland, England, and Italy as well), I said to her; “What is the one cheese you would tell someone from the United States that they absolutely should try while in France, which is not available in America?”
Recently in Cheese category
After spending a few mornings in the steamy, warm confines of the fruitières, where cheese making begins, I visited several of the fromageries, which are what they call the caves de affinage; the cavernous cellars where the cheeses are ripened.
I was recently joking that when I’m forced to wake up very early in the morning I’m not sure if I should feel sorrier for myself, or for the people around me. So when my friend Jean-Louis, who works with the people who make Comté cheese finally gave in to my incessant pestering to join him for a visit, I was excited when after three years, he finally said “Oui”. Actually, he speaks very good English. So he said “Yes”.
This week I watched a television program on the phénomène of locavorism in France. Being a resolutely agricultural country, the French are no strangers to being connected to the earth and to farming. But those days are waning and the announcer went to a supermarket in Paris and came out with a basket containing just a couple of items in it. (One was pain Poilâne.) And when she inquired about that, she was told, “There’s not much grown on the Île de France.” (The IDF is the départment where Paris is located.)
But if she had gone to the local fromagerie, she would have likely seen several substantial disks of Brie de Meaux resting on the counter, a cheese which is made about an hour outside of Paris.
You might not remember the days before the internet, but when we used to travel somewhere, we’d ask a friend to scribble down a list of suggestions. And we’d often be asked to do the same in return. Then when computers became widely used, other ‘favorites’ lists started circulating, including suggestions posted in online forums and in blogs.
So think of this list as my modern-day scribblings of places to go on the rue Montorgueil. Aside from it being perfectly located in the center of Paris, it’s a great place to take a stroll, and is pedestrian-friendly and wheelchair accessible, as it’s flat and closed off to cars. It’s a lovely walk, and everything is in a three block radius, making it easy to sample some of the best food shops, bakeries, chocolate shops, and kitchenware stores in Paris in one fell swoop.
The area was, for centuries, the home of the famous Les Halles covered market, which stood in the center of the city. As part of the modernization of Paris it was dismantled in the 1970s, replaced by an unattractive shopping mall (which is widely reviled), and the merchants were dispatched to Rungis, a large industrial complex on the outskirts of Paris. Still, reminders of Les Halles remain, including restaurant supply shops, late night dining spots, and the rue Montorgueil, which has become a vibrant street lined with restaurants, food stores, chocolate shops, and lively cafés.
The street is the perfect place go if have just a short time in Paris, as there’s a lot to see—and eat, in a very concentrated space. Depending on where you’re coming from, you can take the métro and get off at Etienne Marcel, Les Halles, or Sentier.
You’ll probably want to visit the restaurant supply shops, which you might want to schedule at the end of your stroll, so you don’t have to lug purchases around with you.
One thing I’ve learned in France, is that if someone who’s an expert tells you to eat something—you should eat it. (Except squid, of course.) When I lead tours, right before I place their hand on the bible, I make guests promise that if I tell them they have to try something, they will. It’s not that I’m on commission, it’s just I’ve sifted through a lot of stuff and it’s not worth filling up on the bland when the extraordinary is within equidistant tasting distance.
When my girlfriends Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, who make the wonderful cheeses of Cowgirl Creamery, were in town recently for the Salon du Fromage, they were surprised to be honored with a medaille along with an induction into the French Guilde des Fromagers.
I’d met Peggy way back around 1983, when I started working at Chez Panisse. She was a chef and I was a bit scared of her, standing over a large lamb carcass wielding a large, and very sharp knife, getting the beast ready to roast on the spit.
At the time, there were a few people in the kitchen determined to give the newby a difficult time. The French call it le bizutage, which we in America call “hazing”. Of course, I wanted to do my best, and Peggy somehow took pity on me, pulled me into the walk-in refrigerator, and gave me her top-secret advice on how to deal with everyone who was having a field day on the new kid.
Now, after three decades cooking in restaurant kitchens, very little fazes me and there’s nothing I haven’t seen or heard. So as thanks for turning me into the bitter, jaded person that I am today, I offered to take her to a few of my favorite cheese shops in Paris.
There’s plenty of fromagers in Paris, but a few, like Marie Quatrehomme, are truly le top du top. Some of the fancy fromageries can be slightly snooty if you’re not a regular (I won’t mention any names…), but at Quatrehomme, they’re always as nice as can be and when I told them that Peggy made cheese in California, the two salesclerks put down their cheese cutting knives, and quietly (mentally packing their bags) asked, “When can we go?”
