In Praise of French Cheese Shops (Week 18)

Cloche a Fromage
La Cloche a Fromage

Ha! Johannes Gutenberg from Mainz was probably happy when he was able to finally leave Strasbourg behind after having spent some 14 years there between about 1434 and 1448. No one knows exactly how long he lived in the Alsatian city on the Rhine, but he was there: court documents show he was sued a number of times, most spectacularly by a woman who claimed he had promised to marry her, but then reneged on the promise. Back in Mainz, about 130 miles downstream, he continued work on his invention that would earn him worldwide fame: the printing press with movable type. So as time wore on the city of Strasbourg decided to honor the man who had left behind debts and at least one broken heart with a square and a statue, very close to the gorgeous red sandstone cathedral, one of the most beautiful Gothic Cathedrals in France – make that the world. Just off Place Gutenberg in the Rue des Tonneliers is la Cloche à Fromage. In fact, there is really two of them, one cheese shop, the other a cheese restaurant – same company, different experience. I decided to have my choucroute (sauerkraut with sausage and other assorted meats) at Aux Armes de Strasbourg right next to the statue of my pal Johannes, but I did pick up some cheese before I sat down there.

Choucroute, Sauerkraut with all kinds of meat, Alsatian style

And that’s where the praise starts. La Cloche auf Fromage is not an enormous place: the cheese counter at a decent-sized Whole Foods may be just as big, but that’s where the comparison ends. Here are the five reasons why I just love a French cheese shop:

  1. The French are fearless and know when to ignore food safety warnings: most of the cheese is made with raw milk. My wife in fact had an aunt who used to rail against EU regulations: “one day, they will take away our lait cru, and it’s all going to be over!” It hasn’t happened yet, aunt Collette, wherever you are…
  2. The French value geography. Geography is terroir, and terroir is where the food meets the landscape. Terroir is the combination of soil, water, sun, wind, slope and so on that creates the particular environment which determines the qualities of the particular food. So neat little cards will not only tell you what kind of cheese you’re looking at, but also, where your cheese is from, and soon you can begin to build an image of the life and work of the people who produced the cheese. The better cheese shops in the US have adopted this level of care, but in France, this has always been par for the course.
  3. The French are open when it comes to food. In a land so full of culinary traditions, there is still a lot of room for experimentation and so a cheese shop worth its salt will always carry some interesting new cheeses alongside the national and regional favorites.
  4. The staff in these shops: they know what they are talking about; they respect the cheese and they know how to wrap it properly.
  5. Finally: coming from the US, the prices will ensure that you walk out with a slightly bemused grin on your face: a cheese plate that would set you back the price of 20 lattes in the US can be put together for 15 euros here.

There are of course thousands of them all over the country, and it’d be far from me to even pretend that I could pass as an authority, but here are some of my favorite cheese mongers in France: there is Hisada in Paris, close to the Palais Royal. Of course it is jarring at first to walk into a cheese shop in Paris where the staff is Japanese, but once you see that they approach fromage with the same sensibility, flair and understanding of quality, it all makes perfect sense.

In Les Halles de Dijon

Benoit’s stand at Les Halles de Dijon specializes in the large cheeses from the Jura. They carry cheese from all over France though, and they have an very visible division of labor: the muscular guys are handling the Comtés, the Emmental and the Morbiers, while the daintier sellers wrap the Chèvres and other assorted small cheeses.

Maison du Fromage
Maison du Fromage, Avignon

In Avignon, it’s the Maison du Fromage in Les Halles, and in Lyon the Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse are a food temple of sorts, where I would not dare to prefer one exquisite cheese monger over another.

Lyon Bocuse
In Les Halles de Bocuse, Lyon

Oh – and of course, if you are in Strasbourg, make sure to check out the magnificent cathedral. One cannot live of cheese alone.

Strasbourg Cathedral
Strasbourg Cathedral

Avignon, France (Week 5)

Avignon by night II
Avignon and its bridge by night

In Avignon, no one really dances on the bridge, and as a matter of fact, no one ever did, in all probability.

Sur le pont d’Avignon

on y danse, on y danse

sur le Pont d’Avignon

on y danse tour en rond.

