France was the last place I landed, and while I was there for less than half the time that I was in Italy and England combined, I left with a disproportionate amount of cheese-related information. Or, more accurately, inspiration.
France is where I first fell for cheese. I was 14 on my first visit, and I was never polite when those cheese trolleys came to the table post dinner. I have a horrible memory, but I still remember those cheese courses.
So while I focused on many other things food-wise while I was in England and Italy, France was all about the cheese. I sought out a couple of recommended cheese shops in Paris (Laurent Dubois and Marie Quatrehomme) and Burgundy (Alain Hess, in Beaune), but I found some of the best cheeses just by chance, in open-air markets, unobtrusive cheese shops, small food stores, and in restaurants.
What's most remarkable is how fine cheese is a basic commodity in France. Even their dime-a-dozen, highly produced cheeses are remarkable. A utilitarian marke — the French equivalent to a New York city-style corner deli — showcases Berthaut epoisses, perfectly ripe Brie de Nangis, and raw milk Selles Sur Cher. Gas stations just off the highway sell camembert and wedges of Roquefort (and single serving bottles of wine, presumably to drink on your rest stop, but that's another story). It was sometimes stupefying just how accessible really great cheeses were.
Equally easy to find were the small little cheeses, nameless little pucks and pyramids. As thorough as we are in the States at receiving a comprehensive selection in style and milk type, there's just no way to get the cheeses that are actually small production, at least from Europe. So it was dreamy, walking around Burgundian markets and looking at the tiny lot of goat cheese drums produced from the three-day yield of milk from a goat farmer's herd. Each one would be just slightly different from the next, the ultimate in handmade.
I loved seeing the odd-shaped cheeses, so many sizes and forms I'd never seen before, the different ways of presenting or preparing them. France, most definitely, took the prize for illustrating the grandness and diversity of the so-called cheese world.
Cheese made its way into the most simple of foods: one of the more delicious things I at was a baguette sandwich with French ham, salted butter, and a few slices of Beaufort. But the Beaufort was strong, and a major component; not your basic ham and cheese sandwich, especially considering the setting. A basic savory, eggy tart with an Epoisses filling was remarkably tasty and totally unforgettable, as was the simple salad that came alongside. And a baguette studded with lardons and Comte was transcendent. (I mean, shouldn't it be?)
It was easier to come up with my favorite cheeses for Italy and England. There simply just wasn't as much of a selection. But if forced to pick just one from France, I'd have to choose a small Loire Valley goat cheese called Le Trefle du Perche, which I'd never had before.
It's ashed-rinded, in a oddly-shaped size, almost square like, but with flared, concave corners, like a four-leafed clover. I had told the cheesemonger when exactly I wanted to eat it ("pour ce soir," thank you, high school French), and that may have done the trick, because it was perfect: just the right amount of chalkiness to creaminess, amazingly balanced, terribly complex. French goat cheese at its peak, and of course I'd never seen it before in the States. Elusiveness is also a magical force. Especially when it arrives on a cheese trolley.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)