Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Shopping for Cheese in France

cheese-monger-strasbourg-1bI love traveling in France… for the beautiful villages, the sense of esthetics and especially for the food and wine. Artisanal products are one of the glories of France and the traveler has to learn where to find the good stuff. When ever we go we practice shopping for exceptional cheese in villages and cities in France.

Agriculture is the principal industry of France. Regional products crisscross France in convoys of refrigerated trucks on the high speed autoroute. Breton lobsters are delivered to the French Riviera daily and fresh baby lamb from the Pyrenees is a regular item on menus in the North. We were concentrating on finding specialties within their own regions.

To locate the best food purveyors in a city I like to find a good wine shop and ask the wine seller. He is often the shop owner, a local, and someone who cares about the best food to match the wine you just purchased from him.

Down from our hotel on the main square in Strasbourg was a gorgeous shop that sells foie gras and wines from Alsace. I asked the wine seller what cheese he would have with the late harvest Gewürztraminer we bought. “Munster! The best is from a shop called La Cloche a Fromage.” He marked the location of the shop on our map.

The small shop was saturated in the aroma of ripe cheese. I had never been in such an assertively fragranced fromagerie. I asked the cheese seller for a “perfect” Munster. He concentrated and gently squeezed the sides of wheels testing for ripeness. He selected a beauty with a pungent barnyard aroma, deep tangy flavor and a consistency of melting chocolate. The wine seller was correct about the care this fromager takes with his cheese. He was also correct about the extraordinary match of these two local products, Gewürztraminer and Munster.

Some say that Lyon is the traditional food capital of France. It certainly seems to be at the epicenter of great food and wine. Many top restaurants throughout France order products, specifically sausages and cheese, from purveyors in Lyon. We were there to visit Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, the renovated public market and home to many of those top purveyors.

I expected to see a rough edged market where sides of Charolais beef were being butchered and crates of endive lay in stacks you had to work your way around. But here were meticulous display cases of perfect product. Bresse chickens sparkled under spot lights and guinea fowl with lovely speckled wing plumage lay in artistic composition. Grand arrangements of charcuterie, sea food, meats and prepared dishes tugged for attention in elegantly wood trimmed stalls.

Unique to this market, something we have never seen to this extent, are the dining areas tucked between the food stalls. Tiny cafes of 10 to 20 seats offer plates made from product of the neighboring shops. Stand-up coffee bars, wine bars and lunch spots were gathering places for purveyors and clients.

Selecting a cheese shop here is almost fool-proof. Because of the extraordinary competition shops have to be great to survive. One huge cheese counter drew crowds so we joined in. The goat’s milk cheese section alone has a hundred choices. There were cheeses hardly seen out of the village they are produced in, let alone out of France. At this busy counter we looked for a cheese we have only read about. And there it was, Tome au Marc.

Tome au Marc, now rare even in nearby Burgundy, is dipped into marc, the mush at the bottom of the fermenting vat after the new wine has been drawn off. The seeds and skins dry around the cheese forming a highly perfumed dark crust. Gradually the marc injects the cheese with a deliciously winy flavor. The crust also protects the cheese as it ages and a dense firm texture develops. It is unlikely we could have found this unique cheese easily is a less comprehensive shop.

Uzes in Provence
The small town of Uzes sits on a hill, crowned with impressive chateau of the Counts of Uzes. It has been the market town of this area for hundreds of years. We timed our visit to this historic town for a market day. The streets were packed with locals, baskets slung over their arms, buying food, clothing and household goods from tables and open-sided trucks.

There is a culture in France of the roving marketer. They travel town to town to sell on  market days. Some sell cheap Chinese made knock-offs or African goods. But the food handlers are often a reliable resource for authentic artisan made products from other regions.

Often you can find a supplier of Corse (Corsican) products under a flag with a black head wearing a white headband, the emblem of that defiant island. Do not pass by without a sample of Brin d’Amour, a tangy sheep’s milk cheese coated with mountain herbs. The Corsican charcuterie, much of it made from boar, is one most delicious foods France produces. We bought a rugged looking boar salami, moist and chewy and so flavorful it made my eyes water.

Cheese and meat from Savoy are also justifiably famous and often sold by a specialist. We were drawn to a uze-3acharismatic fellow carving paper thin samples from a huge air-dried pork leg. It was a deep garnet color, lightly smoked and deliciously salty . A half-French-half-English conversation commending the merits of mountain cured hams led to our asking for six slices. Instead of those paper thin slivers we acquired several pounds of ham in six ½-inch thick slices.

The Alps of France still has many fine cheeses which are fermier, or hand made at small farms. To distribute their cheese farmers often rely on sellers who sell at street markets such as the Savoy products seller in Uzes. To do along with the ham we selected a Tomme de Savoie with the traditional pitted russet-colored rind. This is a fine rustic cheese smelling of wet straw and damp cellars with a savory and buttery flavor. It is worth looking for.

Sometimes you have the pleasure of purchasing directly from the cheesemaker. On an earlier trip I purchased tiny goat cheeses from the back of an old Renault on a country lane. It seems that goat cheese makers often produce only a few pounds a day. They offer cheese made that day, two days ago, a week or several weeks ago and you choose the age of the cheese you prefer.

The immense outdoor market in Nice is an every day event. Products grown or made in Provence and the Cote d’Azur overflow stalls and tables. Flowers and herbs are sold in one section of the grand plaza, produce in another. Bread and pastries, honey, meats, dried spices, olives and cheese are well represented.

We found the tiny cart of a goat cheese producer who calls her farm Domaine d’Azeliers. She drives several hours from Banon to Nice to offer tiny morsels of raw milk goat cheese. We purchased a selection ranging from one day old cheese with its fragile milkiness to a hard and pungent 6 week old puck. Because these small gems are made of raw milk they can not be purchased in the U.S. I find that raw goat’s milk  cheese is so much more interesting and vital tasting that this is reason enough to travel to France. Buying directly from the cheese maker is another.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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