Musings on the wonders of French cheese
The cheese course at Cafe Panique on my first night in Paris provided a revelatory Camembert experience, along with my first tasting of Saint Nectaire (yummy) and set me on a cheese-centric path, despite the condition of my innards. I'm writing this mostly for inexperienced future hounds with an interest in cheese. I read everything on this board, but was still unprepared for how truly spectacular and special cheese is to the experience.
My second day, I was thwarted by a closed Beillevaire, and a little footsore. I stopped into my local Franprix and was overwhelmed...I know they are not artisanal, I know there is much better cheese to be had elsewhere, but I picked up a St. Marcellin (au lait cru - treat), a Bleu de Bresse, and a really cheap Camembert. All were delightful, to my relatively untrained palate, and actually a great launching point of comparison to the others I would wind up trying. As I relaxed on the couch with a glass of wine, the St. Marcellin relaxed alluringly into its little bowl. The bleu de bresse was unexpectedly a creamy cheese - I loved the sharpness of the bleu against the plain creaminess of the rest of the cheese. The Camembert was no where near the flavor wallop of the one at Cafe Panique, but still serviceable smeared on a good baguette. Supermarket cheese...I'm used to seeing bricks of jack, cheddar, mozz, and bags of two-color cheese sticks. Even the "fancy" section in my local supermarket can't compare with the regular section at a tiny Franprix in the 10th.
I never found the UCG at the Anvers market, but any disappointment I felt disappeared when I walked through the doors of Ferme St. Hubert. Three times I went, and three times, despite language issues, I felt HIGH from the experience. This is what it means to love your work, to care about your customers, and to provide goods of impeccable quality. Parigi - when I asked to take two Camembert (au lait cru) to pack for my trip, just as you reported, the lovely woman felt each one on display, wasn't satisfied, and went back into the store room to find ones she thought would stand the trip. I was enthralled.
When I told her I wanted something for that night...I asked for a piece of Brillat - Savarin, and had another swooning cheese epiphany. Lord, was that cheese delicious. The only way I can describe it, and the Camembert from Panique, is to say they tasted alive.
I also scored a Petit Gaugry Epoisses. I knew from Delucacheesemonger that a perfectly ripe one should (in his VHO, which I trust implicitly) fill a spoon hole made at the top fairly quickly. This did, and it was delicious. I had had Berthault Epoisses (ordered from Amazon.com) and - I know this is hard to believe, the Gaugry (au lait cru, rind washed in marc), tasted quite a bit different. It was stronger, in a very good way, with a tang on the tongue and an almost mushroom-y aroma. Fantastic. Tiny little goat cheeses shaped like pears were as delicious as they were cute - I got one young and soft, one older and harder - lovely little nibbles. A slice of chanterelle was mild on the first day, and became bold and complex the second - like getting two cheeses. Superior saucisson sec, and some Bordier butter... this place is a wonderland, mostly because of the knowledge and care of the people.
The cheese stalls at the Marche St. Quentin were also delightful. There, again, thanks to DCM, I bought and tasted my first Chaource. Wonderful. This cheese seemed to interact with me and its surroundings even more than the relaxed St. Marcellin. Zola's cheese scene in Le Ventre de Paris must have been written with Chaource in mind...I actually think I heard it exhale at one point. The three textures - soft rind, softer runny/creamy outer layer, crumbly heart...they come together into something extraordinary.
The nasty cheese stall was awesome - got a few different goat cheeses, young and soft to old and hard...they are so beautifully displayed, and so very delicious. Even though I think we have some mighty fine goat cheese producers in the US, again, the variety is exciting.
I had meant to go to so many more places, and try so many more cheeses, but I developed a sort of loyalty to Ferme St. Hubert, and I only had so much stomach bandwidth. I hope I can find some touchstone French cheese at Whole Foods...but somehow I doubt it.
Franprix/Leader Price (same company) has some junk sometimes (less so than it used to) but holds some genuine good surprises, for instance in the way of cheeses.
Their 3 x saint-marcellins in a plastic wrapper are perfect and may sometimes be found at a lovely ripe age, when you can cut open the wrapper and let the little things embrace their ideal limitless state by melting into one mass on a large plate. Don't even bother to separate them.
They're not bad either with cantal and other regional cheeses. And they do carry sharp cheddar.
For camembert I don't make things more complicated than they should be, I just buy Lepetit.
I didn't take the plunge, but they seemed to have some good-looking saucisson sec...it seemed (to my untrained eye) less industrial than the colorful packages I saw in Carrefour. Also, there was fresh bread at the front - looked good, but I was too busy chasing down all the boulangerie recommendations...
Although industrial stuff like Cochonou or Justin Bridou is ever-present, saucisson sec is still pretty much an artisanal affair in France and you can easily find some very decent specimens all over the supermarkets. Not only at Franprix.
Baguettes are industrial too, but no less, no more than at any boulangerie that does not make their own bread dough.
In Paris they also carry Max Poilâne bread which I find meh but can do in a pinch.
Supermarkets are so underrated. You can really find gems there, if you're careful. In the regions the local distribution can be awesome. Once I was in Cancale with an "international foodie", the Michelin style, who had been convinced - like many others - by the usual propaganda that there was no better butter to be had than Bordier's, so naturally he insisted on going to Saint-Malo to get some. I told him that, without even having checked ahead, I was sure to find some butter at the local supermarket that was at least as good as Bordier's. He laughed at me, 'how dare you', etc., but we went there and sure enough I found just that. He was dumbfounded.
As one of the very few cheeses made in Champagne, Chaource makes a good pairing for a nice bubbly, as does Brillat. In the states you can usually find Pierre Robert, an aged Brillat Savarin and
while pasteurized a very good product. The regional star in cheese making around Troyes is Robert Rouzaire, who makes Pierre Robert, named after his two sons, and generally you can trust anything under his name. If you ever see Gratte Paille, a triple from him, grab it. Similar to BS, but even richer it is my favorite triple creme.
"Ferme St. Hubert. Three times I went, and three times, despite language issues, I felt HIGH from the experience. This is what it means to love your work, to care about your customers, and to provide goods of impeccable quality. Parigi - when I asked to take two Camembert (au lait cru) to pack for my trip, just as you reported, the lovely woman felt each one on display, wasn't satisfied, and went back into the store room to find ones she thought would stand the trip."
Great experience. Wonderful description. Happy to hear that when you were not sick, you had a non-Moveable Feast in Paris.