By Theadora Brack in Paris—
Big wheels do keep on turning in Paris! Like skirts, cheese is seasonal, and in France the variety is never-ending. So this week I’m taking it to les rues, and asking my favorite local Big Cheeses for recommendations and helpful tips, too.
Here’s a shopping list to use as a starting point. For the love of la bonne vie, Cheapos, just smile and say “cheese!” (Not to get your goat, this go-’round we’re only milking the cows!)
Something old: Saint-Nectaire
The Maréchal de Sennecterre introduced Saint-Nectaire (get it?), a superstar from near Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne. Boasting an earthy aroma acquired while curing on straw for eight weeks, the thick, gooey Saint-Nectaire has long had its share of fans. Louis XIV gave this taste sensation his Good Palace-Keeping seal of approval!
My musician friend (and Charlotte Gainsbourg look-alike) Cat is mad about it. “It’s from where I grew up. The cheese is not industrial. Outside, the crust is grey, but inside it’s creamy, nutty, and fruity. Délicieusement fondant, baby! When I eat it I think of home and my parents.”
Keep your eyes peeled for its cousin Pavin, too, dressed in a bright orange rind. Named for Lac Pavin, its strong mushroom flavor will send your taste buds over the moon.
Something new: Saint-Félicien
Arriving on the French fromage scene around 1950, Saint-Félicien is similar to its older cousin Saint-Marcellin. “Saint Félicien’s taste is creamier and softer,” points out clothing designer Ghislaine. “Both are from the Rhône-Alpes, and very smelly! The smellier, the better, I think! Also, it comes in little crocks, which many people use afterwards to serve nuts and olives. You can always know when your friends like this cheese if you see them using those crocks!”
Ghislaine offers a shopping tip. “ The thing is to eat them at the right moment. If you eat them too early, they don’t have the authentic strong taste, but if you wait too long they taste like ammoniac. So ask for help. Let the fromager know exactly when you plan to eat it, and they’ll be able to figure out the ripeness with their fingertips.”
Something borrowed: Soumaintrain
Film editor Laurent discovered Soumaintrain while completing a documentary about the late, great French New Wave filmmaker, Claude Chabrol. “The film story took place in an old house, where some friends of his came to visit him to enjoy a really good lunch, and he served them Soumaintrain.” After days spent editing this mouthwatering scene, Laurent had no choice but to set out on a quest to find it on his own.
“It’s from Bourgogne. It’s creamy and smelly. You can find its cousin Époisses at many cheese sellers, but only a few of them sell Soumaintrain. It’s very difficult to locate because the producers don’t always identify themselves. It’s almost like a secret society. Soumaintrain has a stronger taste and even more pungent smell than Époisses. You definitely have to drink a red wine and eat it with bread—a Burgundy, or a good Bourgueil from the Loire Valley.”
Film editor Yohan and media analyst Stéphanie are self-proclaimed “cheese snobs” and proud of it. “We like Comté, Vacherin Mont d’Or, and Morbier Fermier. They’re all from Yohan’s hometown, Besançon,” said Stéphanie. “We shop at Chez Virginie Fromagerie at 54 rue Damrémont in the 18th arrondissement. She’s a third-generation cheese monger. If you need help, just ask questions. They’re very friendly.”
Speaking of blue, Morbier Fermier is easily identifiable in display cases by the horizontal line of bluish ash cutting through it like a layer of icing in the middle of a cake. This dates back to when farmers would half-fill their cheese molds after the evening milking and then scatter a little ash on the curds to keep nighttime bugs away. In the morning they’d milk the cows again and top up the molds. Amaze your friends with this tall cow tale (but it’s true!).
My guilty pleasure: Cantal
Flummoxed by all these choices? Then I recommend starting off with a satisfyingly buttery number that’s everywhere in Paris but difficult to find outside of France: the “Cantal jeune.” Named for a region filled with volcanic peaks, even the Sun King was a fan!
Also worth a nibble are the rugged (and rarely exported) six-month-old Cantal vieux and its cousin, Salers. Take any one of the varieties and ménage à trois it with a baguette and a bottle of wine, and you’ve got the perfect Cheapo meal—morning, noon and night. Ooh, la la!
Cheapos, got your own favorite fromage? Do spill!