Photo by John Kroll/Flickr
Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Paris
A Certified Cheese Professional and educator at Murray’s Cheese in New York gives us the lowdown on how to cherchez le cheese like a pro on your next foray into France.
The French have been making and eating ridiculously good cheese since before the United States existed, and while they may not have technically invented it, they definitely have it figured out. So it follows that shopping for cheese in a city that speaks fluent fromage can be intimidating. But a love of that delicious dairy product transcends boundaries, and most shopkeepers are more than pleased to help out a fellow enthusiast. If you go into your search with humility, curiosity, and these tips, you’ll leave with plenty of cheese (and a matching grin).
First of all, get excited—some French cheeses are just not available in the United States, and many of those you do know and love will taste totally different in France. U.S. law requires that all cheese younger than 60 days be made with pasteurized milk. The pasteurization process eliminates any potential harmful bacteria from the milk, but it also eliminates some nonharmful bacteria that drives flavor in the cheese. That’s why U.S. cheeese fans think of Brie—which is almost always younger than 60 days, and therefore pasteurized in the United States—as a mild cheese that tastes like butter. But the traditional raw-milk (that is, unpasteurized) versions of Brie you can find in France taste more like garlicky roasted brussels sprouts or broccoli-cheese soup.
If you see a cheese that says both “lait cru” and “fermier” on the label, you’ve found yourself a truly special cheese.
Even if you’re the cheese expert of your friend group, you may feel out of your depth in a Paris cheese shop. No need to get discouraged, but remember to be open-minded about the unfamiliar. You may be horrified to spot blue mold on anything other than a Roquefort, but the French actually prefer a number of cheeses with a bit of blue mold. It’s harmless and can add a peppery flavor much like arugula.
Also, because these young, delicious raw-milk cheeses tend to express a wider range of flavors than their pasteurized counterparts, you may find that some of them smell and taste more like a barnyard than you’re used to. That is often the desired flavor! You may love it, you may hate it, you may hate it the first time you try it and then grow to love it. However you feel, give it a chance.
Some traveling cheese nerds will focus on finding types in Paris that we can’t find in the United States, like Reblochon or Saint-Marcellin. That’s a good way to experience a host of new flavors, but make sure to also try cheeses that you think you’re familiar with, especially if the label says “lait cru,” indicating that it’s made with raw milk. They will likely taste different than you expect.
Also look for the word “fermier,” which means “farmstead.” While it’s common for larger cheesemakers to buy milk from a number of small dairy farmers to make their cheese, a farmstead cheese is made only with the milk of animals that live on the farm that produces that cheese. Both raw-milk cheese and farmstead cheese tend to have more variable, expressive flavors, so if you see a cheese that says both “lait cru” and “fermier” on the label, you’ve found yourself a truly special cheese.
If you’re already an aficionado, you know that different animal milks produce different flavors. In France, “de chevre” indicates a cheese made with goat’s milk, which tends to lend tang and minerality to the flavor. “De vache,” or a cheese made with cow’s milk, will probably taste the most familiar, but you’ll notice deeper, grassier flavors in the French versions of these cheeses than you’re used to. “De brebis” denotes a cheese made with sheep’s milk; it will be richer and more brothy or “animally.”
As with fruits and veggies, cheese is seasonal. Goats usually give birth in the early spring, and so that’s when they start giving milk. If you’re in Paris in the spring, you’ll find fresh and Brie-style goat cheeses at their peak, sometimes adorned with fresh flowers, herbs, and fruits.
In the winter, cows are often moved to a barn, where they switch from a diet of fresh grass to a diet of hay. They also make less milk during those months, but that milk is higher in fat and protein, so as a result, cheesemakers have traditionally switched to a different recipe then. There are actually some cheeses that, by law, can only be made during this time period, like the famed Vacherin Mont D’Or, a goopy, meaty dream. If you’re in Paris during the winter and can only buy one cheese, buy that one.
Make sure to brush up on your European shopping etiquette, and don’t forget to check hours before you stop by. Proprietors are usually happy to cut down pieces for you to buy and to give you small tastes, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality of the cheese, as it could for a small wheel of a Brie-style cheese. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Ask what’s in the best condition, let them know of any cheeses you especially love or dislike, and be prepared to have your mind blown. Shopkeepers want to help their customers find their dream cheeses—let them help you find yours.
Once you’ve successfully purchased your cheese, either buy a baguette at the shop or ask to be pointed toward a favorite boulangerie. Make sure to grab some champagne, and then go have a picnic on the Seine. If you’re going to shop for cheese like a Parisian, you’ve got to eat it like a Parisian, too.
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