During my first few weeks in Paris several years ago, my lunch was often a half-baguette slathered with brie or camembert, which I’d wolf down before heading off to the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail for my language class. I was in thrall to the deeply flavored cheeses I’d discovered at the Monoprix supermarket around the corner (before I found the cheese shops in the neighborhood). These cheeses had a taste much more pronounced than what passes for brie or camembert in the U.S.
Today I don’t consume cheeses in France with quite the same abandon as when I first started spending time there, but I do eat more cheese in Paris than I do in New York. Just not so much at one sitting. Cheese is a significant element in a French meal. My Parisian friends might not always offer a first course to their dinner guests, but most do make sure to have a cheese course just before dessert.
In France you generally purchase the cheese you’re going to consume for that day, or perhaps the next. Cheese isn’t something you buy to keep for weeks, unless it’s a wedge of parmesan. When I buy a camembert, I specify whether it’s for that night or the next day – the fromager will press on the cheese to determine if it’s sufficiently ripe to consume in the next few hours or 24 hours later. And although you can find some non-French cheeses, such as parmesan or gorgonzola or English cheddar or stilton, more than 90% of the cheeses you’ll see at the fromager are French. A Parisian friend of mine visiting me in New York was astonished at the variety of cheeses he could find at Zabar’s, the fine-foods store near me on the Upper West Side. “I had to come to New York to find a Spanish cheese,” my friend Roland told me. But France is a land of more than 400 different cheeses, so it’s natural that its fromagers will favor French cheese.
Within a 15-minute walk of where I stay in Paris, I have a choice of about five or seven different fromagers, or cheese shops. The one I prefer is Alléosse, on the rue Poncelet, a rue commerçante with a variety of bakeries, patisseries, fruit-and-vegetable stands, a coffee roaster, wine shops, butchers, fishmongers and supermarkets. There’s even another cheese shop a few steps from Alléosse. But Alléosse, which has its own caves d’affinage, or aging cellars, in the same arrondissement, has the most flavorful, perfectly ripened cheeses.
As with much in French life, there’s a certain way of doing things, and this applies even to a cheese course. You generally stick to odd numbers of cheeses: one, three or five (I’ve even seen plateaux de fromage with seven different cheeses). And you mix them up: hard, soft, mild, tangy, cow, sheep, goat. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however. My friends Jean-Paul and Dominique generally put out a platter with a variety of small rounds of goat cheeses. That’s a little extreme for my taste, although I like goat cheese. Still, people do sometimes serve just one cheese: a nice ripe camembert or perhaps a large wedge of brie. They’re both cow cheeses. In my experience you’re less likely to see a single goat cheese as your cheese course (unless you’re serving a dozen little goat cheeses). In any event, you’re more likely to put together a plate of three different cheeses, as I do.
If I offer any more than that, I’m left with more cheese than I can reasonably eat over the course of a week. My friends Pierre and his brother Michel solve that little problem by making leftover cheese part of their breakfast. They might place slices of remaining camembert on the baguette from the night before and have it with their morning coffee. (It turns out that coffee and camembert go well together.)
A simple cheese course of mine might include a ripe camembert, a blue-style cheese (such as a Roquefort) and a hard cheese such as an aged comté. I look for comté that’s been aged for more than 24 months (which you can’t get in the U.S. – most of what you see in the States is at most six or nine months old), since I really like its rich, nutty flavor. Sometimes instead of a comté I’ll choose a Salers, which is a semi-hard cheese from the Auvergne, in central France. It’s a little like Cantal, but saltier and tangier. I might offer a brie de Meaux or a brie de Melun instead of a camembert. Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized brie, as is brie de Melun. The brie de Melun is much sharper in flavor, sometimes even with a hint of ammonia, which can be too much for me, despite my liking strong-flavored cheeses. I also have a fondness for runny goat cheeses such as Saint Marcellin or Rocamadour, which come in small rounds that flatten and spread as they come to room temperature. Sometimes I’ll offer the Brillat-Savarin, but only rarely, since with its high fat content it’s as indulgent as butter.
In any event, in Paris I find myself thinking about what cheeses to serve with dinner, something I’ve never done at home in New York. We Americans have cheese before dinner as an appetizer. It’s a different way of organizing dinner, although I’ve come to prefer the French way of serving cheese, as part of a meal. Still, in New York I don’t offer a cheese course if I’m hosting a dinner. It would feel off.
This past Christmas, my sister Deb who was hosting the family gathering, asked me to bring cheeses. I asked her when she was going to serve them – before or during during dinner.
I could sense her rolling her eyes at me over the phone. “During cocktails,” she said. “Like normal people.” She may have added, “you pretentious idiot,” but that might have simply been a bad connection.