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Aging Gratefully in Paris

For the best mature cheeses in town, buy from the experts who baby them

Posted: March 21, 2001

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Aging Gratefully in Paris

For the best mature cheeses in town, buy from the experts who baby them

By Nicolle Meyer and Amanda Smith

In 1962, Charles de Gaulle groused "How can you be expected to govern a nation that has 246 kinds of cheese?" Little did he know that there were more choices on the way -- today, there are roughly 500 kinds of cheese. And though the increased popularity of fromage has brought about a boom in industrial cheese production in France, you can, thankfully, still find plenty of the real thing: fragrant, full-flavored cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized milk. Classified as fermier, or artisanal, these authentic versions are the ones that taste the best.

In Paris, artisanal cheeses can be found everywhere, even in supermarkets. But buyers should beware: When shopping for cheese, bear in mind that this food is alive and its character changes as it matures. What distinguishes a great cheese from a mediocre one is not only how and where it is produced, but also the attention given to its development as it ages. This is where the know-how of a reputable fromager comes into play.

Although you can find dedicated cheese vendors in every arrondissement, a few -- Alléosse, Barthélémy, Marie-Anne Cantin and Quatre Homme -- have risen above the rest. These renowned purveyors, suppliers to the city¹s best restaurants, work solely with artisanal makers and sell cheeses only when they are in season.

The city's charming, open-air food markets (there are 62 scattered throughout the 20 arrondissements) are also great places to find quality cheeses. At the crack of dawn, gorgeous displays of fruits, vegetables, meats, game, poultry, fish, wine, flowers and more go up in picturesque locations such as the heart of the Latin Quarter, beside the Eiffel Tower, and at the foot of Montmartre. At these markets one has the rare opportunity to buy directly from actual producers.

At the bustling Richard Lenoir Market near place de la Bastille, Michel Lucien brings his own Brie de Meaux along with an array of raw-milk dairy products from his farm in Normandy. His light and airy Fontainbleau dessert, made from whipped farmer's cheese and crème fraîche, tastes heavenly with summer berries. Another popular vendor, Philippe Perrette, owner of Les Chèvres de Saint Vrain in the Essone region, sells goods at five of the city's best open-air markets each week. He offers his own fresh goat cheeses made from the milk of his herd of 24, plus a remarkable selection of unique varieties that he handpicks from other artisanal producers and regional affineurs.

To taste cheese in a cozy setting, try a wine bar or bistro that offers a good selection. La Ferme Saint Hubert, just around the corner from place de la Madeleine, is a cheese lover's haven. The owner is an affineur and all the cheeses come from his shop next door. He will help you put together your own plateau de fromage, or you can opt for one of his numerous homemade cheese dishes, such as fondue Suisse, R¿clette Savoiarde, or a perfect onion soup. There are over 40 wines available, ranging from sophisticated Burgundies to a light Bordeaux. This small, convivial spot is ideal for a casual lunch or dinner, but it fills up quickly, so make a reservation.

In a trendier part of town, the traditional working-class-style bistro Astier is best known for its excellent cheese selection of more than 15 varieties, including the rare, ewe's milk cheese Fleur du Maquis, seasoned with fragrant herbs, and the garlic- and pepper-flavored Gaperon, from the Auvergne region. A reasonably priced menu offers traditional bistro fare, and the wine list features well-known names at decent prices.

Excellent cheeses are served at higher-end places, too, of course, most notably at Taillevent and at Lucas Carton, where wines are expertly matched to cheese. At Le Grand Véfour, there's an especially good selection from the Haute-Savoie.

Still, when weather permits, the best and most inspiring place to savor cheese in Paris is out-of-doors. Make your selections at the market or affineur's shop, then wander over to the Luxembourg gardens and pull up a chair beside Marie de Medici's secluded fountain. Or bicycle along the riverbanks and spread out a blanket at the foot of Notre Dame. Don't forget the wine, the baguette and the trusty Swiss pocketknife.

Nicolle Meyer and Amanda Smith are authors of the book Paris in a Basket: Markets -- the Food and the People.

For the complete article, please see the March 31, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 94.

13 rue Poncelet, Paris 17

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