Boat Cheese

Tomme de Brebis

After dinner at a friend’s apartment this weekend, they rolled out a sizable wheel of cheese to eat before dessert…which since moving to France, has become my favorite course of the meal. But usually you present one or a few selected cheeses, not a big round.

Nevertheless, they slapped it down in the middle for the table where the host took a hunting-type knife, started hacking off shards of it, and passing them around the table. As we started eating, all of the sudden the whole table went completely quiet. (Which is a real rarity in Paris.)

We all looked around the table, and everyone’s eyes lit up; “C’est incroyable!”

Indeed, this was an amazing cheese. Similar to pecorino, this was simply called a tomme de brebis, or sheep’s milk cheese. But it had a milky, crackly chew with a little bit of a bite, and if you’ve ever tasted something that made you stop and say—woah!, you know what I’m talking about. And in a country where good cheese is pretty commonplace, for everyone to stop and take notice…well, you’ve got something very special on your plate.

When I asked where they got it, they told me it’s sold by a man who parks his boat in the north of Paris and just sells a few specialty items. They pulled out his list, which mentioned a few very interesting wines, some tinned specialties from Gascony (like foie gras and cassoulet), and most importantly, this cheese. The only problem is, you need to buy 4 wheels.

Which, in reality, is probably not that much of a problem. I’m certain I can find a few others to go in on them with me.

Unfortunately this is one of those weeks where I’m overloaded with work, and every time I pick up the phone or open my email, it seems another good friend decided to surprise me and drop into town. (Can’t you people somehow stagger yourselves?)

And all I want to do is head to the secret rendez-vous point and see what else is on offer. And, of course, stock up on more of this exceptional cheese. But it’s going to have to wait. At least I have a nice chunk to tide me over until can get up there, and of course I’m not telling where it is yet since I want to make sure there’s plenty of stuff for me when I do make it.

I was happy when the host cut the wheel into three chunks and handed them over to each of us as we left.

Boat cheese? Who knew?

I just can’t wait to find out where there’s more…

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  • October 22, 2007 11:04am

    Mysterious! If you need someone to take a wheel off your back I may be interested. Sounds like tasty stuff!

  • Stone
    October 22, 2007 11:44am

    hmmm,I’m trying to imagine it but I can’t. It’s like a peccorino so.. dry? Is it strong? Bitter? Creamy?

  • October 22, 2007 11:56am

    Mysterious indeed. I wonder if the guy with the boat makes it himself, or if it’s something he’s pillaged from his various sea voyages. Arrrgh! ;)

  • Laura in CA :)
    October 22, 2007 11:56am

    David, you were in my dream last night! :) We were in San Francisco together just seeing the town. We ate in a beautiful, modern restaurant…shared a Peppermint Patty (???) and then I noticed you had an empty bag of Ghiradelli chocolate chips in your bag. I was going to tell you that those weren’t the good ones and it turned out you had used a bag of Orange Liquer chips to make cookies, which, as far as I know, don’t exist! :)

    That was it! I couldn’t resist telling you! :)

    Have a great day!

  • October 22, 2007 12:12pm

    I’m so glad that boat cheese turned out to be cheese bought on a boat, as opposed to whatever could have been scraped off the bottom.

  • Lesley
    October 22, 2007 12:40pm

    It looks so much like Spanish Manchego…any similarities?

  • October 22, 2007 12:54pm

    It looks wonderful. When my mother and sister first came to visit, I took them to a fromagere that sells tommes of various kinds. They had tastes and bought several wheels each to take home, since tommes travel very well. They must have bought 50 euros worth of cheese. The next time I went back to that fromagere, I chose my cheese and she said – “how many will you need today”? This started a wonderful relationship.

  • October 22, 2007 1:26pm

    This sounds amazing! Cheese courses are far too rare in the U.S. I wish I could experience this cheese. No way to get it sent to the states I bet, right?

  • October 22, 2007 1:53pm

    I love ewe cheese…we have definitely added that to our list for the market. Ewe yogurt is also very very yummy!

    I think finding this boat cheese might be an adventure for me soon… :)

  • Evelyn
    October 22, 2007 2:01pm

    I wish I could smell this cheese; the picture is too tantalizing! Now I’m really craving some good cheese.

  • good enough cook
    October 22, 2007 2:27pm

    For some reason, I’m reminded of that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza, freed from his impending nuptials, confesses his joy at being able to return to the bachelor joys of sitting around in his underwear munching on “a hunk of cheese the size of a car battery.” Is there a French equivalent to Seinfeld? Somehow it seems like a quest for the Cheese Boat has all kinds of sit-com possibilities–but is this the cheese a French George would choose to consume in mind-boggling quantities?

    It looks/sounds just awesome. I hope your quest is successful so you can tell us more!

