I don’t know about you, but I adore cheese. In my single days I would frequently make a meal off a creamy hunk of brie, a crumbly blue, some fresh berries, and light water crackers. How frequently? Only my dogs know, and none of us are telling 😉 But seriously, I don’t think a cheese can be too strong, or too stinky, or too creamy, or too soft, or too anything. I like it all. I like flaky fresh parmesan, triple cream brie, soft crumbly goat cheese, and strong, potent bleu. I love gouda on a grilled cheese. So when we decided to do our DIY food tour of Paris for our mini honeymoon, I wanted to explore fromageries. I in fact wanted to explore these more than I wanted to explore the chocolate shops. But I was intimidated by the idea of walking in to a Parisian fromagerie. There. Are. So. Many. Choices. And there’s that infamous Parisian attitude to contend with. After all, fromageries do require a bit more knowledge than a boulangerie, or a bakery, where one can see a cake or bread, and pretty much imagine how it will taste.
But I did a fair amount of research online, on Pinterest, and on other blogs. This post from Paris by Mouth is great, and any food trip to Paris is not complete without referring to the inimitable David Lebowitz. Add to an exploration of those, this article from Conde Nast Traveler, and this blog from a woman who made it her mission to explore ALL the French cheeses, and you’re on your way to understanding that there is SO MUCH to understand about French cheese shops that you might feel its best not to even start! But that would mean missing out on the actual French cheese, and this I would not do.
Honestly, we should not have waited til the last day, as I had about 30 shops I wanted to visit, and we only managed to visit two. We only had three days, and I have SUCH an ambitious list of places to eat at in Paris. Le sigh. Again, I was intimidated when I went in – I wasn’t kidding with all the choices. Also, I’ve read that the shopkeepers can be dismissive and impatient, perhaps more so than is the norm. But we hit up two shops, and both were pretty friendly in the end, and helped us select a few cheeses that we later shared with friends that were blow your mind good. The first was one of the oldest and premier fromageries in Paris, Androuet. The second, Laurent Dubois, was in the delightful, eclectic Marais district, and while both were small, I rather preferred it because I felt more at ease with the shop itself.
At both I found helpful shop attendants who clearly knew every one of the cheese intimately, and were willing to answer a few questions. They were not, however, eager to volunteer information. I had to ask a ew questions to get them warmed up. Once I asked the lady who helped us at Androuet for something “melty and strong, good to share with a party of four or five, and ready in three days” she loosened up, and showed me a lovely selection of cheeses. I had fun choosing from amongst them, and once she relaxed, I did too. The beauty of Laurent Dubois is that they also vacuum seal cheese for you if you wish it, and since we indicated that this was something we wanted to take on the train with us the next day, they sealed our cheese for us, which is good, as no one wants their bag to smell of a strong bleu cheese. If you’d like more info on transporting cheese, check out David Lebovitz’s post on the subject here. There are a lot of rules about what you can and can’t take into certain countries, so do do some research first.
That said, I do have a few tips for how to conquer the I-clearly-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing feeling you will have, and looks you will get. Most of it boils down to be polite! Bear in mind, I am by no means an expert on French cheese. Quite the contrary. The below tips are culled from the research I did online, a bit of what I discovered while there, and some basic common sense. They are not in an order of importance.
- Be honest. You’ve never done this before? They can appreciate that. Don’t saunter in like you know what every one of those cheeses are. You don’t. I didn’t. There’s no way. Its a country of over 200 unique varieties of cheese.
- The first bleeds into the second. Ask questions. If you don’t know what something is, ask. But don’t ask about every cheese. They’re there to help you, but don’t monopolize their time. Also, please ask before taking any photos!
- Say bonjour (hello), sil vous plait (please), merci(thank you), au revoir (good bye). Even if you don’t speak French, you can say bonjour. And they appreciate it. It shows respect, and its typical to greet the shop owners and attendants when one enters the store. To not do so is considered rude.
- If they are super busy, be willing to wait. If there’s a line out the door, that’s maybe not the best time for an educational trip. That said, a popular fromagerie can be busy any time. I let several customers go ahead of me so that I could ask my questions and choose my products without feeling rushed. Also, then I got to spend more time looking at the cheese! Which I could do for long enough to age a cheese.
- Don’t touch! It is not ok to touch products in most European food stores, including grocery stores, without assistance. After I had assistance I was invited to touch several cheeses to see their consistency. But only after I had assistance and was invited.
- If you take up their time, buy something. You don’t have to buy everything you ask about, but don’t waltz out after 20 or 30 minutes of asking questions and browsing without a single purchase.
- Don’t assume you know a cheese. My husband rolled his eyes when I purchased a Roquefort at Androuet, which the attendant recommended as a strong blue that would be perfect in two days. “We can get that at home!” he protested. He was wrong. He ate his words, and half of the cheese. We DO NOT have Roquefort that good at home.
- Try something you’ve never heard of. That’s the whole point right?
- Make a note of what you tried. If you like it, you will want to buy it again. I mistakenly thought I would remember exactly what I got at both shops. I did not. I’m not too bothered by it, because all the more reason to start over when I go back, but I have this dream of trying all 200 types of cheese, just like this blogger. Hey, its important to have goals in life, right?
- Don’t be afraid to tell them what you like. When I asked for something specific the shop attendant lit up. “Ah! Here’s what I think you’ll love.” Also, tell them when you plan on eating it. Tomorrow? Three days? A week? They can help you choose a cheese that will be at its perfect devouring point for your consumption timeframe.
The basic moral of the cheese story is to be polite, confident, and a little adventurous. You never know what you may find!
Do you know more about cheese than me? What are your tips?