Friday, March 8, 2013

The Cheese Shops of Paris

After all of the discussions in class with Rodolphe Le Meunier about how to sell cheese, I thought I'd take advantage of my time in Paris to check out a few places where they're actually doing just that. After my stroll through the Parc de Buttes Chaumont last week, I went further up the Rue de Belleville to one of the the Pascale Beillevaire stores; there are a few in Paris, and more up and down the Loire Valley, including here in Tours at Les Halles. M. Beillevaire is another famous affineur, and also runs a cheesemaking facility near his family home outside of Nantes, producing products like butter and crème fraîche with milk from surrounding dairy farms. One of the students in the cheese program, Guillaume, works at the Belleville store, but he wasn't there that evening. I didn't get lost when looking for this shop, but even if I had, the rich savory smell of the tartiflette that was bubbling away in a huge pan at the front of the store would have drawn me to the right location from several blocks away. Oh, but there are times when I regret not being able to eat cheese ... sliced potatoes, bacon, ripe Reblochon, onions, crème fraîche, and salt and pepper all melted and mingled together, a perfect antidote for the chilly evening. I might have even succumbed if it weren't for the promise of the roast lamb waiting at Chapeau Melon.

The store has a very clean and user-friendly layout, with a mix of wrapped and unwrapped cheeses. There's enough room for customers and staff to get past each other, and the tiered shallow shelves allow for maximum display with minimum effort. I liked the illustrated explanations across the tops of the walls detailing the differences between the cheese types, and the jams and accompaniments above the cheeses, rather than mixed in among them. That keeps the emphasis on the cheese, with the garnishes as grace notes, to be decided afterwards. There's a refrigerated case in back with the butter and other dairy products, many of which come from the facility near Nantes, and a glass-covered case at the entrance features some of the value-added products "fait maison" like the balls of creamy fresh cow's-milk cheese rolled in dried fruits and nuts, or the Brie-like Bessin, split in half and given a rich layer of crème fraîche mixed with chopped fresh parsley, cilantro, chervil, and chives.

Fromagerie Pascal Beillevaire
140 Rue de Belleville
Métro: Jourdain

On Friday, I made a grand tour of four other well-known Paris cheese shops. Cheese is magic - I didn't get lost once. I started out at the Fromagerie Laurent Dubois (the shop near Notre Dame, not the one near the Eiffel Tower). Like the shops around it selling charcuterie and wine, it offers vacuum-packing service that will let you take your cheeses safely through the TSA (or its French equivalent), which means that even the ripest Époisses won't be classified as a dangerous weapon. Dubois also comes from a dairy background and has been awarded the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France title. The shop is narrow but welcoming, and the stacked mini-shelves are used to good effect. I liked the arrangement of the cheeses in this store the best of all the five that I visited.

Dubois enhances cheeses as well, layering walnuts in Brie (the pink-peppercorn-crusted fresh goat cheese hearts next to them come from the Cantal region) and blending blue cheeses with various alcohols to make boozy cheesy spreads. When I saw these last, my first thought was something along the lines of "I wonder how the cost of the glass jars factors into this product" rather than "I wonder what that tastes like." That's either a reflection of the fact that I've internalized the fact that I can't eat cheese, or the impact of the discussions Rodolphe Le Meunier led us through around the economics of a cheese shop.

Like the Beillevaire shop, most of the cheese here is French, with some additions from Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. But I also saw an old friend, the internationally-acclaimed Rogue River Blue from Oregon. It's the first American cheese I've seen in any French cheese store. A shame, because I think that Rivers Edge's Sunset Bay and Astraea could definitely impress some palates over here ...

Fromagerie Laurent Dubois
47 ter Boulevard Saint-Germain
Métro: Maubert-Mutualité

Near the Eiffel Tower, tucked into one of the side streets under the lovely old apartment buildings you find everywhere in the center of Paris (the ones I couldn't afford to rent, much less buy, in a million years), is the Fromagerie Cantin. The smallest of the shops I visited, it's also the only one that wrapped or at least labeled all of its cheeses. Even the unwrapped goat cheeses had the house label stuck on them. It's not unusual to have the fromager/affineur put his or her own name on the cheeses, especially since the ongoing debate about what makes a great cheese is unresolved as to whether the person responsible for aging the cheese can take credit for the final outcome (though there's no argument here in France: the answer is indisputably "yes"). This shop labels everything. And perhaps it was the contrast with the clean plexiglass or wooden shelves in the previous two shops, but I found the straw mats and fake leaves a little too "we are selling artisanal farmhouse cheeses here obviously why do you ask."

