Paris Tips: 6 Favorite Cheeses
(Apologies for Monday’s technical glitch. Moo, la la!)
By Theadora Brack
Blame it on the summertime weather, but I’ve been picnicking in parks with beaus and paramours like there’s no tomorrow. I nibble. I whisper. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul reaches when you’re in reach. Dear fromage, how do I love you? Let me count the ways.
Updating my little red book, here’s a list of my favorite French cheeses, guaranteed to make a splash at your next backyard shindig, or cocktail party. Grab a knife and a ballpoint pen. A slew of them are available outside of France. Prepare to swoon.
1. Brillat Savarin (Tastes like buttah!)
Butter. Brillat. Butter. Brillat. That’s what he said. Thank my cheese monger friend Ishai (extraordinaire!), for introducing me to this very velvety, voluptuous beauty. I’m a fool for fresh salted butter, so for me it was love at first bite. In fact, I squealed. Read my hips. This decadent triple-cream cheese from Rouen contains a whopping 75% butterfat and about 40% fat overall.
Yes, this little piggy will be returning to the market for more. Tip: I recommend serving it with a sparkling wine or a palate-cleansing beer. The carbonation will cut the fat, while enhancing its milky mushroom flavor. Visiting Paris? Sample Brillat Savarin as a fresh young’un. For the love of cream cheese or ice cream, you won’t be sorry.
Here are a few historical tidbits to help pump up your plateau de fromages and cocktail party conversation. Created in the 1930s by Henri Androuët, he named the cheese after the 18th-century French gastronomic guru, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. A master of words and cuisine, B-S is responsible for such gems as: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,” and “A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” (Huh?)
2. Oh, Mighty Mimolette
Scatter close, my history bugs, because I’ve got another royal story to tell. After the Sun King banned imported goods from Holland in the 17th century, the folks in Lille, in northeastern France, put their heads together and created a copycat version of Edam, their favorite Dutch cheese. To make it sound more French, they called it Mimolette. After all, a rose by any other name is just as stinky!
So what’s the difference?
Though both have the same basic texture and spherical shape, Edam is dipped in red wax, while Mimolette features a natural (waxless) rind that gives it a neon orange hue. And thanks to the addition of cheese mites, it is riddled with holes. Yes, that’s right—mites!—as in bugs. But fear not, they’ve all flown the coop by the time the finished Mimolette makes it to market. So don’t even think about it!
Here’s a tip
Go vintage! The older, the better, my friend, is what my fromager tells me. Yes, given enough time, Mimolette eventually blossoms, revealing a rich, salty, hazelnut flavor. Looking a lot like a cantaloupe, both inside and out, just try the flaky “extra-vielle” (that’s been aged 18 to 22 months). By the way, it was Charles de Gaulle’s favorite cheese.
The Maréchal de Sennecterre introduced Versailles to Saint-Nectaire, a superstar from near Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne. Boasting an earthy aroma acquired while curing on straw for eight weeks, the thick, gooey Saint-Nectaire has long had its share of fans.
Even Louis XIV gave this taste sensation his Good Palace-Keeping seal of approval!
My musician friend (and Charlotte Gainsbourg look-alike) Cat is absolutely mad about it. “It’s from where I grew up. The cheese is not industrial. Outside, the crust is grey, but inside it’s creamy, nutty, and fruity. Délicieusement fondant, baby! When I eat it I think of home and my family.”
Keep your eyes peeled for its cousin Pavin, too, dressed in a bright orange rind. Named for Lac Pavin, its strong mushroom flavor will send your taste buds over the moon.
4. Morbier Fermier
Morbier Fermier is easily identifiable in display cases by the horizontal blurred line of bluish ash cutting through it like a layer of icing in the middle of a vanilla cake. This dates back to when farmers would half-fill their cheese molds after the first milking and then scatter a little ash on the curds to keep bugs away till they’d milk the cows again and top up the molds.
Warning: When ripe, it can be smelly! But fear not, its aroma is stronger than its (grassy-with-a-lemon-twist) bite.
How did I discover Morbier Fermier? Again, with a little help from my friends. Television editor Yohan and media analyst Stéphanie made the grand introduction. Whenever I attend one of their dinner parties, I always take notes. “We like Comté, Vacherin Mont d’Or and Morbier Fermier. They’re all from Yohan’s hometown, Besançon,” says Stéphanie.
Where do they shop?
Chez Virginie Fromagerie is their secret weapon. Located at 54 rue Damrémont in the 18th arrondissement (Métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt), Virginie herself is a third-generation cheese monger, and extremely friendly and accessible. If you need help, just ask questions. I also recommend the shop’s signature chèvre, topped with pesto or tapenade.
My pal film editor Laurent discovered Soumaintrain while completing a documentary about the late French New Wave filmmaker, Claude Chabrol. “The film story took place in an old house, where some friends of his came to visit him to enjoy a really good lunch, and he served them Soumaintrain.” After days spent editing this mouthwatering scene, Laurent had no choice but to set out on a quest to find it on his own.
“It’s from Bourgogne. It’s creamy and smelly. You can find its cousin Époisses at many cheese sellers, but only a few of them sell Soumaintrain. It’s very difficult to locate because the producers don’t always identify themselves. It’s like a secret society. Soumaintrain has a stronger taste and even more pungent smell than Époisses. You must drink it with a red wine—a Burgundy, or a good Bourgueil from the Loire Valley.”
6. My guilty pleasure: Cantal
Flummoxed by all these choices? Then I recommend starting off with a satisfyingly buttery number that’s everywhere in Paris but difficult to find outside of France: the “Cantal jeune.” Named for a region filled with volcanic peaks and Saler cattle, even the Sun King was a fan.
Also worth a nibble are the rugged (and rarely exported) six-month-old Cantal vieux and its cousin, Salers. Take any one of the varieties and ménage à trois it with a baguette and a bottle of wine, and you’ve got the perfect mid-summer meal—morning, noon and night.
Clipping Julia Child, “Life itself is the proper binge!”