A French ditty that is simple enough for foreign students of la plus belle langue to learn, and therefore has made it in the heads of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands of middle schoolers all over Europe. Of course there are all kinds of things wrong with this song. First off, the original more accurately places the dancers under the bridge: sous le pont. The bridge itself is rather narrow, and traffic would have been seriously impeded by bunches of people who had nothing better to do than to disrupt commerce with their frivolous pastime. Today, it’s a moot point because the Pont Saint-Bénézet has only four arches of its original 22 left. Forty years after it was first completed in 1185 Louis VIII destroyed it, and when it was rebuilt, the Rhône River so often took out a few arches during high water that the people of Avignon grew tired of having to rebuild it. Today it is probably the most famous bridge to nowhere in all of Europe.

All of this is not to say that a visit to Avignon is disappointing, au contraire. But much of the city’s charm is found beyond those sites to which it owes its fame. Under the relentless Provencal sun, Avignon gets very hot, but the winding streets are narrow enough to find a little shade in them – you simply have to cross the street here and there. And as soon as the sun is up, there is nothing to stop you from getting a head start. The city’s biggest attraction by far is the palace of the Avignon popes, but before it opens, you can walk around it, always keeping it on your left, until you reach the Rue des Escaliers Sainte-Anne, the steps of St. Anne, which lead to the top of the Rocher des Doms, the promontory where the very first inhabitants of the area sought to defend themselves from intruders into their land. From here you have gorgeous views over Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and the Tour Philippe-le-Bel across the Rhône. That tower is how far the bridge once reached. The short stump that is left can also be admired from this viewpoint.

Pont Avignon
Pont Saint-Benezet from the Rocher des Doms

From here it is all downhill to the Cathedral Notre Dame des Doms d’Avignon and beyond it the 14th century Popes’ Palace. It’s a bit of misnomer, because despite some beautifully decorated rooms, it may be more appropriate to call it the Popes’ Fortress; there is nothing particularly inviting about its façade and the looming hulk of the building casts massive shadows on the surrounding area.

Palais des Papes
Palais des Papes; the belltower on the left belongs to Notre Dames des Doms

Having the popes live in Avignon from 1309 to 1375 initially completely overwhelmed the town’s infrastructure: cardinals brought hundreds of people in their entourage and an extraordinary building boom ensued. Pope Benedict XII built what is now known as the Old Palace. He must have been a humorless, dour fellow, because this part of the complex looks solid, boring and unfriendly, both inside and out. Benedict pinched pennies, only to have his successor splurge on the New Palace. Clement VI was responsible for anything colorful, intricate or luxurious that is left in the building today.

Avignon Popes
All nine Avignon Popes. In the middle on the left is Clement VI, the big spender

The best way to visit is with the self-guiding devices – pick a time early or late in the day, when tour groups have largely left or haven’t quite gotten there yet. From the palace it is not far to the Place d’ Horloge with its carrousel and its many cafés. A bit tucked away in the southwestern corner of the square is a short alley that leads to the Palais du Roure, a building with an inner courtyard that displays a collection of bells and houses a small museum of sorts about Provençal culture. There are a handful of these small museums where visitors can enjoy history, natural history and art in bit size chunks: the Musée Lapidaire in a former Jesuit church has ancient sculptures, among them one depicting the fearsome Tarasque, the local water monster. The Musée Calvet houses an eclectic art collection with some works by Manet, Corot and Sisley.

Musee Calvet Avignon
Courtyard of the Musee Calvet

The Musée Anglodon has a van Gogh, and works by Cézanne, Modigliani, Picasso and others in a beautifully furnished 18th century house; of course, there is also the Musée du Petit Palais, next to the Palace of the Popes, which showcases Italian and Provençal art from the 13th to the 16th century, among other things.

Two other places of note: the Place Crillion, a little away from the center just inside the city walls, with the beautiful 18th century building of the Comédie, now a very chic store, has some quiet and I daresay romantic outdoor terraces. The place is beautifully lit at night. And of course there are the Halles, the covered market with the spectacular vertical garden by Patrick Blanc (the André le Nôtre of our days) on its façade.

Avignon Halles
Les Halles, the covered market with Andre Blanc’s vertical garden

In there is the splendid Maison du Fromage, the cheese temple where I got my Banon and the other cheeses for week 5. You see, even if you forget about the whole bit about dancing on the bridge, Avignon has an awful lot to offer.