But I did like the tiers and towers of goat cheese in the window (I assume that the high apartments block the sun even in the summer), and the little table outside with the goat cheese dégustation suggestions all packaged up and ready to go, the cheese sitting out in the open where anyone could just pick it up and walk quickly off, not that this occurred to me even for an instant, you understand. Or perhaps they were Japanese-style plastic cheeses to draw in the customers.

Fromagerie Cantin
12 Rue du Champs de Mars
Métro: École Militaire

There was no plastic cheese, but plenty of Japanese, at Fromagerie Hisada. When I was living in Tokyo in the mid-1980s cheese was not something you really found outside of the overpriced grocery stores in the expat neighborhoods. I don't even remember cheese being on the pizzas we ordered one horribly memorable evening, when my fellow exchange students and I discovered that yes, some cultures think that canned corn is an appropriate topping, along with squid (the squid was good). French restaurants in Japan were very very expensive, so I didn't go to any of them, but there were lots of bakeries that sold French pastries and cakes. Or rather "French" pastries and cakes, since they were identical (or superior) in beauty and form, but pretty much tasteless. Now, however, as cultures mix and mingle across the globe, and eating habits change, there is a new interest in cheese in Japan, even though historically they, like most Asian civilizations, haven't been much for the dairy products. In fact, November 11th appears to be National Cheese Day, a celebration that has been going on since 1992, several years after I left the country ... god, I'm getting old. Ah, well. Around that time Mme. Sanae Hisaka was promoting French cheeses with her Tokyo store, and now has returned to the source with two shops in Paris. I went to the one near the Eiffel Tower, with its associated restaurant (which I didn't visit), rather than the one on the outskirts near the Porte de Saint-Cloud.

I had a conversation with the Japanese woman in charge of the store that morning on the topics of cheese and France and Japan, and admired the custom-built cloche in the middle of the store where the goat cheese lives. The dome of the cloche is raised and lowered with a switch, so that the wasabi- and yuzu-flavored cheeses can be extracted for the customers. The Hisada store is listed in most of the Japanese guidebooks, I was told, so there are quite a few Japanese tourists that come by, and there are also Japanese expats that make this store a regular stop in their shopping forays. I know what it is to find someone who speaks your native language, no matter how fluent you've become in the second one. There seemed to be more wines and cheese accompaniments in this store, plus the vacuum-pack machine, possibly to handle the tourist trade.

Fromagerie Hisada
47 Rue de Richelieu
Métro: Bourse

The last store I visited was less tourist-oriented in that it follows the sometimes annoying French tradition of closing for lunch between 1:00pm and 3:30pm on weekdays. On the other hand, it's open until almost 8:00pm, so it's almost never too late for good cheese, and you won't get into a panic if you realize that you've forgotten to pick up that Brie layered with figs that would be the perfect ending to your dinner party. If you live in Paris, that is. It was also the one that had the least amount of proprietary packaging, displaying many of the cheeses in their original wrappings and boxes, and the most customers (with the Beillevaire shop a close second). This is a family business, with husband and wife and daughter and son-in-law all contributing, each specializing in affinage, or cheese selection, or helping clients put together platters for their parties.

A difference with this shop is that many of the cheeses are against the walls which are behind the display cases, so it might be harder for people to get up close and personal with the cheeses before making their selections. There seemed to be more types of cheeses available, and I am sure that the staff would be more than happy to help you choose; since I wasn't buying cheese, I decided to not bother anyone and ask questions. All of the cheeses in this store are out of reach of customers, whether because of distance or glass, and many of them are not wrapped. The staff person at the Cantal store, when I questioned the fact that almost all of the cheeses there were wrapped, even ones I'm used to seeing left out, said that it's a question of hygiene, mostly. On the other hand, the word "hygiene" often has a slightly different meaning here in France.

Fromagerie Jouannault
39 Rue de Bretagne
Métro: Filles Calvaire

You can find good cheese everywhere in Paris, because there are many local open-air markets with stands that have nearly the selection of some of the cheese shops I visited. I happened on this market spread out in front of the Paris stock exchange building, and would have been happy to sample some of the offerings, especially since several were unfamiliar. That's the beauty of cheese - there's always something new to discover, no matter where you are.

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