In France, this is not a photo op, but a very serious subject. And a confusing one. Even for the locals, which is why you’ll find an entire section of cheese guides in Paris bookshops. When we first moved here, I was so curious and confused that I purchased the Guide des Fromages and spent the following year bonding with my local affineur (cheesemonger), Marie Quatrehomme. I was very fortunate to have Marie as a neighbor; she was the first woman in France to be named Meilleur Ouvrier de France, supplies many of the city’s three-star restaurants, is passionate about her product and could not be friendlier. I later realized that she was also a major contributor to my guide.
The first thing I learned is that many cheeses are seasonal. Goat cheese, for example, is not a winter cheese. And I discovered the amazing vacherin, an exceptionally delicious, soft, oozing cheese that is preserved in spruce and eaten from the mold with a spoon, but made exclusively from August 15 to March 31.
Most of us know that cheeses are divided into three families: goat, cow and sheep’s milk, but they are also divided by their texture and their rind. There are fresh cheeses that have not been aged at all, like feta and mascarpone; soft cheeses with a mold rind, like Brie and Camembert; soft cheeses with a washed rind, like Muenster and my beloved vacherin; firm cheeses that have been “cooked,” like Gruyère and Emmental; and those that have not, like Reblochon and the tommes; blue cheeses; and, finally, goat cheeses.
There are two cheese questions that plague visitors to France:
How do I slice the cheese? The idea is to keep an equal ratio of rind for all the guests, so if the cheese is round, you cut it like a pie. If it is a rectangle, try to cut evenly from the tip to the rind.
Do I eat the rind? The answer is vague and really depends on personal preference. If you like it, eat it; if not, leave it on your plate.
Which brings us to the cheese course itself. Occasionally, cheese is served with the hors d’oeuvres, two soirée favorites being Mimolette and Tête de Moine. There a few dishes, like fondue and raclette, that depend upon cheese, but in general it is part of the dessert course, coming just after the main dish, but before the sweets and often accompanied by a very simple salad. The cheese course may be limited to one exceptional cheese, like the mouthwatering Brie with truffles or the inspired blue with quince paste that I find at the Laurent Dubois shop. For a more elaborate offering, include no more than six cheeses and strike a balance between soft and firm cheeses, and strong and mild flavors, while keeping in mind the shapes and colors of each cheese as well. Confused? So are most of the French, which is why they head to specialty shops for expert guidance. Some “cheat” with great success by offering a platter of chevres, blues and English or Italian cheeses.
My ideal cheese plate includes a white, fluffy triangle of Brie; a firm, golden block of Ossau Iraty; an orange-blush round of Reblochon; a pungent, creamy Roquefort; a mellow St. Marcellin and a solid pyramid of the tangy Pouligny. I like mine served with a crisp Pouilly-Fuissé, but pairings are a guide apart.
2, rue de Lourmel, in the 15th Arrondissement.
62, rue de Sèvres, in the 7th.