Sunday, April 21, 2013

It's Always Time For Cheese

Forty-five years ago, the huge marketplace that Émile Zola labeled "the belly of Paris" moved ponderously out of the center of the city and into a new warehouse complex to the south, conveniently near train lines and the Orly airport, but no longer forming the busy smelly hub of the Paris food scene. There are some restaurants around to serve the workers, but nothing like the close-knit community that used to exist in Paris (this article in Saveur magazine talks about the difference), and it's all fluorescent lights and white coats and shrink-wrapped pallets now, with purchases made via iPhone in bulk, rather than by chefs coming in to scour the stalls for the best produce and seafood. It might be more efficient, but it's much less romantic. However, it was interesting to wander around the redolent alleys of the two warehouses devoted to cheese and other dairy products, and to learn about some of the millions of euros of business that goes on every day there, mostly between the hours of midnight and noon. If I'd had a choice, I would have spent all my time looking at the boxes and crates of cheeses from around France and elsewhere, identifying ones I hadn't seen before, like a newish cow's-milk tomme covered and aged with dried mountain herbs and flowers that the cows eat, giving a double floral hit to the finished product. Everything from tiny goat's-milk crottins, wrinkly and sharp smelling, to enormous rounds of alpine cheeses, was stacked and layered over a square mile or so (or so it seemed) of well-scrubbed linoleum.

We tasted a young Comté while standing next to shelves stacked with the same cheese aging to specifications provided by the clients, their rinds getting more cracked and dusty-grey as the years went by. A real Camembert de Normandie (the true raw-milk AOP version, not one of the pasteurized-milk imitations) was sliced into wedges and passed around, and appreciatively consumed. I have been finding that it's easier for me to say that I'm from Tours rather than the United States, at least when talking to people in the wholesale or export business. Everyone in the cheese program who has brought up the United States over the last few months has been scornfully appalled at the American fear of raw-milk and "unusual" cheeses, and now that the Mimolette ban has gone into effect the scorn level has kicked up several notches. I have been asked about the cheese industry in the States, however, and while I always have to admit that the 60-day aging rule continues to be in effect, thus banning cheeses like the real Camembert, I'm quick to point out that there are many, many new cheesemakers who are producing raw-milk aged cheeses, and that the variety and quality of artisanal and farmstead cheese that is made in the US is equal to what's produced in France. Except for the raw-milk factor, of course. There really is a difference in taste between the two. That being said, I remember a blind tasting at a lecture given by Sebastien Roustel in Portland in November 2011, a lecture in which he discussed the differences between raw-milk and pasteurized-milk cheeses and the differences in attitude towards same in the EU (France, specifically) and the US. There was one particular cheese, a cheddar I think, that was made twice, once with raw and once with pasteurized milk, and the raw-milk version was really pretty nasty. So it's not a requirement for good cheese by any means, but I must admit that I've really enjoyed the raw-milk cheeses I've tasted over here. Given that raw milk kills far fewer people than guns in the United States, yet has far more regulations covering its purchase and use, I'm voting with the French on this one.

They treated us to lunch after the morning session, which was nice. I had a green salad and a chewy steak frites, and heard nothing of the conversations going on towards the middle of the table, or even right next to me. The restaurant was packed with Rungis workers who were ending their work day at noon with a hearty meal and a bottle of wine. By the time we left the restaurant at 1pm or so they were already cleaning up and stacking the chairs on the tables, ready to open up insanely early, I assume, with strong espresso and tartines to help the pallet-movers and crate-loaders and invoice-checkers start their morning the next day.
We were supposed to meet up with an import/export specialist that afternoon, but apparently he forgot, or the person from the morning didn't get us to the right place, or something, so we were done with the day. We spent a bit of time wandering around Le Delas, the French version of Cash & Carry, a place where everything a restaurant might want stands piled on shelves, and where you have to have a special "I'm a restaurant professional" card to even buy the tiniest container of pâté. Not that any of the containers were particularly tiny. Vacuum-packed cooked endives in three-dozen lots, whole cured hams and gallons of condiments, "house made" terrines shrink-wrapped in attractive stoneware casseroles, and more, all waiting for you in the maze of aisles. And reasonably priced, as well. I wish we'd gotten the lesson on the export trade, though.

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