  • October 22, 2007 2:39pm

    I’m always interested in what makes a really good cheese. Can you describe the taste more perhaps? I know sometimes you just have to taste it to understand. And just out of curiosity, how much are the boat people selling it for?

  • October 22, 2007 5:27pm

    Mmm. Looks like a Tomme de Savoie, which, in my limited experience, is the best raw french cheese one can get in not-London, UK, I think because as an alpine cheese it travels well. Steve Jenkin’s Cheese Primer describes Tomme de Savoie as the best rustic peasant cheese with “unmistakable raw flavour – beefy, hazelnutty, slightly saline, milky,” and he’s hit it on the head exactly. Anyway, looks just like your tomme, but there are so many tommes afoot, and I’ve only ever tasted the one, (an export at that!). Good luck finding the boat guy.

  • mb
    October 22, 2007 6:35pm

    Is it sheep’s milk cheese? Mmm, so good. If it is like the cheeses made by the Basques, it is sweet and delicate yet tasty…

  • October 22, 2007 8:04pm

    hmm ! de la tomme de brebis ♥ !

  • October 22, 2007 9:24pm

    One of my favorite things to do in Italy is to visit the cheese shops, where they always have something called “local cheese” for sale. It’s different in each shop, but it’s always “local”. Haven’t heard of boat cheese before, though!

  • Lorna
    October 22, 2007 10:38pm


    Great idea about the cheese course for entertaining in the US. Something so obvious. Many thanks.

  • Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita
    October 22, 2007 10:59pm

    Wow, David. That was a great host to give each of you a chunk to take home. I hope you make it to that boat :)

  • October 23, 2007 4:07am

    gecook: I haven’t seen anyone sitting around in their undies eating cheese, but then again, I’m not really looking!

    Lydia: Italy does have some amazing cheeses, many of which never leave its borders, via boat or otherwise.

  • October 23, 2007 4:53am

    He, the Boatman, shops for you, at least that’s what it seems to me. With impeccable taste he stops at various venues and makes selections on his way to Paris. I’ll wager that he has an established clientèle whose tastes he knows well and then brings along a little something extra for those who’ve heard of him by word of mouth. The cheese in the picture appears to be a varietal of parm reggiano and, for the life of me, I don’t know why. Perhaps, it’s that ‘grainy’ quality. No matter. Whatever it is – I could quite literally taste it as I can so many of the wonderful things you choose to post.

  • October 23, 2007 6:07am

    Many Americans truly don’t get cheese very well. They always want crackers or bread with it.
    The above cheese looks like a grana, of which there are so many delights, and means it’s really well-aged, but does not mean it is Parmigiano, which is made of cow’s milk from a specific area.

    I’ve just recently spent an insane amount of money for a smoked Sardinian pecorino and am experimenting with the various things to do. With 463 different cheeses to try, I am slowly working my way through Italian cheese, but places that offer tastes sure are a help.

  • Nicole
    October 23, 2007 7:10am

    I love all sheeps milk cheeses. I’m not a big cheese eater, but if it’s sheeps milk, I am all over it like white on rice. The sharper and dryer the better. And sheep’s milk yogurt. My god!

  • October 23, 2007 10:16am

    Immediately after reading your post (and after having eaten a large dinner and dessert) I had to rush to the fridge and shave off some slices of this..not sheep’s milk but it did the trick until Wednesday when I can get some sheep’s milk at the market. Thanks for fattening me up!

  • Bob
    October 23, 2007 1:33pm

    Okay, that’s not fair! You MUST divulge the secret meeting place.

  • October 24, 2007 4:29am

    Oh, the Boat Man! Living on one of these archaic outmoded two-centuries ago contraptions myself, leaves me to believe that this must be “The Barge Pirate with Good Taste” and… the man of my dreams.
    I had friends who made honey on a barge, traveling the acacia forests to sunflower fields of the Sud-Ouest before transporting their multicolored harvest along the Rhone to Lyon then canal to Paris. Long histories of food and people working and living on the canals of France. Oh, And Tomme de Savoie is made from Cow’s milk; this could be a Pyrenees cheese.

  • October 24, 2007 3:08pm

    i wish this guy stopped in London, too… i don’t live too far from the river and would definitely pay him a visit. going to the borough on friday, though, and hope neal’s yard will be able to still my cheese cravings ;-)

  • Sonia Shapiro
    November 7, 2007 3:13pm

    I went on an ad hoc sheep’s milk cheese tour of England and Scotland in 2006. I was always appreciated as a guest when I stopped by friends and family. I’m imagining organizing a more planned one with a group. What about staying in places that aren’t particularly grand or even nice (drawing the line at bed bugs but not grime) but spending lots of money on cheese? Lots. Does this sound tempting? If we promise not to come see you will you tell us where the boat cheese man stops?