Friday, June 15, 2007
If lovingly aged cheese from every remote corner of France is not so easy to come by in Nice, Paris positively oozes with cheese possibilities. When I lived in rue Monge (home of several of the city's top bakeries, notably Le Boulanger de Monge, Eric Kayser and the lesser-known Boulangerie Grégoire), I could count five cheese shops in my neighborhood alone. Two of these were impeccably run branches of legendary fromageries, Androuët and Quatrehomme. Much as I loved popping into Marie Quatrehomme's charmingly cramped, stone-walled boutique in rue Mouffetard, sometimes for a hard-to-find hit of crumbly English cheddar, no fromagerie in Paris makes me happier than her main shop on rue de Sèvres.
Marie herself deserves much of the credit for this. Youthful looking, with a healthy glow that can only come from eating the very finest dairy products every day, she is unfailingly gracious to regular customers and one-time visitors alike. I saw definitive proof of this the day a group of 18 foreigners from a tour bus were herded into her shop on a busy Saturday morning by a tour guide who cut Marie off in mid-sentence with the words "Can I talk now?". Trying to fit that number of people into a typical Paris food shop is akin to stuffing the population of Delhi into a phone booth, but Marie, to her great credit, remained polite and unflustered.
I can't help but remark that several of the city's best cheese shops are run by women: besides Quatrehomme, there is Marie-Anne Cantin, Josiane Molard in rue des Martyrs, and Virginie Boularouah of Chez Virginie in the 18th, to name just a few. Then again, there are some pretty talented men in the milk business too, such as Philippe Alléosse and Laurent Dubois. Marie came to this profession by marriage after working in early childhood education, but in the past 15 years has established herself as one of the top fromagères in the country: she was the first woman to win the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France title, awarded to artisans who succeed at a gruelling competition.
So what makes her cheese so good? Well, first of all, she knows her producers personally, which means that she understands what they are trying to accomplish. This allows her to finish the ageing process in her own cellars with a real respect for the cheese. Her marque de fabrique, or trademark, is slow ageing in cool cellars to reduce the risk of the cheese going "off." One of her treasures is 36-month-old comté from producer Marcel Petite, a cheese from near the border with Switzerland that develops crackly crystals and an ever-more-complex nutty flavor as it ages (I never leave her shop without a chunk of this). She also has a soft spot for monastery cheeses, explaining that in France it was monks who originally taught farmers how to make cheese. Her shelf of goat cheeses is remarkable and following my visit last week I ate my way through an entire pot of her emerald-green "mousse" made only with fresh goat cheese and pesto. The bakery next door had the perfect baguette à l'ancienne to accompany this, which I think was called the Authentique (someone correct me if I'm wrong!).
Unlike many French fromagers, Marie respects the cheese of other countries and even has a whole shelf devoted to foreign cheeses - a rare sight, believe me. When I visited her shop with a couple from Texas she was able to talk to them about the state's best-known cheese maker, Paula Lambert. Marie has warm memories of the time she has spent in the United States, which is why she always takes the time to greet American customers. "Everyone was so kind to me, I'd like to give something back," she says. Her cheese is a gift in itself, but her ready smile makes it taste even better.
Fromagerie Quatrehomme, 62 rue de Sèvres, 7th, 01 47 34 33 45.