Local goat cheese in at the Maison du Fromage

Banon AOP (Week 5)

Banon 1

Banon: goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves

Cheese: Banon AOP

Producer: Fromagerie de Banon

Where: Banon, France

I spent the first few days of this week in Avignon, and the Cheese Primer suggests that two of the ‘worthy’ cheeses from Provence/ Dauphiné region are the Banon and the Saint Marcellin. Steven Jenkins is the author of this book, which I bought quite a few years ago and which is starting to show its age: it was published in 1996 and back then it won a James Beard award, but unfortunately, it has by now missed 20 years of development – nothing in his book about the splendid new cheeses in the US (he dedicates a chapter to the US, but the pickings are slim), or any of the newer creations in Europe. In fact, it even predates the AOP designation of the Banon, which was awarded in 2003. At some point in this blog, I will write something about the Appellation d’Origine Protégée, but for now it suffices to say that this designation indicates to consumers that they are buying the real deal, in this case a cheese that is produced according to certain rules in a certain area, using certain ingredients, in this case raw goat milk.

It is a little round cheese, about three inches in diameter and an inch thick, with a nice white rind and a smooth creamy paste. Banon are wrapped in chestnut after 5 to 10 days of ripening. The leaves are soaked in water or a water & vinegar mix and this takes out much of the tannin, but the overall idea of this wrapping is that the leaves do not just protect the cheese but also impart some flavor. The leaves are carefully folded around the cheese and kept in place with a strand of natural raffia. If nothing else, the cheese looks very pretty and it makes for a good story. The cheese is named for the small market town that sits on a 2,600 feet ridge about 60 miles east of Avignon. There is a legend that Antoninus Pius, Roman emperor from 138 to 161, ate so much Banon that he fell ill and died a few days later. I am not quite sure why the people that are selling this cheese think they need to tell this story.

Local farmers who used their goats (‘poor man’s cows’) for milk produced cheese for their own use and sold any surplus in the nearby towns. Today the region in which Banon is produced is carefully delineated, outside of it, farmers can wrap their cheese in chestnut leaves all they want, but it’s no Banon!

The second cheese I bought was the Saint Marcellin, named after a town two hours north of Avignon, a little over a half hour from the banks of the Rhône. It is ridiculously creamy, packs a lot of flavor and a bit of a bite when thoroughly ripened. That big glob of cheese on the bread is Saint Marcellin.

Saint Marcellin
Creamy goodness: Saint Marcellin

The bread by the way is typical for the region: walnuts and grapes, soaked in red wine for a while, are kneaded into the dough – pain vigneron. It is the kind of bread you can just keep munching away at until it is miraculously gone.

Third cheese! The Pélardon is from the Cévennes region, in the Massif Central, quite a ways from Avignon, so it didn’t fit in my plan of having strictly regional cheeses, but my companion, Magalie insisted, and she’s a chef, so I did as I was told. It was worth it: it is dry, has the typical goat flavor with nice complexity – a good one all around. One of the great things about some of the AOPs is that they prescribe what the animals eat and where they eat it – in this way, these rules ensure that the consumer knows that their cheese comes from goats who have a decent life. The Pélardon has an AOP designation as well.

Delice du Ministre
Tres delicieux: Delice du Ministre

For good measure, I bought three other cheeses (and I thought I showed great restraint): a goat cheese from the Chevrerie du Pesillon, one from the Terrasson farm, and finally a Délice du Ministre from Givors, a town along the Rhône. This last cheese has its roots in a small town called Vinay, not far from Saint Marcellin and I cannot figure out why it is not better known. The only thing I have learned that it received its name because high ranking government official in the past would have goatees, and were subsequently referred to as goats. Délice du Ministre is thus a reverse-play on that nickname. It was a delightful surprise, I actually liked it the best of all of six cheese – perhaps it was a draw between the Saint Marcellin and the Délice.

On the plate with the six cheeses, they are, from center top clockwise: the Saint Marcellin (cow’s milk, by the way), the Pesillon, the Pélardon AOP, the Délice du Ministre and the Terrasson (with the grey mold). The Banon sits in the center.

French Goat Cheeses
On ne peut jamais avoir trop de fromage!