Peggy scanned the counters and shelves, and pointed out cheeses that I didn’t know, and told me things about cheeses that I already thought I knew. One that really caught her eye was a funky-looking bleu de Termignon, which she said was especially interesting because for one thing, the mold is natural and isn’t from being inoculated.
And an interesting thing she told me was that the cows that produce the milk for this cheese graze very high up in the mountains of the Savoie and eat plenty of violets while also munching on the grass. (When I told a French friend this, she said, “You Americans will believe anything!“) But I did a little research in my handy French Cheese guide, and found out the cows do consume flowers, which does seem natural since I doubt they’re selectively eating around the pretty little flowers up.
So I bought a wedge of the cheese, stuck it in my messenger bag, and brought it home. (I was trying to be vert and not take a plastic bag, which does have its caveats: I woke up in a panic in the middle of the night because it was forgotten and I left the pungent wedge in there, where it was ‘perfuming’ everything else.)
And she was right, it was pretty interesting. In spite of its odd appearance, it wasn’t super-funky, or sharp and bitter, as some of the crust-covered aged cheeses like this usually are. Instead it had a surprising milky-mildness and didn’t have the abrupt sharpness of a traditional bleu cheese, which I was kind of missing. It went well with the cool white sauvignon blanc we were drinking, and although I didn’t taste any violets in the cheese, it was a nice change from the usual cheeses, like Comté, Saint Marcellin, and Beaufort d’été, that I invariably fall back on.
Peggy invited me to come back for a few weeks to spend some time working at their shop in San Francisco, which I’m thinking of doing. So if you happen to see me there, and I make a suggestion, take it. Because some people will believe anything. Or so I’m told.
62, rue de Sèvres (7th)
Tél: 01 47 34 33 45
(Quatrehomme closes at mid-day, from 1pm to 4pm.)
Marie Quatrehomme (Rosa Jackson)
Guilde des Fromagers (Official Website)
Le Bleu de Termignon Selon Marcel Bantin (Production & Photos of Bleu de Termignon, in French)
Favorite Books on Cheese (Amazon)
Bleu de Termignon (Wikipedia France)
A few weeks ago, I made plans to meet my friend Terresa in Pigalle, to check out a new épicerie (specialty food shop). I don’t know if you’re familiar with Pigalle, but the area has a certain well-deserved ‘reputation’ and if you’re a middle-aged man walking around by yourself in the evening, casually looking in the windows of the cafés and bars, don’t be surprised if a very scantily-clad woman tries to catch your eye back, and catch your fancy. And a few euros.
My friend was late, so after I cut my walk short though the quartier, I waited outside the shop, where we were planning to meet, which made me only slightly less of a target. And within a few minutes, people were handing me business cards for various ‘services’ of the female persuasion. So I was especially glad when the only woman in the neighborhood I was interested in hooking up with finally arrived and we went inside.
The idea of the store is to be one place filled with many great products. There were indeed some interesting things on the shelves, including Spanish hams and other European specialties. But when you live in France, it’s hard to get worked up about shrink-wrapped cheeses, no matter how good they might be, when there’s so many amazing fromageries in every neighborhood. But I think they’re trying to be both a specialty shop and cater to the locals who need the basics, too. So I give them points for rising to that task, and most of us would be thrilled to have a place like that in our neighborhood.
If you go to Lyon, you’ll find Saint Marcellin pretty much everywhere. It’s the best-known cheese from that region, and the user friendly-sized disks are inevitably piled high at each and every cheese shop you step in to. Locals bake them at home and slide the warm disks onto salads, and I’ve not been to a restaurant in that city that didn’t have Saint Marcellin on the menu doing double-duty as the cheese or the dessert course. Or both. At the outdoor market stands, you can see how popular they are with les Lyonnais. And if you don’t believe me, their presence is so pervasive that I once bought a ticket on the bus in Lyon and instead of change, the driver handed me a ripe Saint Marcellin instead.
Because they hover around €3, I used to pick one up at the fromagerie since they’re an inexpensive way to add variety to a cheese platter. The ones I’d buy were decent, although I never heard anyone put a dab on their bread and say, “Good gosh David, that cheese is friggin’ amazing!” (Although I’m not sure “friggin” is a well-used word around here.)