Sable de Wissant & the Question of Terroir (Week 18)

Sable de Wissant
Yeasty Delight: Sable de Wissant, washed in beer

Cheese: Sable de Wissant

Producer: Fromagerie Sainte Godeleine

Where: Wierre-Effroy, France

So let’s get to the second part of the title first. Terroir is a word sometimes used by the pretentious and the pretenders to talk about whatever expensive red or white they are swirling in their glass. Since it is foreign, it is supposed to help lend instant credibility to whatever comes before or after the use of the t-word. To the people who invented it (oui, les Français) it actually means something, and it is not only used for wine, although that is the field of food & drink appreciation where it is heard the most. Terroir, in a nutshell, ties a product to the land, to the climate, and to the traditions that impart a product its particular qualities. In cheese-speak, a Frenchman tastes the lush green pastures of Normandy, the houses that seems to grow out of the ground on which they stand, the lazy cows that chew and chew and the thick pillowy clouds full of rain when he tucks into a chunk of Pont l’évêque cheese. It is the concept that a food belongs somewhere, has a pedigree and a history that is not interchangeable. The cherished French AOCs (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), which have been replaced by the EU’s AOPs are related to the idea that you can’t uproot a product, transplant it to somewhere else and expect it to be the same. And what does all of this have to do with this week’s cheese?

Sable de Wissant is not a particularly old cheese with a long history going back to Charlemagne or Louis XIV. It goes back to Antoine Bernard and the 1990s, when this man, who raised goats for a living, decided to get into the cheese business. That did not seem an obvious choice because Antoine’s creamery is in the far northwest of France, an area many people in parts of the country more blessed with natural beauty and culture lovingly refer to as the sticks. Antoine first traveled around, learned on farms and monasteries and then set about creating cheese with a solid sense of terroir: the raw cow’s milk for the cheese comes from local farms and the beer used to wash the cheese and give it its unique yeasty flavor is brewed in Wissant, another small town in those very same sticks. And so here is a relatively newcomer to that fabled plethora of 246 French cheeses Charles de Gaulle talked about (“how can one govern a country that has 246 different cheeses), and it is all about local flavor, local products, and local labor of love – terroir, in essence. The cheese is semi-soft, smells like a nice white beer and has a creamy, soft but not runny texture and a full, rich flavor which combines yeast, barnyard and butter in just the right proportions. Well, done, les frères Bernard! And well done by the Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg, on the opposite end of the country, for offering this delicious creaminess to the folks in Alsace.

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
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.

Dijon
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